Abstract: How do children understand the privacy implications of the contemporary digital environment? This question is pressing as technologies transform children’s lives into data which is recorded, tracked, aggregated, analysed and monetized. This article takes a child-centred, qualitative approach to charting the nature and limits of children’s understanding of privacy in digital contexts. We conducted focus group interviews with 169 UK children aged 11–16 to explore their understanding of privacy in three distinct digital contexts—interpersonal, institutional and commercial. We find, first, that children primarily conceptualize privacy in relation to interpersonal contexts, conceiving of personal information as something they have agency and control over as regards deciding when and with whom to share it, even if they do not always exercise such control. This leads them to some misapprehensions about how personal data is collected, inferred and used by organizations, be these public institutions such as their schools or commercial businesses. Children’s expectation of agency in interpersonal contexts, and their tendency to trust familiar institutions such as their schools, make for a doubly problematic orientation towards data and privacy online in commercial contexts, leading to a mix of frustration, misapprehension and risk. We argue that, since the complexity of the digital environment challenges teachers’ capacity to address children’s knowledge gaps, businesses, educators, parents and the state must exercise a shared responsibility to create a legible, transparent and privacy-respecting digital environment in which children can exercise genuine choice and agency.
Keywords: children; digital environment; data; datafication; digital by default; media literacy; peer learning; privacy