Identification and identity for children in a digital age (1/5 blog on youth & ID for UNICEF)

Savita Bailur and Hélène Smertnik

This blog is the first of five blogs from our work on children and the tension between identification and identity in a digital age. Other blogs include:

  • Identification, identity and sexuality for youth in Brazil
  • Financial inclusion, identification and identity for children in Kenya
  • Refugee identification and identity for children in Lebanon
  • Biometric identification and identity for children in Thailand

Children: Not being seen enough and being seen too much

What child has not at some stage felt embarrassed or complained about their baby pictures being shared? What about now, when parents post photographs of children on social media without their permission? When these photographs can stay online indefinitely? Caribou Digital, with the support of UNICEF, undertook a multi-country research study to understand the interplay and challenges of identification, identity, and digital ID for children in their journey to adulthood, from 0 to 18 years old.

The crux of our argument was this: There is an intense (and much-needed) focus on the identification of children, particularly on birth registration. At the same time, while children are at risk of not being identified, there is equal concern that they are at risk of being too identified . . . through social media, the data being collected about them, and profiling from birth. Alongside the birth registration advocates, there are children and privacy advocates. What happens when these two seemingly different worlds interact? Our research showed that identification and identity are interlinked and each impacts the other with major consequences for children and the adults they become.

Photo credit: Piron Guillaume on Unsplash.

Defining identification, identity, and digital ID

Let’s elaborate on these three terms before exploring why they are critical in the context of children. As our colleague Jonathan Donner explored in “The difference between digital identity, Identification, and ID”:

  • Identification implies a process: a proof, system, or transaction involving a subject and an evaluator, centered around verifying a claim that a person is one person and not any other. It also refers to the recording of certain attributes — e.g. biodata and biometrics, which result in a “credential.” A child is identified by relevant authorities as being born by name, parents, date and place of birth. All this results in a birth certificate.
  • Identity, on the other hand, implies a kind of multidimensional social location of an individual relative to other people and institutions around him or her. According to the World Economic Forum, “identity is, literally, who we are: a combination of personal history, innate and learnt beliefs and behaviours, and a bundle of cultural, family, national, team, gender or other identities.” Brubaker defines identification as someone else doing the identifying, whereas an identity is typically self-owned. A child may decide they want a different name from that on their birth certificate, or become estranged from one or both parents and decide they do not want to be associated with them.
  • Finally the credential that results from identification is commonly an ID — and now, there is digital ID. One definition of a digital ID from the World Bank is that of “a collection of electronically captured and stored identity attributes, including biographic data (e.g. name, age, gender and address) and biometric data (e.g. fingerprints, iris scans and facial photographs) that uniquely describe a person within a given context and are used for electronic transactions.” At Caribou Digital, however, we find the term “digital ID” problematic; these days, nothing is either completely digital or non-digital. Instead, the term digital ID sows confusion: it can be used to describe a range of disparate things, from biometric passports to social media accounts. It can mean both identification (someone else doing the identifying, e.g. a biometric passport) and identity (your own identification, e.g. a social media profile). This tension between identification and identity creates a challenge for children as they grow from birth into adulthood.

Visualising a child’s ID journey through development stages

To explore the tensions and overlaps between identification, identity, and ID, we started by looking at all the different IDs (digital and non-digital) a child collects in four different countries: Brazil, Kenya, Lebanon, and Thailand. Through interviews and focus groups, we spoke to around 100 children, caregivers, and expert interviewees in each country, amounting to over 400 respondents in all. We worked with these countries because of UNICEF’s country office interest. Through our research, we noted that children collected ID at different stages, roughly corresponding to what UNICEF has defined as the four developmental stages from birth to adulthood: 0–6 years old, 7–11 years old, 12–14 years old, and 15–18 years old.

We mapped these cohorts in the graphic below:

Identification, identity, and digital ID for children between 0 and 18

Visual developed with UNICEF.

In the graphic above, the fan shapes represent the developmental stages from birth to adulthood while the dots correspond to the amount of PII (personally identifiable information) being collected about the child (name, date of birth, passport number, driving licence number, national ID number, etc.). As the graphic illustrates, the number of dots increases as the child gets older. By 18, a vast amount of data has been collected.

Potential outcomes

As soon as a child’s PII exists, it can be taken out of context. This is certainly not a new phenomenon, but with digitisation, time and space have been flattened and anybody can access, and potentially misinterpret, a person’s PII. For this reason, we talk about “identification and children in a digital age” rather than digital ID. Equally, we don’t separate the two extremes of identification and children in terms of birth certificates or the other end of children and social media — they are inextricably linked.

