By Dr Andrew Manches
As any worried parent knows, it is often difficult to gauge the benefits and risks of new data technologies for children.
Regardless of this, more and more we are seeing companies, and academics, using children’s personal data. This is intended to benefit children – to help make them safer, healthier, fitter, smarter or perhaps to just have more fun. But if children do not understand how their data is being used, or even what the concept of ‘personal data’ means, how can they consent to others taking it?
The Children and Technology group at the University of Edinburgh is addressing these important questions by researching what children understand about personal data and what we can do to help them.
To start, the group carried out a theoretical examination of what age children might begin to understand the concept of personal data. This work suggested that, when represented immediately and clearly, children as young as three could learn to understand how their interactions (e.g., how much they move) could be captured and communicated to others to tell something about them, and even be used toward identifying them from amongst others (e.g., as the person who was moving around a lot yesterday lunchtime).
Next, with help of funding via the Edinburgh Futures Institute, we explored the potential to design ways to support young children’s understanding of personal data. For this project, we created a prototype soft toy, called ‘Edi the Bear’, with embedded sensors that could detect basic information, including what angle the bear was placed, how much it moved, how hard its hand was being squeezed, whether it had been placed in a toy bed, or even how many people were nearby.
This data was represented in real-time with images or simple bar charts on a nearby wirelessly connected device. Although prototype testing was limited to only five children aged 2-7 years (due to Covid and robustness of the prototype), this was sufficient to validate not just children’s interest in the data, but their understanding that it represented their personal interactions. Despite the testing sessions being short, a couple of older children were further able to articulate how recordings of their data representations could tell others about them or even identify them. We see this understanding as core to children then being encouraged to consider whom they would or would not to share this information with.
The Children and Technology group’s next steps are to use this pilot work to apply for more significant funding to comprehensively investigate the development of young children’s understanding of personal data, and what designs and pedagogy can support learning. Working with partners, we will extend and evaluate the potential to design ways to help younger children, exploring the boundaries of making personal data understanding accessible for all.
As we plan these next stages, we would love to collaborate with interested organisations, particularly those with a responsibility for making understanding data as accessible as possible, to work out our next steps. We would love to know what you think children can and should know about personal data, and examples/experiences on how they can be helped.
This is why I’m delighted to be highlighting this research as part of the Future Proof campaign jointly organised by Edinburgh Innovations and the University’s College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.
The Future Proof campaign is one way you can discover more about our teams, track record and process of co-creation at the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.
It shows how we will work together with you to understand the needs of your organisation and co-create targeted solutions to help it thrive for the long term – to Future Proof it.
Dr Andrew Manches is Director of the Children and Technology group, Associate Professor/Senior Lecturer in Learning Sciences, and Associate Director, Scottish Graduate School of Social Science.
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Future Proof with the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
Children and Technology Group at the University of Edinburgh
Full report on Edi the Bear Pilot Study by Andrew Manches and Lydia Plowman
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