By Magdalena Deskovic, BA & Anna T. Maxwald, Bakk.phil, BA, University of Vienna
Social media often contains highly private information, thus lawmakers were prompted to protect people, and in particular minors. Consequently, platforms were forced to define rules in terms of how they should be used. This May, the minimum age for social media users was raised from 13 to 16 years as part of the EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This change sparked our interest, as it raises the question if children under the age of 16 years indeed do have severe problems with the World Wide Web, especially in their understanding and handling of privacy matters.
As minors are usually highly susceptible and vulnerable, those responsible started to think of how to protect them from the dangers in the digital world. Apart from government policies, there are initiatives such as Saferinternet. On their website, they discuss potential problems of children using the internet, and provide advice for their parents and teachers. Moreover, workshops are organized in schools, in which experts discuss with children first-hand about issues, notably concerning privacy, occurring primarily on social media platforms. Campaigns like these might contribute to the finding that most young users do show certain awareness for the potential harms of the online world.
This was found in a number of studies, as more and more researchers are drawing their attention to early social media users. Resulting from an impressive cross-national European study surveying 25,000 children in 2012, Livingstone, a leading figure in the studies of children, risks and safety on the internet, and her colleagues offer new findings that surprisingly counter both overly optimistic and pessimistic expectations regarding online endangerments. Collected data shows only a minority of the participants report bad experiences, and most who did perceived less distress than media often gives reason to expect. They suggest that resilience in young internet users may actually be improved by a certain level of risk, including in terms of privacy matters. Meanwhile, other scholars got in line over the finding that children might actually be better capable of dealing with social media issues than many think. Another smaller study found that children do have a very specific understanding of privacy and are actually aware of the risk of exposing highly private information on social networks. This awareness is reflected in their online behaviour, which can be seen in them paying special attention to the nature of pictures and real life information contained in their posts.
In the wake of the new GDPR guidelines regarding the minimum age of social media users, there is still a specific interest in the group of 13-16 year olds now in question. Therefore, we decided to conduct focus group discussions with children of this age to learn about their experiences and attitudes towards privacy issues on social media. The sample consists of 38 participants from two different Viennese schools, divided into eight groups. By performing content analyses of the discussions, our research has identified three main types of children´s attitudes and experiences regarding data privacy issues:
- The Awareness Type: Most of the kids in the age of 13 to 16 years are aware of privacy issues and that they have to be careful within the digital world and towards other people they meet online. These children know how to react if they receive problematic messages or how to take technological steps to protect their online privacy. If they need help, most of them consult their friends or support systems of the platforms, but only rarely parents or teachers. They feel very confident in their online worlds.
- The Careless Type: Even if children know that they are not yet legally allowed to use social media or that they have to be careful with their data, they do not show much care about it. They give wrong age statements in order to be able to use these platforms, give away their access data to friends or expose highly personal information. Possible consequences of that behaviour are mostly not taken seriously.
- The Lack of Knowledge Type: Legal restrictions are not always clear to the children. Some of them do know that there are rules in terms of internet usage, such as age restrictions, but many have no specific knowledge. This often correlates with the children not caring about legal regulations, in particular the terms and conditions of social media platforms, anyways.
Conclusively can be said, that most minors at the age of 13 to 16 years of our discussions, do have an awareness of privacy issues and the dangers related to them, yet they are not reacting to everything which could protect them from those risks. Therefore, the idea of the EU by protecting the minors by changing the minimum age of being allowed to use social media platforms is an important first step. Nevertheless, it was shown that many children do not really care about the changed legal regulation, hence have to be further supported regarding handling of privacy settings and online behaviour. The idea of a “children’s zone”, a separate zone exclusively for children within social media networks in order to prevent privacy issues, has been brought up by one of the children during the discussions. Wishes and requirements suggested by children should urgently be considered by those responsible, as current sanctions aimed at protecting them, including the new GDPR, still need improvement.
Dankert, Lars (2013). Generation 2.1: the Issue of privacy and corporate surveillance for contemporary children in the social media.
Görzig, A., Haddon, L., & Livingstone, S. (2012). Children, Risk and Safety on the Internet : Research and Policy Challenges in Comparative Perspective. Bristol: Policy Press.
Perrin, A. (2015). Social Media Usage: 2005-2015. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/10/08/social-networkingusage-2005-2015/, 25.06.2018
EU General Data Protegtion Regulation: https://www.eugdpr.org/
 Full paper available by contacting the authors via firstname.lastname@example.org (Anna T. Maxwald, Bakk.phil. BA) or email@example.com (Magdalena Deskovic, BA).