Susie AlegreBiography
Data Daemons: Protecting the Child’s Right to Dream

In the world of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials”, a child’s daemon changes forms as quickly as their mood. It is only with adulthood that the daemon, the animal incarnation of the soul, settles into a permanent form. The changing daemons of childhood represent the malleability of the child’s mind and the resonance of Pullman’s imagery lies in the fact that we all recognise, from our own childhood experience and observation of the children around us, the magical openness, fickleness and receptivity of children’s minds. Those qualities in a child imply both enormous potential and acute vulnerability: it is the reason we value education and nurturing for developing minds. Why then are we so ready to outsource the moulding of our children’s minds to digital tools of distraction?

The right to freedom of thought is protected alongside the rights to freedom of conscience, religion and belief in international human rights law including Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 19481 and Article 14 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989.2 It provides protection for the manifestation of our thoughts and beliefs but crucially it creates a powerful protective fence around the inner space of our mind, known as the “forum internum,” with three key strands:

  • The right to keep our thoughts private,
  • The right to keep our thoughts free from manipulation, and
  • The right not to be penalised for our thoughts

Freedom of thought is broad in scope. It covers all kinds of thoughts and ideas whether they are profound, fleeting or wrong, as well as emotions and desires. It encompasses the full spectrum of a child’s budding inner life.

Most human rights, like the right to private life, the right to freedom of expression and the freedom to manifest religion or belief, can be limited for a range of reasons including national security, public health and morals, and the protection of the rights of others. But the right to freedom of thought in the “forum internum” is absolute. This means that anything that steps across the boundary to interfere with that inner mental space is prohibited in international law and can never be justified.

The right to freedom of thought does not mean that children’s minds should be free from influence. We are all affected by our surroundings: the things we read, the people we talk to, the world we see around us. And children need guidance to navigate the world around them and are hungry for information and experiences to develop their full potential and keen to reach out and connect with the society around them. But as our children’s minds and emotions are increasingly exposed to and affected by technology, there is an urgent need to define where the boundaries to protect their right to think for themselves lie in the digital field.

Many children in developed countries are learning to navigate the world through Siri in their pocket or Alexa in their bedroom. Voice activated search tools give children access to the online world before they are even able to write. And they also give tech companies access to children’s minds and thought processes on an unprecedented level. The anthropomorphic nature of these devices can lull children into a false sense of friendship and security in which they may share insights into their inner lives that they would never share with friends or parents. But it is not only a question of what children say. Their activity on social media and subtle aspects of the way they express themselves reveals much more about their moods and thoughts than they realise. And while they or their parents may have clicked a consent button, there can be no real informed consent to the consequences of this.

In 2017, it was reported3 that Facebook was selling psychological insights on young people, including 1.9 million high-schoolers in Australia. Leaked documents reportedly showed that the company could monitor and interpret posts and photos that showed when children felt stressed, anxious or stupid in real time and share that information, so that private companies could cash in on the changing moods of young users with targeted advertising. These psychological insights go beyond issues of privacy or freedom of expression: what is being sold is a complex algorithmic interpretation of the child’s inner state. The collection and sale of this type of data may well interfere with the absolute right of the child to keep their thoughts private.

Without strict limitations on the ways their data is accessed, analysed and used for targeting and profiling, the data trail that children leave today may be used to create detailed avatars of their inner thoughts which could be used against them now and in the future. These “data daemons” may settle in forms that define their future access to credit, employment or justice, regardless of the way the child’s mind develops and changes over time. Children in particular should not be exposed to the risk that their turbulent inner lives will be used to curtail their chances in adulthood.

But the impact of technology on children’s minds is not only about data. In 2019, the Children’s Commissioner for England published the report “Gaming the system”4 which found that 93% of children in the UK play video games. Aside from the potential risks for child safety online, the report raised concerns about the impact of gaming on children’s development and socialisation and the links between gaming and gambling with the concurrent risk of addiction.

The psychological buttons used to make online gaming attractive are also used in many forms of educational technology, designed to get kids hooked on learning. While the goals and content of those games may be appropriate for children, we need to consider the wider impact that the methods used in this type of gaming have on children’s minds. In 2019, the UK’s National Health Service established its first clinic dedicated to treating gaming and internet addiction:5 a problem recognised by the World Health Organisation as a growing global health issue.6 But the right to freedom of thought puts an obligation on states to protect children from practices that interfere with and manipulate their inner worlds. This kind of deep psychological harm needs prevention rather than cure.

Childhood is a time for dreaming when minds are open, idealistic, flexible and imaginative. Children are using technology as a tool for mobilisation to save the world from climate change and give hope for our future. They need a safe digital space where they can use their minds to realise their potential and fully exercise all their human rights. But they don’t yet have it.

In Pullman’s world, it is taboo to touch another person’s daemon: to do so causes them immeasurable suffering. But in our world, children are increasingly engaging with technology that can monitor and touch their minds both in the present and in the future. We are only beginning to understand the impact this could have on our children and their societies. There is no time to wait and see. States and international organisations need to act now to fulfil their ethical and legal obligations to protect children’s fundamental right to freedom of thought. All of our rights depend on it.

Susie Alegre is an international human rights barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, a Research Fellow at Roehampton University and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Trinity College Dublin. Her work on human rights and technology has a particular focus on the right to freedom of thought, data protection, and social media. Susie provides legal and policy advice, technical assistance, research and training on human rights, accountability and the rule of law across the world. She has worked with accountability and oversight mechanisms including ombudsman schemes, National Human Rights Institutes and the judiciary in different jurisdictions, and she is currently appointed as Interception of Communications Commissioner for the Isle of Man. Her experience working for international NGOs like Amnesty International and multilateral organisations such as the EU, OSCE and UN informs her work with a practical insight into legal policy.