The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) said that it was important for children to learn about data privacy and freedom of information (FOI) rights, and that both "should be embedded in the formal education process".
The ICO is responsible for ensuring organisations comply with UK data protection laws, FOI laws and regulations on privacy and electronic communications. It said that it was imperative that children learned about privacy after revealing the details of research into the use of social networks by students.
A survey of more than 4,000 young people showed that 88% of secondary school students and 39% of primary school pupils have a social networking site profile, the ICO said. Most respondents had not read the sites' privacy policies, almost a third did not know what one was, and nearly a quarter said they did not know where to find the information, it said.
"Young people today are growing up in an age where an ever increasing amount of information is held about them," Jonathan Bamford, head of strategic liaison at the ICO, said in a statement. "It is vital that they understand their privacy rights and how to exercise them.
The ICO also said children should be encouraged to "exploit" the growing availability of public data.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act came into full force on 1 January 2005, giving individuals the right for the first time to see information held by Government departments and public bodies.
Under the FOI laws anyone of any nationality living anywhere in the world can make a written request for information and expect a response within 20 working days. The public authority will be obliged to meet that request unless exemptions apply or unless meeting it will be too costly or difficult.
“By being aware of their rights to access information, young people will feel more empowered to ask important questions about the things that matter to them – be it about their local leisure centre, or what the government is doing on university tuition fees or the environment," Bamford said in the ICO statement.
The ICO said it was aware of existing projects and subjects that teach some information rights, but said schools should adopt the teaching of "information rights issues as part of the mainstream education process – giving young people skills that will serve them well throughout their adult lives”.
The ICO said it was looking for a "research partner" to help develop a new project it hopes will eventually make recommendations on how privacy and information rights can be formally introduced to the education system.