The long term, political outcome of children data surveillance


“Datafication of childhood is an extraordinary complex and messy process…”

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“Datafication of childhood is an extraordinary complex and messy process [coming] from a plurality of angles, political economic structures and from messy digital practices”. Through datafication, says V. Barassi, children are coerced into digitally participating to society, long before they are born.

Thanks to prof. Barassi’s website, I discovered a paper titled The datafied child: The dataveillance of children and implications for their rights. Here I summarize and comment the first parts of that paper that, in my opinion, every parent should know, and seriously think about.

The sooner datafication starts, the hardest it is to control

Datafication of children is not just about surveillance and privacy: it impacts children’s ability to build their public self and moral autonomy. Social media presence is just the tip of the iceberg.

It is thanks to PARENTS that datafication begins BEFORE children are even born

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Intimate, digitally-enabled surveillance has become popular among parents: this includes announcing pregnancy through social media, sharing details of foetuses and children, and digital monitoring of unborn and children as part of parental care. Once the infant is born, parents are encouraged to use:

  • apps to monitor sleep, feeding patterns, medications, and health in general
  • “smart” wearable devices, changing mats, baby scales, clothing, dummies, feeding bottles and toys, all embedded with sensors

More often than not, those apps and devices send all the resulting data heavens knows where (Most of those products are also so smart to be incompatible with each other, but never mind for now).

As they grow, the luckiest children may be upgraded with (possibly wearable, that is “ALWAYS-on”) devices that constantly stimulate them to do the right thing, be it physical exercise or learning. When the time comes, data surveillance (“dataveillance”) and datafication are complemented by many others, especially in modern schools.

Grooming childrens to be digital “entrepreneurs”

The current system provides (apparent) benefits for those parents who practice or accept digital surveillance of their children voluntarily. And yes, dataveillance carried out on children by others, as well as mutual social surveillance, can also contribute positively to children’s close relationships and wellbeing. But the long term political consequence may be that:

  1. “In participating in dataveillance… both children and adults are conforming to idealized neoliberal notions of the entrepreneurial subject who takes responsibility for managing and optimizing her or his life (or those for whom one has caring responsibilities)”
  2. “Via datafication, information about children’s bodies and behaviours becomes rendered into a form of biocapital,a digital data mode of commercially exploiting human embodiment”

In one sentence, the message to children, before they are even born, is

Forget society:

“you and you only are individually and exclusively responsible for whatever happens to you. And all you have to get by is your data”.

That may sound far fetched, but it is hard to deny, quoting that paper again, that “People’s life chances and access to opportunities are increasingly becoming shaped by the types of social sorting afforded by dataveillance”.

If you disagree, just consider the long term inplications of “more selective breeding” enabled by online dating. It is also a fact that reducing children’s behaviours, qualities and bodies into digital data [that become the main source for evaluating them] may delimit what can be known about them and how they might be treated as a result.

Again, if you think this is speculation, remember that more and more students are being graded by algorithms. FLAWED algorithms. To summarize,

thanks to datafication enabled by their parents:

  • today’s children become “highly ‘calculable persons’ who are the subject of calculations performed by other people or software”
  • children produce streams of information that other agencies could potentially access

The problem is all there, in one word:

And that word is “other”: “Parents generating streams of information [about their children] that other “agencies” could potentially access”.

Datafication may provide benefits for those who practice it voluntarily (understanding what they are doing) and under their control and ownership. Otherwise, the risks greatly outweight the benefits in the long term. Especially for children.

Image sources: 10 really cool data cartoons you have to see!, Kids and clicks and:

“The Internet of Toys, the datafied child, and the production of the surveilled citizen”

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