3 kysymystä: How media educators can support children’s digital privacy?


3 kysymystä (Three Questions) is a series of articles that presents current media education research, phenomena, and projects. In this article, Sonali Srivastava presents her dissertation ”Advertising ethics and children as consumers in digital environments”, which aims to explore concerns related to advertising ethics in relation to children as consumers in digital environments and how children navigate contemporary digital commercial environments.

1.What have you researched in your dissertation?

My article-based doctoral dissertation focuses on advertising ethics and children as consumers in digital environments. The study scrutinised how young girls are visually represented in advertisements available in digital environments, paying special attention to how ethical these visual representations were in terms of the ideas about girls they propagated (Link to the published article). Moreover, the study focused on contemporary digital marketing formats like online profiling and targeted advertising.

The largely opaque online data gathering processes, commercial profiling and targeted advertising endanger children’s data privacy and rights. They also make them susceptible to commercial persuasion. Algorithmic profiling and targeting can be particularly deleterious for children as it reduces their access to plural choices and perspectives at a stage in their lives when they develop their identities and make crucial life choices. Hence, the study explored children’s perspectives on online profiling and targeted advertising (Link to the published article). It also investigated how children navigate contemporary commercial digital environments (Link to the published article). Eight focus group discussions (N=38) with children (13-16) residing in the Finnish capital region were used to gather children’s perspectives on online profiling and targeted advertising and how they navigate contemporary digital commercial environments. One group reported having attended a lesson on online privacy protection.

2. What are the three main findings in your research?

First, a few children found online profiling disturbing because it gave them a privacy-invasive feeling of being watched. These children also expressed a wish to learn more about how their online data gets (re)used for commercial purposes.

Second, some children consider the surveillance of their online activities by commercial actors as ‘normal,’ which reflects permissive attitudes toward online commercial surveillance.

Lastly, while navigating contemporary commercial digital environments, children adopted some practices that helped them protect their online commercial privacy, at least to some extent. These practices included controlling the information given specifically for commercial profiling (which was practised by a few children), evaluating the trustworthiness of apps and websites before registering on them and so on. In contrast, some practices left children more vulnerable to commercial surveillance. These included practices such as modulating their online actions (like their pace of scrolling, what they liked, and so on) to ensure that content and advertisements on platforms like Instagram and TikTok conform with their preferences, readily accepting cookies on big companies’ websites, not evaluating sign-in options while registering into apps and websites, accepting cookies without thinking.

3. How should professionals working with children and adolescents take these findings into account in their work?

Besides corporations’ support and effective regulations, awareness raising is also essential for ensuring the realisation of children’s privacy rights. Professionals working with children could teach them more about how commercial actors repurpose users’ online data, a wish that some participants also expressed. Educators can counter children’s permissive attitudes towards online commercial surveillance by increasing children’s awareness about the negative ramifications of these practices. Children accepted sign-in options (Google or Facebook) uncritically, but these options expose personal data by transferring it from these services to the website or app. Hence, children’s awareness of online data movements can be increased. Children reported accepting cookies on big companies’ websites because they trusted these companies. Therefore, it is essential to enhance children’s awareness of different types of cookies because even big companies can use third-party cookies.

Overall, children’s knowledge of privacy protection mechanisms could be increased as few children reported minimising the information they provided for commercial profiling. Only some edited privacy terms.

Finally, children’s practice of modulating their online activities to provide more accurate information about their preferences is concerning from the perspective of privacy protection. One of the groups that adopted this practice had attended a privacy management lesson at school, which suggests that ensuring privacy education also transforms children’s online practices is essential.

Sonali Srivastava, PhD (Sociology), M.Soc.Sc (Child studies), is a Project Researcher at the Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of Jyväskylä. Sonali’s research interests include visual culture, children’s consumer culture and online privacy.

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