Children's rights violated through e-learning. When online schooling becomes a dangerous place instead of a safe one

  Chiara Giovannoni
  30 June 2022
  3 minutes, 35 seconds

Since the first months of the pandemic, starting in March 2020, the closing of schools has left around 90 per cent of the students enrolled in each grade, meaning almost one and a half billion children, having to attend lessons from a computer, locked up within the confinement of their room. This forced isolation has led to a significant increase in the number of hours spent using technology, thus diminishing all other kinds of interactive and physical activities that are important for healthy growth. Although the new generations are fully capable of using digital devices, staying connected and communicating via social networks, the risk of the data used in these operations falling into the wrong hands is still very high.

A study published by Human Rights Watch entitled “'How Dare They Peep into My Private Life?’: Children’s Rights Violations by Governments that Endorsed Online Learning during the Covid-19 Pandemic”, analysed how governments of the most populated countries in the world behaved to protect children's privacy during the e-learning in pandemic. In the rush to allow stable connections and adequate technology to enable continuity in schooling, many governments did not check whether EdTech, or educational technology products were safe for students. As a result, thousands of children, and their families, were exposed to substantial risks. According to the study in question, 146 out of 163 educational technology tools analysed undermined and often violated children's rights. Children were actively and secretly monitored and robbed of personal data including their location, their online activities and the types of devices used at home.

Most of the online education platforms during the pandemic sent children's data to third-party companies - 196 according to the study in question - mainly advertising agencies, leading to the development of analyses of children's characteristics and interests. The main objective was to be able to influence them in their online searches. With the data extrapolated from the teaching activities on the platforms, third-party companies are actually able to customise content and advertisements to be proposed to children's devices, in order to influence their opinions and behaviour to shape and manipulate developing minds.

Many governments in dealing with the pandemic forced their students and teachers to use online teaching platforms they had created. Many of these products, unfortunately, turned out to be risky as they exploited personal data without the possibility for children and teachers to protect themselves using educational substitutes. In fact, most EdTech companies do not allow students to decline the possibility of tracking. Not to be underestimated is the fact that data leaks can lead to other issues related to the grooming and exploitation, sometimes even sexual exploitation of children who are still too innocent and lack the specific knowledge to be prepared for certain situations.

According to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, EdTech and AdTech (advertising technology) companies do not have the right to use children's data for advertising purposes. It should be the responsibility of those companies to secure children's data and ensure that they are not used for learning purposes. In order to try to undo the damage done during the pandemic, it would be necessary for companies to work with governments to define new rules on the collection of children's data and to ensure that those already collected are deleted.

The pandemic has led adults and children to increasingly use technologies of all kinds, a condition that will continue over time until, perhaps, it will become a normality. As online life can no longer be considered separated from offline life, it is essential that governments around the world develop and strengthen data protection laws that are modern and reflect the current situation. In the same way, due to the role that technology is acquiring in our lives, it should be considered fundamental to educate children, from the earliest years of using devices, to pay attention to the moves they make online and to help them navigate a reality that is completely new to them. Educational activities, whether online or in-presence, must be a safe haven for students, not a dangerous reality for them and their families.

Translated by Flora Stanziola

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Chiara Giovannoni

Chiara Giovannoni, classe 2000, è laureata in Scienze Internazionali e Diplomatiche all’Università di Bologna. Attualmente frequenta il corso di laurea magistrale in Strategie Culturali per la Cooperazione e lo sviluppo presso l’Università Roma3.

Interessata alle relazioni internazionali, in particolare alla dimensione dei diritti umani e alla cooperazione.

E’ volontaria presso un’organizzazione no profit che si occupa dei diritti dei minori in varie aree del mondo.

In Mondo Internazionale ricopre la carica di autrice per l’area tematica Diritti Umani.