A recent report titled ‘Digital Health Generation’, found that more than 70% of young people are using apps, YouTube videos and other digital technologies such as Fitbits to track and manage their health. This includes children as young as eight years old!
While it’s encouraging to see the younger generation adopt digital health solutions at such a young age, there are certain aspects of this adoption that they and their parents must take into consideration.
The research lead, Professor Emma Rich said:
“Over recent years there has been a surge of new online apps, blogs and videos specifically targeting young people with messages about personal improvement in their health and lifestyle.”
“These technologies offer certain opportunities for young people, but they also carry risks both in terms of the direct advice and guidance given – and the implications this can have in relation to body image for instance – but also wider concerns about data storage and ownership by third parties.”
However, it’s 2020 and parents and children have much to worry about already. From debating whether to send children to school under the threat of a second COVID-19 wave through natural calamities to the info-jungle and fake news, it’s easy for the tech-savvy children of today and their parents alike to get lost in this news flood. But the issues surrounding digital health when it comes to children must be given special attention. This is particularly timely as the pandemic propelled the use of digital health tools; and the new generation will increasingly employ these solutions as their second nature. With this article, we aim to guide parents regarding what they should know about digital health when it comes to their kids.
What does TikTok and digital health have in common?
Recently, President Trump issued executive orders to ban the social media apps TikTok and WeChat from operating in the U. S. if their Chinese-owned parent companies do not sell them. The order alleges that TikTok “automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users, [which] threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information — potentially allowing China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.”
TikTok is especially popular among teenagers as a social tool and hosts some 100 million U.S. users. It probably won’t want to lose this significant market share. In fact, Microsoft and Twitter were both reportedly in talks to acquire TikTok to circumvent the ban. Even if it gets taken down in the U.S., copycats will undoubtedly emerge. Snapcat will roll out TikTok-styled music features and recently, Facebook-owned Instagram launched Reels, a blatant copy of TikTok. This brings us to what TikTok and digital health have in common; they both involve digital technologies that deal with sensitive personal data. And when it comes to tech companies and sensitive data, Facebook notoriously showed how Big Tech can mishandle such information. But with TikTok and its competitors, it will be kids’ data that will be at stake.
Children tend to underestimate the danger of digital technologies and overestimate their importance. When it comes to digital health technologies, even if hundreds of options exist for adults, only a fraction of that is available to children. Among those few companies that offer products designed specifically for children, even fewer are trustworthy. When I tried to find a fitness tracker for my 7-year-old niece’s birthday, I couldn’t find any that would leave me with a clear conscience. The Fitbit Ace was an option, but I didn’t test it myself. Similarly, I sequenced my daughter’s genome along with mine and it makes me anxious to make sure it’s kept safe. With digital health, their data becomes a prime target for fraudsters as we’ll see in the next section.
The value of kids’ health data
In early 2019, Emily Wilson, VP of Research at the Baltimore-based dark web data intelligence company Terbium Labs, wrote a piece for The Next Web titled “The worrying trend of children’s data being sold on the dark web”. She goes on to explain how cybercriminals use such information for tax fraud and to create synthetic identities for identity theft.
When it comes to health data, the value goes even higher. The 2019 Trustwave Global Security Report estimates healthcare data’s value at up to $250 per record on the black market, while the next highest valued data, payment cards, is at $5.40. This is because health data can be used to make false insurance claims or illegally buy medical supplies. Coupling this information with the increase in reported cases of mishandling of children’s data in recent years, we can see how such concerns are valid.
In 2015, the toy and internet-connected gadgets company VTech reported that a hack exposed over 6.3 million children‘s data. In 2019, the New York Attorney General and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charged Google and YouTube a $170 million fine. This was due to the video sharing platform illegally collecting children’s personal information without their parents’ consent. Now, even governments are mandating the use of digital tracking tools as a means for contact tracing. But these apps are fraught with security flaws as seen with those used in the U.K., Qatar and South Korea. This makes such apps easy targets for hackers.
So if even official apps risk our data and that of our children, are there any steps in place to limit the damage it can cause? And what can we do on our end to secure children’s data?
The policies and online resources that can help
Given how valuable health data is on the black market, we need updated privacy frameworks; specifically for children’s data that demand transparent use. Thankfully, certain provisions are in place along those lines.
The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) imposes the need for websites and online services to obtain the explicit consent of parents before the collection of the data of children under 13. The U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office published an Age Appropriate Design Code in January 2020. It sets 15 standards for online services to meet in order to uphold children’s privacy. In the U.S., the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) went into effect this year. It includes provisions for consent for collecting personal information about children.
Such regulations could serve as incentives for providers to conform with. They can thereby offer compelling security and privacy over children’s data when the latter adopt their services.
There are also other online resources that parents can already use in regard to children’s privacy. Common Sense Media, the National Cyber Security Alliance’s Stay Safe Online, and CynjaSpace are such resources that educate and provide online privacy tips to parents and children.
As the data, especially health data, of children get increasingly tied to online tools as early as their birth, we will face a plethora of legal and ethical concerns. Privacy concerns and reports of data breaches will keep on sprouting in the near future. To be ahead of these issues, we need updated regulatory frameworks ensuring transparent, and even limited, data collection and use.
Practical steps that can be taken right now
In addition to children, parents and educators should be made aware of the potential issues surrounding their health data. As Professor Reich who led the “Digital Health Generation” study puts it “ [policymakers in education] need to take notice of this specific issue in order to update and expand current provision within the curriculum”.
Indeed, there are several small, but important steps that adults can impart to the younger generation regarding the use of digital health tools. One way is to know which apps your children are using and learn more about them. You can also check the features of their health trackers and find out how data could leak. This way, parents and educators can evaluate the privacy risks and help minimise them. It will also generate discussions regarding how to be vigilant when using these technologies.
Article sourced from Bertalan Mesko, MD, PhD. Director of The Medical Futurist Institute (Keynote Speaker, Author & Futurist)