THE BLOG

Child Privacy Protection on the Social Networks - The Challenge of Europe's Young Netizens

25/09/2014 14:40 BST | Updated 25/11/2014 10:59 GMT

With current levels of web literacy being what they are and our obstinate agility as net surfers still feverishly evergreen, underage online users increasingly open social network accounts these days with little or no recourse to parental supervision and even less scruples about blithely checking the boxes of legal disclaimers by which, impatient to get clicking without further ado, they are often unwittingly authorizing random use of their personal data. Though this development may signal a high five for teenage independence, distressing media reports over the years also serve as a chilling warning about possible negative influences upon vulnerable youth - the bitter fruit of an uninformed use of social networks which has already claimed its fair share of victims. The concern areas to which we refer are well known to us. These include posts by peers of pictures or videos which they perceive to be humiliating, photos of users which, though not unflattering, receive no advance authorization on their part prior to appearing online, derogatory gossip or falsity, embarrassing posts to young people concerning adults known to them, personal photos which leave them feeling ashamed, degrading text references to their private lives or videos featuring them in situations deemed to be undermining.

Powered by a robust partnership of 27 EU countries, the Impact of Relationship, or I.O.R., project has been in progress since late 2012. A social media campaign financed by the Daphne III Programme in order to sensitize young social network users to the importance of safeguarding their online privacy, our consortium has been actively engaging minors aged between 10 and 17 for close on two years now. Though its outreach extends Europewide, at individual national level the campaign has involved regular and sustained 'animation' of profile pages created on ten of the better-known social network sites by representative expert organizations from each of the participating member states.

As anticipated from the outset, I.O.R. professionals updating country profile pages in their national languages were very soon alerted to the dangers to young netizens of which we are already familiar, including cyberbullying, paedophilia and online fraud to name but a few. The Italian partner, for instance, reported that for certain sites -here Netlog and Hi5 were identified- its project profile pages had received "sexting" messages, i.e. netspeak for unsolicited sexually explicit content. Quite besides whether it should come as any surprise to us, such material appearing upon profile pages which already shout loud, in-your-face declarations of their connection to a project devoted entirely to online child protection nonetheless raises the question of how much indiscriminate 'traffic' of this sort ends up on a daily basis in the virtual mailboxes of underage account holders the world over.

In encouraging the occasional exercise of online restraint among young social network users and mindful that nobody today is making earthmoving pronouncements anymore when pointing out that unmeditated crassness, whether by adults or children, runs the very real risk of going viral following YouTube uploads or that it has suddenly become advisable now for us to weigh our words attentively when composing tweets, the partners lost no time in taking both the hint and all due care to avoid reinventing the wheel. Rather, through successfully brokering candid exchanges with its addressees, the project's principal goal has consistently remained that of identifying winning ways of cultivating an active complicity with online youth in order to effectively alert them to the potentially undesirable 'ripple effect' which can result from adopting a careless approach to one's digital footprint.

Indeed, by astutely smelling a rat ahead of time in second guessing their young 'auditors' on the worldwide web who might unfairly take them to task as 'another bunch of grown-up didacts gate-crashing our online fun' -and so alienating their prized target population whilst possibly shooting themselves in the foot in the process- I.O.R. campaigners showed themselves adept at sweating the challenge by arriving instead at a workable synchrony which always defended user privacy with a view to also valorizing the many opportunities offered by the better social networks for meaningful community-building. Furthermore, by troubleshooting any pretence at prescribing online behaviour rather than recommending valuable pointers, the team was no less circumspect in touting I.O.R. as a campaign far less about constraining online communication than it is about self-empowerment through informed decisions touching the personal information we agree to disclose in the public domain.

To this end, whenever posting cautionary links in the form of informative videos or related articles, the project team has generally preferred material which carries at least some of the 'contrary vitality' for which its coveted addressees are most valued. Here I refer to content which, though conveying the unambiguous warning that posts connected with virtual 'friendships' leave a digital footprint over which users will have little or no subsequent control, we are nonetheless treating of content that privileges a playful approach which only recommends vigilance and can as such be witty and direct without being unduly alarmist.

Maintaining this line then, the campaign has capably managed thoughout its ongoing trajectory to remain 'cool' without compromising its promotion of a responsible online etiquette which is accompanied by appropriate awareness touching the protection of personal data. In view of the associated risks to minor safety which would almost certainly result from any negligence by discontinuing a concerted tackling of this issue and its related themes, what is now crystal clear to me in hindsight is how essential it has become to keep the momentum of the I.O.R campaign running in similar such initiatives.

For more on the I.O.R project, visit http://www.ior-project.eu/