The consequence of time and space flattening is that people become identifiable long before they become adults. In our Kenya research we saw how this could have implications for financial inclusion later. In other cases, as children grow up, they may feel a disconnect between their identification (that they are refugees in Lebanon, for example) and how they would like to identify themselves (perhaps as a medical student).

The consequences of the conflict between identification and identity for children are as follows:

  • Data can be taken out of context. In Brazil, one respondent, “Frida”, a gay teenager, posted a photo on Instagram in which he was dressed as Frida Kahlo for a party at the age of 14. When he later applied for a job through Instagram, an initial job offer was retracted — he suspects this was because the employer scrolled through his profile and did not approve of his sexuality.
Frida’s Instagram photo which he feels was used against him. Photo credit: S. Bailur.
  • Those in fragile situations may “restrict their identities” through fear of being identified. In Lebanon, once Ali turned 15 he became more and more cautious of his usage of Facebook. As a Syrian refugee he felt at risk of being tracked down and geo-localised in Bekaa valley and either deported back to Syria to do his military service or jailed for fleeing and not having done his service. As reports of countries using smartphone data to track refugees have surfaced, we know that this is a legitimate risk.
  • Others, who may not understand the implications, may make rash decisions that impact them later. In Kenya, Paul, 16, had a date and needed some quick cash to pay for the dinner. He downloaded a loan app on his phone and, after sharing his Facebook details, was screened and received a small loan — enough to cover dinner. Paul felt the whole experience was almost like a game: they didn’t ask anything “serious” like banks do. More critically, Paul had used his brother’s ID to access the phone and app, which means his brother would be implicated if he can’t repay the loan (though he was more worried about his brother using the money!). He has heard of colleagues who weren’t able to open a “real” bank account because of not paying back loans from these “fun” apps. Following a slew of these apps (such as Tala), and the risks they hold, the Kenyan government has recently begun cracking down on small digital loans.
  • Younger children are too young to think about constructing their identity, but the ID process can be intimidating. In Thailand, Wren got her biometric National ID at 7 and her parents didn’t know how to properly explain the meaning of having or obtaining an ID. All she remembers is that a complete stranger asked her to stand still and not smile in an office space that felt a bit like a prison. In retrospect, she would have liked to have more agency over this process — for it to be either explained better or to have had the ID issued later.


While we go into each of these stories and more in our country blogs, overall, we believe we need to discuss this tension between identification and identity more, especially for children who may be struggling or who will not understand the implications until they’re older:

  • Children need greater protection from and awareness of their online behaviour and the data trails being created (see the stories above from Kenya and Lebanon).
  • We need to extend regulations such as GDPR and the right to be forgotten world wide so that data is not used out of context (for example, a Google search on something a child did when young).
  • We also need stronger regulations and messaging from country governments — see the Kenyan government’s Cyber Crimes Act making it illegal to post your naked child’s photo online.
  • Parents, caregivers, and peers need to share and reiterate knowledge of safe behaviour, both offline and online — for example, not allowing a child to use a parent’s identification to collect rations or transfer mobile money — or accept the consequences.
  • We need to constantly respect children and seek their consent when it comes to identification, as we found in our research on collecting biometrics in Thailand, or in Brazil on using social names where teenagers who were coming out felt their identity didn’t conform with their ID. This identification process will shape who they become.

When we asked children and families in our research what an ID meant to them, they talked about:

  • Belonging to a country
  • Being an adult
  • Not being a “bad person” or a terrorist (depending on how old they were)

As they age, children are very aware of the need for an ID, but less so of the intersection between identification and identity, especially in a digital age — this is where we feel more research is needed. For more details on each country study, please see our blogs on Brazil, Kenya, Lebanon, and Thailand. Each country surfaced a different theme: in Kenya we saw the consequences of early and informal financial inclusion due to the high penetration of digital financial services; in Thailand we learned how children and youth felt about biometric identification; in Lebanon we witnessed tensions in the identity-making of refugee children; and in Brazil we saw the conflict between sexual identities in the making and the static identification issued at birth.

We would be keen to hear your thoughts on each of these themes as identification and identity for children more generally.


In addition to our country research teams, UNICEF country offices, expert interviewees and respondents thanked in each blog, we are very grateful to Jonathan Donner (Caribou Digital) and the UNICEF team for feedback. These blogs represent our views and not those of UNICEF.

Author: Savita Bailur

I’m a researcher in digital development. Currently a Research Director at Caribou Digital and Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. Previous experience includes USAID, World Bank, Commonwealth Secretariat, World Wide Web Foundation, mySociety, Microsoft Research India and University of Manchester (lectureship).

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