Plugged-in parents are inadvertently creating data footprints for their children

By Andra Siibak

Institute of Social Studies, University of Tartu

We have long known that parents play a fundamental role in children’s cognitive, social and educational development, particularly at the youngest ages. One new question is whether, and to what extent, the digital revolution had changed traditional parenting. A recent publication, Educating 21st Century Children: Emotional Well-being in the Digital Age explores the role of modern parents in children’s emotional well-being, and how they are key players in protecting children from harm both online and off. But what happens when parents, the gatekeepers of children’s information, inadvertently create data footprints for their children?

In today’s risk-averse society, parents worry about the well-being and safety of their children. Increasingly, they’re also concerned about being “good” and “responsible” parents. The competing demands of social, work and family life, and the pressure to live up to society’s idea of “good parenting”, which is often voiced in the media (especially in the mom-shaming discourses on the Internet) and intensified by anxiety-producing marketing, have given rise to overprotective, technologically enhanced parenting.

Although hundreds of digital devices and thousands of mobile apps have been brought to the market with the aim of easing parental anxieties, many scholars have started to argue that an over-reliance on digital technologies and parenting apps has served to intensify anxiety instead. Worryingly, this has resulted in the collecting, monitoring, storing and sharing of children’s personal information, leading to the “datafication” of childhood.

Despite the potential good digital parenting tools can do, parents need to be reminded that their concerns about their children’s well-being and safety cannot be fully addressed just by plugging in.

As a niche of the “quantified self” movement, which refers to the phenomenon of self-tracking with technology, fertility tracking and pregnancy apps have become so popular in recent years that they have started to redefine our understanding of parenthood, health and identity. On the one hand, pregnancy apps give expecting parents recommendations on how to parent, and provide health- and well-being-related advice (such as about consuming alcohol, eating fish or cheese, taking medicines or planning for immunisations), without necessarily verifying the medical soundness of this advice. On the other hand, pregnancy apps give women the opportunity to track their pregnancies by collecting intimate health data and personal information both about the mother and the unborn child (including the date of conception, medical history, number of kicks in the womb and possible due date) leading to the creation and commodification of their data footprints.

The market for baby-tracking apps and monitors, with integrated sensors in leg bands, diaper clips, socks or onesies, that enable parents to monitor their child’s health, feeding and sleep, has been similarly expanding in recent years. Only a decade ago, first-time parents dreamt about a manual that could provide answers to all their burning questions about child rearing. Now, plugged-in parenting solutions promise just that. For example, some baby-tracking apps targeting sleep-deprived parents of newborns aim to alert parents immediately if the child rolls over, is hungry or has peed in his or her diaper. Rather than regard this emphasis on parental anxiety and surveillance of healthy children as a problem, many of the users of these apps and devices embrace plugged-in parenting as normal part of responsible parenting.

Much of the success of these tracking technologies has been built upon aggressive marketing that feeds parents’ anxieties. Who wouldn’t want their child to be safe and in good company at all times – especially  when peace of mind is just one purchase away? This is also why many parents have started to rely on various real-life tracking apps that enable them to pinpoint the exact whereabouts of their child. Some of these apps even offer a geo-fencing option, or alert parents when their child is visiting someplace new or when they break a curfew.

Even though parenting apps collect, manage and share a lot of personal information about both the parent and the child, many parents tend to brush aside privacy issues as less important than the knowledge and sense of control the apps provide. Many users may simply be unaware of the potential privacy risks associated with the use of these apps.

While parents and caregivers are urged to protect the privacy, personal data and online reputations of their children, the conversation needs to be more nuanced. Despite the potential good digital parenting tools can do, parents need to be reminded that their concerns about their children’s well-being and safety cannot be fully addressed just by plugging in.

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