September 27, 2021

Are the apps that children are using built with their well-being in mind? Here’s how to tell.

At their peak, school closures in response to the global pandemic affected more than 1.6 billion students worldwide, according to UNESCO data. The pandemic introduced a new, younger cohort to online learning. Schools around the world are exploring ways to continue online course offerings even after the pandemic ends. 

Alongside the rise of online learning, a host of new educational applications have been launched to meet demand (and help parents balance remote learning and work-from-home). The design of these applications and the data they collect can have a significant impact on the well-being of children, who constitute one of the most vulnerable online demographics, for improved digital and real-world safety.

IEEE’s Ethically Aligned Design principles provide a vital framework for digital well-being. But it’s not always easy to tell how software developers and web designers have translated that framework to actual practice. 

The IEEE Standards Association’s Case Study Report on Children’s Experiences looks at eleven applications made for children and students, and it highlights the nuts and bolts of companies that are getting it right. 

The report tackles the big issues on the minds of parents and application designers alike.

  1. Data collection and privacy. Data collection is a sensitive topic for parents, who are acutely aware that even small amounts of information from disparate sources are used to identify children. Apps geared toward children tend to have data minimization procedures meaning they store only a minimum amount of data about users and their devices, while additional data may be stored on the device itself. 
  2. Transparency and consent. When applications do store user data, it is a best practice to inform parents about exactly what is being collected and who has access to it. Some applications also detail who accessed a user’s data and when they did so.
  3. Building apps and systems that take human rights into account. Human rights make up a core pillar of ethically-aligned design. Translating that into practice means designing apps for a diverse population of young people that may have cognitive impairments, disabilities, different levels of income or any number of differences. Parents of these users may only have limited schooling themselves, presenting new challenges related to transparency and even the ability to help their children.
  4. Striking a balance between parental control and child empowerment. Lots of social media applications can feel like parent-free zones, and that might be part of the appeal for young people developing their own individuality. The report details how developers navigate parental consent and involvement in an age-appropriate way. Some apps, for example, rather than rely on content filters and parental controls, encourage parents to respect young users’ privacy, while providing guidelines for safe behavior. 
  5. Mitigating the risk of harm. Privacy risks for children abound. Apps are using artificial intelligence to determine if a child is using their full name as a username, or if they are posting images of their face or body in apps. 

Navigating the issues of privacy in the digital world can be cumbersome for adults but children require special consideration. For parents, the case studies found in the Case Study Report on Children’s Experiences project in 2020 show the many ways that companies are getting it right. For developers and digital marketers, these case studies can also serve as a springboard for important discussions. 

Parents, of course, are stuck in a difficult spot. They’re commuting longer and working longer, while devices are keeping children occupied. 

“Really, we should put the effort into monitoring what they’re doing,” IEEE Senior Member Kevin Curran told Ulster University’s ‘We Are UU podcast.’ “We should put the effort into understanding what’s a safe app to use.” 

If you are interested in learning about how to create ethical and responsible digital ecosystems, consider this coursework from the IEEE Learning Network: AI Standards: Roadmap for Ethical and Responsible Digital Environments

For more information on how parents are balancing remote work and childcare, check out this illuminating discussion


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