Online Privacy — Teaching Students about Personal Data Protection

The use of technology has become almost second nature for children over the last decade, ingrained entirely in both their home and school life. Whether it’s for educational purposes, gaming, or social interaction, young minds are frequently engaged in devices connected to the internet. 

The numbers are clear. In an Ofcom media use and attitudes report from 2022 it was revealed that 60% of 8-11-year-olds in the UK have their own device with access to the internet, with the figure rising to 97% for 12-15-year-olds, and an average screen time across devices of around 6 hours.

While there are numerous benefits to the widespread accessibility of technology for children — not least the educational advantages of having resources and learning tools available at the touch of a button — they must be made aware of the risks involved. One such challenge is the understanding and best practice of data protection.

Encouragingly, in the same Ofcom report, 94% of children aged between 12-17 were aware of at least one safety feature that would help them keep safe online, while 84% had put these measures into practice. When it comes to data privacy, however, children may not fully grasp the consequences of sharing their personal information online — or understand that their activities can be monitored, tracked and exploited.

With that in mind, the task falls to parents and teachers to educate children about the dangers of online data privacy and equip them with the knowledge and skills to protect themselves.  

child using laptop at home

What is data privacy?

Broadly, data privacy covers the effective and safe handling of sensitive and personal data. A knowledge of data privacy, and the measures used to protect it, can help safeguard individuals from the damaging impact of data breaches and exploitation.

Personal data such as names, addresses, birth dates, and payment information can all be collected by websites — often by seemingly benign methods such as questionnaires, sign-up forms, online games, and apps. While on the surface these avenues may appear harmless, offering up this kind of data can leave individuals, including children, susceptible to exploitative advertising, or worse: cyber-attacks, identity theft, or online predators. 

It’s worth noting that it’s not just young internet users themselves who can inadvertently put their personal information at risk. Often educational websites and apps will target parents and teachers, requesting a child’s personal data.

In a study conducted by the Human Rights Watch in 2022, it was found — rather alarmingly — that of the 163 educational apps and websites surveyed, 90% included features capable of collecting personal information with the intention of sharing it with advertising companies. The issue of child data protection is anything but straightforward.

parent helping her child on a laptop

How can children’s data be protected?

Fortunately, there are a range of proactive measures teachers and parents can employ to educate students about the importance of online privacy and how to best protect their data. 

Educating about personal information

The first basic step is to teach children about the type of information they should be wary of sharing online. This can include name, age, address, phone number, email address, and the name of their school. Beyond these fundamentals, there are other categories of data that children should think carefully about before posting online, such as photos, videos, current locations, and their interests. Personal information, by definition, is any data that can identify an individual, so it’s always safer to advise and exercise caution. 

The role of parents and educators is vital in this educational process; ensuring they take the time to explain to children the potential risks associated with sharing personal information on the internet and the sophisticated tactics used in phishing attempts and scams designed to extract personal information. 

There are wonderful opportunities for learning and connection available to children online, but it comes with its own challenges. Teaching children about the value of their personal information and the need to protect it is a crucial step in navigating online spaces safely and responsibly.

Credible information versus misinformation

With a large portion of a child’s day spent online, the sheer volume and variance of content exposure is unavoidable. While subjected to so much information, parents and teachers should encourage students to think critically about the material they’re consuming and identify the difference between reliable information and misinformation. 

The Wild West of social media can be a breeding ground for misleading information. The rise of the ‘influencer expert’ has seen users put an inordinate amount of trust in the often unchecked advice of social media figures, on a wide range of subjects — from fashion and retail to diet and even mental health.    

It’s important that children learn how to discriminate between quality information, grounded by reliable sources and evidence, and that which might be presented for ulterior motives.

child using a tablet with headphones at home

Strong passwords and privacy settings

As well as some of the more general concepts behind data protection, there are some key practical measures students should adopt to help keep their personal data safe.  

Research has shown that children already have a good grasp on the importance of password best practices, but it remains a vital tool in the defence against personal data theft. There are several reliable password management systems on the market—all designed to help store, update and change the litany of passwords a child might have to remember. If this software isn’t available, students should be encouraged to create long, complex, and unique passwords for each online account. They should be updated regularly and never shared with anyone. 

The privacy settings on their devices and online platforms are also an excellent way to limit who can see or access their personal information and online activities. Settings should be reviewed and updated periodically while regularly checking exactly who can view posts, profile information and friend lists, ideally restricting their visibility to those whom the students know. It’s also important to include children in the process of setting up and using this software and explain the reasons and advantages of doing so.

How can Computeam help?

When it comes to personal data protection and security, Computeam has years of experience in safeguarding networks and devices for schools, providing cutting-edge software, technology and training services. From Securly, our sophisticated cloud-based solution that helps schools secure their networks and protect students' online activities, to offering focused training and support for teachers to upskill and improve their knowledge of best safety practices. If you’d like any help or advice on personal data protection, please do get in touch.

girl using a laptop in the classroom

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Posted on March 31st 2024

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