Children are spending more time than ever online. The nature and modes of access of their Internet use have also shifted, with even the youngest children commonly now using personal, potentially more private devices such as phones and tablets to go online. Whilst many of the most popular online activities such as social media use, gaming and information search are provided by big tech companies such as Google, Microsoft or Facebook, almost any aspect of a child’s life can now have a digital component. Traditional toys such as Lego and Barbie now offer digital interactions as part of the play experience, toddlers’ cameras come with apps that enable the uploading of photos to the Internet, breakfast cereals come with their own apps and it is commonplace for banks to offer online accounts for 11-18 year olds. This means that children may be regularly engaging with a very wide range of corporate actors online. Whilst much of the policy focus to date has been on ensuring that governments, NGOs, educators, parents and the tech sector work together to keep children safe online, corporate actors beyond the ICT sector have been conspicuously absent. This project aims to explore the implications of children’s broadening digital footprint for public policy debates about online safety and sexual exploitation. We seek to map the range of corporate actors beyond the ICT sector now engaging with children or their data online, and to identify areas where their actions might increase or reduce a child’s exposure to online risks such as data theft, aversive online experiences or, most worryingly, sexual exploitation.
Specifically, this project will address three core research questions:
- To what extent are children in Europe now engaging digitally with companies from outside the ICT sector and what types of companies are these?
- Is there any evidence of pathways to harm resulting from children’s digital engagement with these companies, or (if not) do we have reason to expect this on the basis of existing research into the risks and opportunities associated with children’s Internet use more generally?
- What drives the move towards digital engagement with children by these companies, and are there any opportunities to improve their awareness of safety concerns, especially with regard to data security and online sexual exploitation?