As children spend more and more time online, what rights do they have? What do we do to protect them? In the latest episode of GoodTech, this was the topic of discussion. Joining us was the Manager of Corporate Responsibility of UNICEF Finland, Irene Leino. Watch the full discussion on our YouTube channel, or read the recap below.

Children in the Digital Era

Irene’s career has focused on the impact of companies on society. For the past five and a half years, she’s been working for UNICEF Finland, helping companies become more sustainable and mindful of children’s rights in their own operations. “Even though people may not realize it, one third of all global Internet users are children under 18 years old. According to recent studies in Finland, 97% of kids between the ages 9-17 have smartphones, and they’re online pretty much constantly. Kids are some of the most active users of social media, apps, games, videos, and so on,” she tells us. In addition to having the same rights as other people, Irene thinks kids should have more protection, because they are more vulnerable.

Irene believes that the Internet is not designed from the perspective of children and their rights. “The digital world is an integral part of our lives. We have a lot of rules and regulations in the offline world regarding age limits to various products, ethical marketing practices, and other different types of safeguards for children. But there don’t seem to be many rules in the digital world. At least, the rules are not enforced,” Irene tells us. “I know that the global nature makes it harder to set and enforce those rules. But on the other hand, we live in the 21st century. Globalization, and even the digital era, has been here for a while, so maybe it’s time to rethink what kinds of tools we should have for those services.”

The Dangers for Children on the Internet

What dangers are there for children online? First of all, most service providers don’t distinguish between adults and children. “Some services have made half-hearted attempts to do that by asking users for their age, but it’s very easy to put whatever age you want,” Irene says. Therefore, children can easily access and create accounts on platforms they are actually too young to use.

Irene also says that terms and conditions stated on most platforms are designed by lawyers, for lawyers. “They’re definitely not designed for kids. Even if kids are able to understand them, the services often only have two options: either you accept all of it as it is, or you leave. Therefore, if kids want to use services that their friends are using, they can’t decide what data to share or where it goes,” says Irene. “The reality is that no one really knows who has access to our data, or how it’s used. Data can be used for many great things, but kids don’t know if their data is being used for something good or something that might be turned against them at some point in their life. They don’t realize that every click and like is collected and stored and analyzed.”

Irene also tells us that data collection on children can take even darker turns in the future. For example, data could be used for making decisions on issues on our behalf, like deciding who gets to access certain schools, at what price you get your health insurance, or what kinds of jobs you get in the future. All of it based on your online profile. “That’s why I want to emphasize that I think there should always be protection in place for kids, and data collected on minors should never be used in any harmful way against them,” Irene says. “People don’t always understand how easily they can be manipulated – least of all kids..”

The Responsibility of Companies

So, what can companies do? What is the solution to keep children safe? Irene tells us that, for one, she doesn’t believe in restricting kids’ access to online services. “Kids should have the same rights as adults to a social life, friendships, finding information online, leisure time, and so on,” she says. “However, I think these services should be safe for kids to use. Some companies have approached this by creating a separate app for kids. While this might work for smaller kids, it certainly doesn’t work for kids around the ages between 13 to 17. They don’t want to use kids apps, they want to be like adults.” Instead, Irene sees a solution in companies taking responsibility and finding out whether kids are using their services, and if they do; find out what they can do to provide enough protection for those kids. “Companies should realize, set their priorities, and act based on that. But if that doesn’t happen, I think it’s part of the government’s responsibility to look after the citizens and the best interest of children,” Irene says.

Irene tells us that UNICEF have a toolkit for companies, on privacy and freedom of speech. The toolkit is very detailed and explains what aspects to consider when it comes to children. “I’ve had conversations with various companies, and they often say that there’s nothing they can do, because they’re not aware that they have kids as their users, that they’re too small of a player, or that it’s the parents’ responsibility. I think we’re all responsible for this, and we all need to do our best. It’s everybody’s business to look after the kids in our society. If companies are wondering if they actually have kids as their users, it’s not that hard to find out. The first step is realizing that we all have a responsibility, and the second step is finding out what the real situation is, instead of closing our eyes,” Irene says.

Lastly, Irene notes that there is hope for the future. We’ve started expecting more of companies, and making profits is no longer enough. We also expect companies to consider the environmental and social footprints. She says, “Children in the digital world are a very important part of the social footprint. It all starts from understanding and agreeing with the situation.”

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