Children today are the first generation to be datafied from before they are even born. The consequences have yet to be seen. We can say in most cases, it starts with mom tracking her period, ovulation, symptoms and so much more in the hopes to conceive a child, relying on the help advice given in an app. Fast forward to mom finding out she is pregnant. Before even sharing the news with her family, she shares it with Google, Baby Center and countless other resources searching for vital information.
Tracking the health of the unborn and women is certainly not new, yet with the use of pregnancy apps, this surveillance and tracking has reached a new level. More than one hundred million women around the globe monitor their cycles on their phones with free menstruation-tracking apps and more than half of women use pregnancy-related apps. These apps are enabling a situation whereby corporations have access to grab a handful of personal data on the unborn, including not only health markers like weight and heart rate, but also cultural background, the parents’ thoughts, family ties, and family medical history, to name a few. Then comes the official announcement of being pregnant, where the parents to be share to social media all the special milestone moments for friends and family.
The British Medical Journal published an international study that demonstrated that out of 24 mobile health (mHealth) apps, 19 shared user data with parent companies and service providers (third parties). They also showed that third parties shared user data with 216 fourth parties, including multinational technology companies, digital advertising companies, telecommunications corporations, and a consumer credit reporting agency. Of 216 organizations, only three belonged to the health sector.
That said, children today, nearly all of whom have access to a device at home, are tracked unlike any other generation. Growing up with mobile technology from birth gives kids access to new opportunities, but it also means that their devices collect information about them constantly. All this data makes children uniquely valuable to tech companies and adds to their digital footprints, which can extend beyond parents’ control.
Once a baby is born, parents might use baby trackers or wearables to manage the baby’s routine, record sleep times, heart rate, respiration, sleeping position, blood oxygen level and body temperature, warning you via your smartphone if anything should fall outside the range of normal. Most of these devices require parents to set up an account and download an app, adding to the digital footprint of both the parent and child.
As the child grows, parents want to give their kids a step up and find the latest and greatest educational and play apps. They buy smart toys, fitness trackers, voice assistants, and phone watches with GPS trackers to give kids the freedom to go out and play and more. Then gaming and personal smartphones enter the picture. Imagine when you were a kid being able to ask Alexa or Siri to check your math homework, tell you a joke and dictate what you watch or listen to. Between formal and informal online learning and online registrations for after school programs and summer camps, the personal data of both the child and parent are living in many databases. By the time a child is 13 their parents will have posted an average of 1,300 photos and videos of them on social media, according to the report, Who knows what about me?.
As the child hits adolescence, we start to see kids engaging directly with online services to get access to social networks, free content, prizes and more. In doing this, kids and parents both sign off on the terms and conditions of a variety of services and give consent that provides companies the right to lawfully process their data. BUT is the consent given really informed or meaningful? Do they really understand what is being collected and sold to third and fourth parties?
We now live in a world with an estimated 25 billion connected devices worldwide. Many of those in the hands of children. The datafication of families and children is not only happening because families use apps, search engines, or social media, but also because, the society around them is increasingly becoming automated and data driven. From doctor’s appointments to schools, from supermarkets to home technologies, family life is being surveilled, tracked, and analyzed in almost unimaginable ways.
Children are at risk and that risk is growing. They are digital natives, not digital experts. And, it is our job as corporations, governments, schools and parents to do everything possible to protect and guide them. Corporations need to fiercely protect user data and monitor and remove inappropriate content. Schools also need to do more to protect data and how they vet the online platforms and apps they put into the hands of children. Governments need to improve existing laws to do even more to protect children online and have the resources to actually enforce them and hold companies accountable.
And, parents need to double-up their efforts to understand the technology their children are using and take online threats seriously. It’s time for them to talk to their children about the benefits but also the costs of time online, the dangers on the internet that exist and utilize parental controls to protect them and create consistent, healthy screen-time habits.
The digital world brings a wealth of benefits to children. It opens a world of opportunity. Children have rights and should be able to access content and services in a safe, responsible and privacy enhanced way without being exploited. Building trust and proving integrity will help keep the user long into the future, a business benefit in itself. Allowing children to benefit from all the positives of new technology while protecting their privacy and safety must be top of the agenda for all.
Children today are the first generation to be datafied from before they are even born.
(See infographic below).