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What do Angry Birds know about your children?

When evaluating games for children to play on mobile devices, parents tend to focus on content, rather than information gathered. Yet these apps track a notable amount of information, prompting an Oxford team to work on increasing parents' and children's awareness of privacy issues, as Senior Researcher Jun Zhao explains.

Parents are working hard to protect their children's online safety. However, although risks related to social media platforms or social video sharing sites (such as YouTube) are widely known, risks posed by mobile applications or games (i.e. apps such as Angry Birds) are less known. Behind the cute characters played, apps used by young children not only have the possibility of exposing them to age-inappropriate content or excessive in-app promotions, but may also make a large amount of their personal information and online behaviour accessible to third parties in the online marketing and advertising industry.

Such practices are not unique to children's apps, but young children are probably less capable of resisting the resulting personalised advertisements and game promotions. Currently there are no effective ways to stop these tracking behaviours on mobile devices or notify parents and children of these risks. This is a timely challenge given that tablet computers are widely used by young children for both education and entertainment purposes.

Our initial research in our project, Kids Online Anonymity & Lifelong Autonomy (KOALA), showed that one in four apps designed for children can be linked to more than ten different tracking companies. We are using data privacy visualisation tools developed by the Oxford team in KOALA's forerunner, the five-year EPSRC Programme Grant SOCIAM, to raise awareness in schools, and amongst young children and their parents about the risks associated with the use of mobile devices.

KOALA's next step will focus on developing our data privacy visualisation tool into something that is more suitable for the cognitive ability of young children, and help parents to use the tool to mediate their children’s use and choice of mobile apps. The team will test the impact of the tool with parents and children during the project, which is funded by Oxford University’s EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account and will run until March 2019. It is led by Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt and myself from the Department of Computer Science.

By partnering with the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, we also aim to explore the impact of these personal data tracking practices of mobile apps upon the general well-being of young children aged six to ten. Interactions with parents and young children have shown so far that parents lack support when choosing safe and appropriate digital content for their young children, and they struggle to manage the stressful moment of stopping their children using risky or inappropriate apps.

At the same time, parents largely believe that their children are too young to understand or discuss privacy risks, and instead they often seek technical restrictions or monitoring to safeguard their children. However, children are already facing the risks of excessive in-app promotions and losing control of their personal information online. We have therefore outlined concrete steps that parents can take:

Top tips for SHARP mobile apps choice:

  • Select: Select apps carefully by consulting resources such as Common Sense Media.
  • Help: talk to your children about asking you for help when they really need it.
  • Avoid: avoid providing any sensitive personal information to the apps.
  • Rating: check 'Age Rating' of the apps.
  • Privacy Permissions: check 'Privacy Permissions' of the apps.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into place on 25 May 2018, requires children's data to have specific additional protection. It demands more transparency of organisations when accessing and using children's personal information, particularly for profiling or marketing purposes. KOALA is one such project that is endeavouring to increase this transparency for parents and young children especially.

More information about the KOALA project:

This article first appeared in the summer 2018 issue of Inspired Research.