Privacy laws must change to protect children from social media data collection

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Authors are among the most powerful and richest companies on the planet. These are the big social media companies like TikTok (valued at $ 50 billion), Instagram (valued at $ 102 billion) or Facebook (valued at $ 1,000 billion now). On supposedly free social media platforms, these business conglomerates keep these young people under intense 24/7 surveillance.

They silently follow every movement of a young person on social networks, creating an image of his life; what they do, who their friends and family are, where they shop, where they hang out, what they feel and say, and their intimate and intimate thoughts. They drill down into that personal data and refine it, before selling it to advertisers, political parties, and people willing to pay big bucks to use this valuable information.

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This stealthy invasion of young people’s lives – the theft of personal equipment and invasion of their privacy – is the modern business model that social psychologist and author Shoshanna Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.” While this applies to all of us, it has particularly damaging effects on young people, who spend so much time online and have literally been datafied their entire lives.

A big problem with these mountains of data is that young people don’t provide informed consent for all of this to be drilled and refined. The consent to the collection of personal data is assumed by clicking on accept on the terms and conditions. Yet these documents are inaccessible to children and young people. Plus, they rely on tips to encourage clicks to accept. Most young people do not understand them and are unaware of the level of data collection and sharing that they allow. In short, they did not give their informed consent.

Like a lot of things about Big Tech, self-regulation around consent has failed on this front. Regulators and the legal system usually can’t keep up when it comes to new technologies: there is always a lag. And we’re catching up now when it comes to Big Tech privacy and consent. The rules that currently govern the collection and use of personal data belong to a bygone era: 1988 Privacy Act.

The Privacy Act is under continuous review and should pay particular attention to the issue of youth consent and how so many aspects of their lives are transformed into digital data. We have been waiting for the next phase of the review since Dec 2019.

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Things are getting urgent. Now is the time to put the brakes on the big tech companies and denounce their exploitation of young people. We need well-designed and up-to-date regulations backed by effective enforcement that provides clear guidelines for ethical behavior that includes a duty of care to our young people. The issue of consent must be at the center of it all.

Professor Judith Bessant researches and writes on politics, youth studies, politics, sociology and media technology studies at RMIT University. Dr Rys Farthing is an academic specializing in children’s rights in media and digital data.


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