Social media unsuitable for children

The Consumers’ Association believes that social media is unsuitable for children. They take little account of the vulnerability of children, violate their privacy and have few child-friendly settings. Therefore, additional rules are needed to better protect the very youngest online.

The Consumers’ Association looked at eight different social media channels, namely Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube, WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal. The latter app was added as a frame of reference because according to Bond it is ‘a privacy-friendly choice’.

Researchers from the Bond say they have done seven ‘simple checks’ to determine whether these applications are suitable for children. Among other things, they looked at whether parental control was possible, whether the default settings are child-friendly, whether the privacy statement is understandable and whether the app creates advertising profiles.

During the investigation, the Consumers’ Association encountered various problems and objections. Most of the apps studied create profiles with which they tailor content and advertisements to personal characteristics. Snapchat and TikTok go the furthest in this regard: advertisements via these platforms are tailored to the behaviour of children in the app and their location. TikTok also shows users ‘hidden’ and sponsored advertisements. Hidden ads include branded hashtag challenges and in-feed ads.

Furthermore, cancelling your account and deleting your data often proves difficult in practice. With Snapchat, Instagram and Telegram, this is only possible via the website, not via the app. It is unclear at the Chinese social media TikTok whether all personal data will actually be deleted.

According to the researchers, the privacy statement is incomprehensible to children. After reading the terms and conditions, they most likely do not understand what happens to their personal data. Finally, only TikTok and YouTube offer the possibility for parents to look over the shoulders of their offspring, and parents can only keep track of the screen time of their child or children on Facebook and Instagram.

Sandra Molenaar, director of the Consumers’ Association, does not say that children should immediately get rid of social media. She does think that the platforms in their current form do not offer a safe environment for children. “That has to change. And we can’t leave that to tech companies, because they show time and again that they can’t do it. So additional rules are needed to better protect children,” said Molenaar.

She believes that the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) falls short of protecting the interests of children. Earlier this year, Molenaar said parental consent—which most apps ask for from users 13 or younger—is “childishly easy” to circumvent. “Moreover, you cannot expect children to be able to oversee the consequences of their consent to the collection of their data.” This is inconsistent with the ‘specific protection’ referred to in European privacy legislation.

The Consumers’ Association also believes that app developers should take the interests of children more into account. The interest group is therefore a strong supporter of the Code for Children’s Rights. It contains ten principles on how app makers can develop privacy-friendly applications for children. Privacy by design is one of the starting points, as is the prevention of profiling of children and more transparency.

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