Research Summary

Our article offers an overview of young people’s engagement with today’s always-on, interactive media culture, focusing particularly on the privacy implications of the advertising that appears on social media, mobile apps, games directed at children, and smart devices. Although much of the public discourse and academic research on children’s privacy has focused on the safety risks involved in sharing personal information on the internet, marketing and privacy are inextricably intertwined, especially as Big Data principles and practices continue to transform the digital landscape. As children are now consuming content on a range of digital screens and devices, the media and advertising industries are developing new measurement systems to track how children and teens engage with content and advertising online. Marketers follow young people and their social networks across the web, regardless of where they are and what device they are using. With the growth of the so-called “Internet of Things,” children’s daily tools and surroundings are becoming “smart,” too, monitoring and analyzing individual and aggregate data and communicating with other objects using embedded sensors. These trends pose serious threats to children’s privacy.

Although U.S. privacy law provides some protection for children under 13 online, those safeguards are challenged by increasingly sophisticated marketing and data-collection techniques. And teens’ privacy remains wholly unprotected. Thus, scholars need to develop new approaches to understanding the complex ways that children and adolescents engage with commercial media culture. Collaboration among researchers from a range of fields will enable cross-disciplinary studies that address not only the developmental issues related to different age groups, but also the design of digital media platforms and the strategies used to influence young people. Our article concludes with key questions that should serve as a foundation for a larger research agenda, and makes recommendations for proceeding along these lines.


What is “Big Data” and why should I be concerned about it?

According to the American Institute of Physics, Big Data can be defined as “the data sets and analytical techniques in applications that are so large and complex that they require advanced and unique data storage, management, analysis, and visualization technologies.” These practices have affected a variety of fields, from banking to healthcare to demographic analysis, but Big Data’s impact on advertising is especially profound, in that it affects all consumers — including children. The result is that we now face a complex set of online data collection, tracking, and targeting applications that monitor and monetize individual consumer behaviors as well as their interactions with friends and acquaintances. Additionally, by monitoring online, mobile, and in-store behaviors, marketers can now track the entire “path-to-purchase” process, collecting even more data and shaping our consumption patterns as well.

How can I tell if my child is being tracked and targeted?

If your child is online, he or she is being tracked and targeted — from website to website, from app to video, and across all devices — from PC to tablet to smartphone and even television. In the process, the advertising and content your child views is increasingly personalized, based on detailed profiles that are being compiled and refined with every click and swipe, employing conversation surveillance and other web analytics to monitor in minute detail how youth are influenced and how they, in turn, influence their peers. With the growth of the so-called “Internet of Things,” moreover, children’s daily tools and surroundings are becoming “smart,” monitoring, transmitting, and analyzing individual and aggregate data, and communicating with other objects using embedded sensors that are linked through wired and wireless networks.

How can we adequately ensure children’s privacy protections in the big data era?

We believe that a collaborative and coordinated approach can have real success in protecting children’s privacy:

  • Health professionals need to update their policy statements on children’s media and advertising to reflect the contemporary, data-driven practices in the digital media system, identify the risks to privacy, and address the vulnerabilities of older children and adolescents.
  • Policymakers should expand children’s privacy safeguards to encompass data collection and marketing practices across digital platforms, including toys and other devices that are part of the “Internet of Things.”
  • Schools, in collaboration with nonprofits and other institutions, should develop media education and digital literacy programs to help young people participate fully in the contemporary digital media culture, without compromising their fundamental right to privacy. Training children and parents in particular about privacy concerns and how to protect children’s privacy could also fall in this domain of activity.

Key Takeaways

  • Media and advertising industries are creating new ways to track young people’s behaviors and target content and messages. These invasive practices could pose serious threats to children’s privacy, leading to the creation of “digital dossiers” that “stick” to young people over time and impede their access to education, jobs, healthcare, or finances.
  • Although much of academic research on children’s privacy has focused on the safety risks involved in sharing personal information on the internet, children’s privacy cannot be fully understood or adequately addressed without taking into account the market forces that shape contemporary digital media. Research on children and privacy has not kept pace with the evolution of media, advertising, and technology taking place globally. Scholars, therefore, need to develop new approaches to understanding the complex ways that children and adolescents engage with commercial media culture.
  • Researchers from a range of fields and disciplines must collaborate to study how privacy relates to developmental issues as well as how digital media is being strategically designed to influence young people. Even more broadly, scholars, advocates, health professionals, parents, and youth themselves should work together to develop a set of principles and policies that will balance young people’s ability to participate fully in the digital media culture — as producers, consumers, and citizens — with government’s and industry’s obligation to ensure that they are treated with fairness and dignity.

Guidelines for Parents

  • While the burden of responsibility for ensuring privacy is often placed on parents (as exemplified, for instance, in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), it may be difficult for you to keep track of the increasingly complex digital environments and understand data collection practices as specified in companies’ often convoluted privacy policies.
  • Faced with competing discourses on what it means to be a good parent with respect to digital technology (on the one hand techno-panic, which proposes that children’s innocence and childhood is somehow robbed by technology and on the other hand, the discourse on learning and socialization-related benefits offered by new technologies), it can be difficult for parents not to feel continuously guilty and at a loss about their choices regarding their children’s uses of digital technology.
  • With respect to privacy and commercial data collection, be aware of the process of “datafication of childhood” and that consumers engage in this process by, for instance, purchasing baby wearables (Mascheroni & Holloway, 2017; Mascheroni, 2017; Montgomery, Chester & Milosevic, 2017; Holloway & Green, 2016). Also, be aware that in order to be able to use these devices and the full range of services they offer, you may be left with little control over your children’s personal data (Mascheroni & Holloway, 2017). It is important that you become aware of this process, and the possible implications of such data collection and processing.


Montgomery, K.C., Chester, J., & Milosevic, T. (2017). Children’s Privacy in the Big Data Era: Research OpportunitiesPediatrics, 140(140S2). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1758O

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The analysis, conclusions, and recommendations contained in each paper are solely a product of the individual workgroup and are not the policy or opinions of, nor do they represent an endorsement by, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.

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