In today’s digital age, social media has emerged as a ubiquitous platform for children worldwide, to socialise, entertain and learn. Recent studies show that 38% of US and 42% of UK kids aged 5-13 are using these platforms, despite the common minimum age restriction of 13 set by social media companies for account registration.

However, amidst the plethora of legislation discussions, a crucial concern often remains overlooked: the pervasive data harvesting practices that underpin social media platforms and their potential to undermine children’s autonomy. It is for this reason Computer Science researchers working on the Oxford Martin Programme on Ethical Web and Data Architectures developed CHAITok, an innovative Android mobile app designed to empower children with greater control and autonomy over their data on social media.

When individuals interact on social media, they produce vast data streams that platform owners harvest. This process, often referred to as “datafication”, involves recording, tracking, aggregating, analysing, and capitalising on users’ data. This is the practice that essentially empowers social media giants to predict and influence children’s personal attributes, behaviours, and preferences. This then shapes their online engagement and content choices, contributing to increased dependence on these platforms and potentially shaping how children view and engage with the world while they are in vital stages of cognitive and emotional development.

The recent UK Online Safety Act is a pioneering movement addressing this outstanding challenge. However, it is crucial that while we are regulating and enforcing changes in the current platform-driven digital ecosystem, we realise it is now a critical time to put children’s voices at the heart of our design and innovations, respecting their needs and how they would like to be supported and equipped with better digital resilience and autonomy.

CHAITok’s interface is similar to that of TikTok’s, but while children browse video recommendations, they have many opportunities to control what data is used by CHAITok and keep all their data safe (including interaction data, personal preferences, etc.) in their own personal data store.

It offers three distinctive features:

  • Respecting children’s values: CHAITok prioritises the preservation of children’s values and preferences by having carried out an extensive co-design activities with 50 children [1] to inform our design, ensuring that CHAITok reflects children’s values for having better autonomy and agency over their digital footprint.
  • Supporting evolving autonomy: Grounded upon our theoretical understanding of how children’s autonomy involves their cognitive, behavioural and emotional autonomy, and how their development of autonomy is an evolving process throughout childhood, CHAITok provides tools and resources for children to develop their sense of autonomy from multiple aspects in an age-appropriate way, supporting their journey towards greater autonomy in navigating the digital landscape.
  • Actively foster autonomy instead of focusing on minimising harms: CHAITok advocates for children’s digital rights and emphasises the importance of respecting their privacy and autonomy in online interactions. Unlike existing approaches, we took a proactive approach in our design to explicitly nudge, prompt and scaffold child’s critical thinking, action taking and reflection.

Our 27 user study sessions involving 109 children aged 10–13 gave us a deep insight of children’s current experiences and perceptions of social media platforms:

  • Almost all of these children feel a lack of autonomy (‘don’t have autonomy at all’) over their data.
  • One in three children found their experience with data on social media platforms as quite a passive experience, and often felt ‘being tricked’ by these platforms.
  • About a third found it hard to disengage from these platforms, and some even reported sleep issues when using phones before bedtime; and many of them felt ‘helpless’ against resisting these platforms.

By interacting with our app prototype as a group for about one-hour at their schools, most children felt more safe, empowered, and respected. This provides encouraging results for our research, helping children overcome difficulties associated with feeling unsupported and unconfident.

Our results are in contrast to the common perception that children are incapable of making autonomous decisions. This provides critical inputs for us to reflect on the current ethics principles for creating AI technologies for children and an urgent need to further explore wider mechanisms to incorporate autonomy fostering in children’s digital lives.

We look forward to continuing our exploration of how we may deploy CHAITok as an app in the wild, to provide an alternative social media experience for children in a safer and more autonomy-respectful environment.

Read the paper, ‘CHAITok: A Proof-of-Concept System Supporting Children’s Sense of Data Autonomy on Social Media’.

For further information on the Oxford Child-Centred AI (Oxford CCAI) Design Lab.

Report of link.