Queen's Policy Engagement

Too Young to Protect their Privacy? Seven Reasons why Children Need a Right of Privacy

In an ever-increasing digital world, Aine Maxwell looks at the importance of a child's right to privacy when it comes to their online activity.

Too Young to Protect their Privacy? Seven Reasons why Children Need a Right of Privacy

In April 2019, the UK Government issued a White Paper setting out “a programme of action to tackle content or activity that harms individual users, particularly children, or threatens our way of life in the UK, either by undermining national security, or by undermining our shared rights, responsibilities and opportunities to foster integration.” The measures which the Government proposes would all be welcome, but, yet again, there is no specifically tailored response for children.

As the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child seeks to establish a new international standard on children’s rights in the digital world, I would advocate seven reasons why we should consider a children’s right to privacy.

  1. Nature of the Digital Environment.

The digital environment is not an environment in which parents would instinctively send their children out to play. Harsh commercial forces operate in a world which asserts freedom from law and uses its huge resources to resist regulation. Children and their vulnerabilities of childhood are simply contractual products.

  1. Anti-privacy practices.

Practices within the digital environment are not practices that parents would permit in the real world. In the real world, parents would not allow such a level of surveillance on their children.  Imagine if the local newspaper repeatedly accessed your child’s personal school file complete with any special support, health concerns, academic attainment and deficits. Yet this is a small infringement compared with the big data ability to collect personal data from children’s activities online. The volume of data taken, the speed with which it is taken and processed and the variety of ways it is processed and sold is almost beyond our comprehension. This generation of children is the first to have data collected from them from the earliest stage of life. In the age of pregnancy apps, data can be collected before they have drawn their first breath.

  1. Persuasive design.

Tristan Harris from the Center for Humane Technology says that tech companies are driven for the need to make profits and are increasingly using persuasive design to keep users online. Infinite scroll on apps, and “Likes” on Facebook keep users online.  This persuasive design can intensify addictive behaviours. Indeed, last year, the World Health Organisation recognised gaming addiction as a mental health disorder.

  1. Profiling.

Children are being profiled when they are too young to object. Algorithms follow a user’s behaviour patterns so closely that they can create personalised profiling. Professor Lupton and Dr Williamson in their paper “The Datified Child” express concern that this dataveillance of children may create a body of data collected during a child’s minority which may shape their prospects in life when they reach the age of 18 years. Could this body of profiled data collected during childhood prevent a young adult obtaining a loan for a car, a mortgage for a house or a university place?

  1. Bias or error.

Even worse, could this profiling be biased or wrong?  There is concern that these algorithms can embed bias if there is bias or prejudice in persons creating them. They can also be inaccurate as David Sumpter in his book “Outnumbered” illustrates. He states: “algorithms for classifying people have a long way to go.” In the meantime, a right to privacy for children could protect them from the effects of potentially biased or inaccurate ways of profiling them.

  1. Data breach.

A recent Javelin study in the USA showed that children are most affected by data breaches as their limited financial histories allow fraudsters to develop accounts over time before defrauding them.

  1. Autonomy.

Children need to know how to value and protect their privacy. Content can be determined by algorithms based on a child’s online activity so that they receive targeted information rather than balanced material. Democracy is built on tolerance of conflicting views and attitudes. Disinformation is an increasing concern.



It is the duty of society to protect the rights of those who are too young to protect themselves. For children, navigating the online world can be like swimming in shark infested waters.

The internet is a playground with many attractions but many hazards. A right to privacy could protect children’s fundamental rights from harsh commercial forces and algorithmically determined outcomes in life.


The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license. 

Aine Maxwell
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Aine Maxwell is a Senior Lecturer in the Institute of Professional Legal Studies at Queen's University Belfast.

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