The datafied childhood of Jane: from prenatal to puberty
Imagine this: Jane is born. Ah, marvel the miracle of birth! Tears of joy in the eyes of the parent(s). Family members start snapping the first photos of the baby. A quick update to social media: ‘The latest addition to the family has arrived! Say hello to little Jane! ❤️' Likes and loves are pouring in by the hundreds. The world has taken notice of Jane’s arrival. Her datafied self starts accumulating info.
Parents provide prenatal data
Correction: she already ‘exists’ in terms of data. Today’s children are datafied even before they are born and there is a good chance that parents have shared prenatal info about Jane.
In their quest to understand and perform the ‘normal’ pregnancy  and expectant parenthood, parents share first ultrasound images, keep track of their cravings, weight and moods and post updates about the movements of the belly-tenant. Parents can benignly or maliciously create “digital shadows” [2, p. 150] for their children – they create a web presence that the child cannot control.
Smart things and transcendent parents
After Jane is welcomed to this world, information about her, a member of “generation tagged” [3, p. 199] starts to pour in. Photos and descriptions of successes or failures with potty training, apps monitoring the baby’s growth, smart diapers alerting parents about the needs of the infant’s bottom, smart toys, smart cradles, smart socks, smart pacifiers, smart everything – all logging Jane’s preferences, development and needs. As soon as Jane can hold a tablet screen, her little fingers pressing and swiping and zooming will add to the personal data heap. Add one three-hour-long video about opening surprise eggs. Plus the Wheels on the bus song. Multiply by four hundred. Baby Shark. Baby Shark sung by Spider-Man. ‘Spider-Man’s wheels go round and round’. The algorithmically suggested content can get truly weird at some point.
When Jane starts school and independent movement in offline and online settings increase, mediatised parenting practices and “caring dataveillance”  kick in at full force. These often include relying upon different digital parental controls to keep their children safe online and keeping an eye on them while being physically distant. Transcendent parenting, the apparent ceaselessness of parenting duties , means that Jane can count on parental attention to her movements and simultaneously, constant automated attention from powerful platforms, her data feeding the “surveillance capitalism” .
Pass the baton – enter school surveillance
When Jane goes to school, her data becomes arguably even more important. Schools are praised as innovative and future-oriented if they provide devices, tracking and data-driven decisions. Jane can choose the most suitable courses and reach for achievable levels. The parent(s) will be notified about any worrying trend in her study results. Jane's future career options will be calculated along the way so she can develop a life plan based on actual numbers and personal data. How wonderful!
We sincerely hope you have a strong gloomy undertone in their head by now, instead of pure futuristic optimism. Considering that the young are unable to opt-out of such increasing ‘dataveillance’ in the education system, or even to show their agency and act as partners to schools, we should be hearing eerie violins in the background instead of cheerful flutes.
Considering that surveillance is so deep-rooted and naturalised in education , it is not surprising that the “governance by numbers” logic has become the dominant mode of governance in the education sector . At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when almost 1.6 billion children were compelled to use a variety of data-intensive online platforms for remote learning due to lockdown measures , the student data drain accelerated and intensified further.
Peer networks shape the footprints
As Jane grows older, she will independently use online platforms for sociability, self-expression, youthful experimentation, play and learning. Can you hear the ominous drums in the background? Yup, once again, not all fun and games, unfortunately.
Keeping in touch with friends and sharing about oneself and others has become a profitable resource for platforms. On the one hand, children and young people are, for instance, increasingly interested in self-tracking to gain personalised physical or mental health insights. On the other hand, as many such technologies and apps are either free or low cost, the predominant business model for such services is ‘barter’ ; i.e., customers agree to disclose their data in return for the service. As the young tend to believe that their data has little value to anyone else but themselves , they (un)knowingly ‘leak’ and ‘splash’ data for powerful platforms to guzzle up.
What’s the problem?
By rendering children’s bodies, qualities and behaviours as digital data, the Janes of today turn into data subjects. Furthermore, as Giovanna Mascheroni and Andra Siibak argue in their book on datafied childhoods , there is much more at stake than young people’s privacy: “What is at stake is the future of human agency – and ultimately, of society and culture – in the context of the material practices and infrastructures of automation and algorithmic governance” (p. 169).
Although Jane, her parents and teachers need to be provided with adequate knowledge and skills to enhance their data, code, and algorithmic literacies, the burden of privacy protection cannot be placed solely upon them. Rather, platforms should pursue alternative business models that desist from data collection from and about children altogether.
Regulation also needs to keep up with the rapid diffusion of technological innovations. For example, experts have criticised the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) for largely ignoring the impact of biometric dataveillance technologies. Policymakers struggle to balance the need to identify general enough categories and keep up with the technological developments. In 2021, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child adopted General Comment 25, which extends children’s rights to the digital environment . This marks a significant step forward in the recognition of children’s right to privacy.
Want to know more? Read the full short report and the book.
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Header image by Signe Opermann.