Vast volumes of personal data are being collected about children from social media, public services and even toys with the potential to have an impact on their futures, according to a new report.

The research called “Who Knows What About Me” by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England has revealed that individuals’ digital footprints begin forming sometimes even before birth with online posts by parents.

Now there are calls for greater transparency about what is being collected and how it is being used.

The report’s author Simone Vibert said: “More and more information is collected about all of us as we navigate today’s digital world. But the difference for children is that their data footprints extend from birth, documenting their earliest experiences both good and bad.”

“We think there should be a statutory duty of care governing relationships between social media companies and their users so we are working with lawyers to draft up what this would look like.”

Students at the Petchey Academy in east London are taught about online safety
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Students at the Petchey Academy in east London are taught about online safety

Children are taught about online safety from the moment they start school but the report calls for teachers to do more.

Judith Blunden, Vice Principal of Petchey Academy in east London said she welcomes a spotlight being cast on the issue.

“Many of our children are really at home online,” she said.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are vigilant and safe online so schools need to work hard through the curriculum and their lessons to make sure they can use the internet quickly and effectively… but also safely and with due regard to their privacy.”

Educational apps sometimes require personal data
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Educational apps sometimes require personal data

Personal information is even needed for many apps to help with schoolwork.

There is concern that once the children have grown up they will be at increased risk of identity theft and fraud and that sensitive information could even have a negative impact on decisions being made about their lives, such as whether they get a job, insurance or credit.

It is something the 13-year-olds at the Petchey Academy are already aware of.

Ben Smith said: “I might want to use an app, and not like that it’s collecting data from me but not see any alternative.”

And Saima Kulsum spoke of her concern that one bad decision documented online as a child could end up impacting on her future prospects.

The report calculates that by the age of 18 many young people will have posted online 70,000 times.

In a statement, a spokesperson for The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: “We are determined to make Britain the safest place to be online and parents need to have confidence their children are protected.

“We are working with industry to improve the security and design of consumer internet-connected devices and have published guidance for manufacturers.

“Our strengthened data protection laws are now fit for the digital age and organisations who fail to protect people’s personal data could face fines of up to 4% of their global turnover.”



Some interactive toys are vulnerable to being hacked




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Consumer watchdog Which? warning video about connected toys.

In response to the report, the British Toy and Hobby Association said its members were committed to data protection and child safety.

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“Whilst it is estimated that only 1-2% of the UK toy industry consists of connected toys, the BTHA’s members limit the amount of personal data collected, using closed loop systems where possible.

“When data is collected, this is done to enhance the play experience, for example remembering the level of the game the child has reached and is collected lawfully and safely.”