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CO:RE
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Signe Opermann
Report CO:RE Short Report on Key Topics CO:RE at UTARTU Published: 10 Jan 2022

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.

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 [1] 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” [4] 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 [5], 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” [6].

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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 [7], it is not surprising that the “governance by numbers” logic has become the dominant mode of governance in the education sector [8]. 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 [9], 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’ [10]; 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 [11], they (un)knowingly ‘leak’ and ‘splash’ data for powerful platforms to guzzle up.

What’s the problem?

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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 [12], 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 [13]. This marks a significant step forward in the recognition of children’s right to privacy.

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Want to know more? Read the full short report and the book.

  1. Tiidenberg, K., & Baym, N. K. (2017). Learn it, buy it, work it: Intensive pregnancy on Instagram. Social Media + Society, 3(1), 1–13.

  2. Leaver, T. (2015). Born digital? Presence, privacy, and intimate surveillance. In J. Hartley, & W. Qu (Eds.), Re-orientation: Translingual transcultural transmedia. Studies in narrative, language, identity, and knowledge (pp. 149–160). Shanghai: Fudan University Press.

  3. Oswald, M., James, H., & Nottingham, E. (2016). The not-so-secret life of five-year-olds: Legal and ethical issues relating to disclosure of information and the depiction of children on broadcast and social media. Journal of Media Law, 8(2), 198–228.

  4. Lupton, D. (2020). Caring dataveillance: Women’s use of apps to monitor pregnancy and children. In L. Green, D. Holloway, K. Stevenson, L. Haddon, & T. Leaver (Eds.), The Routledge companion to digital media and children (pp. 393–402). New York: Routledge.

  5. Lim, S. S. (2020). Transcendent parenting: Raising children in the digital age. New York: Oxford University Press.

  6. Zuboff, S. (2019). The age of surveillance capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power. London: Profile Books.

  7. Teräs, M., Suoranta, J., Teräs, H., & Curcher, M. (2020). Post-Covid-19 education and education technology “solutionism”: A seller’s market. Postdigital Science and Education, 2, 863–878. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-020-00164-x

  8. Neumann, E. (2019). Setting by numbers: Datafication processes and ability grouping in an English secondary school. Journal of Education Policy, 36(1), 1–23.

  9. UNESCO (2020). UN Secretary-General warns of education catastrophe, pointing to UNESCO estimate of 24 million learners at risk of dropping out. August 6. https://en.unesco.org/news/secretary-general- warns-education-catastrophe-pointing-unesco- estimate24-million-learners-0

  10. van Dijck, J. (2014). Datafication, dataism and dataveillance: Big data between scientific paradigm and ideology. Surveillance & Society, 12(2), 199–208. https://doi.org/10.24908/ ss.v12i2.4776

  11. Lupton, D. (2020). “Better understanding about what’s going on”: Young Australians’ use of digital technologies for health and fitness. Sport, Education and Society, 25(1), 1–13.

  12. Mascheroni, G., & Siibak, A. (2021). Datafied Childhoods: data practices and imaginaries in children’s lives. New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien: Peter Lang.

  13. Livingstone, S. (2021). Children’s rights apply in the digital world! Media@LSE blog, February 4. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/medialse/2021/02/04/childrens-rights-apply-in-the-digital-world

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Authors

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Team member, CO:RE at UTARTU

Maria Murumaa-Mengel

Maria Murumaa-Mengel (PhD in Media and Communication) is working as an associate professor of media studies at the Institute of Social Studies, University of Tartu, Estonia. She is involved in research focusing mainly on young people’s use (and non-use, going “off the grid”) of social media, different literacies (e.g. digital, MIL, social media, porn) and various online risks (e.g. gendered online hate, online shaming, online child sexual abuse and grooming). She is a member of the Work Package 4 team and contributes to editing CO:RE blog posts. See her publications here.

UTARTU_Signe-Opermann.jpg
Team member, CO:RE at UTARTU

Signe Opermann

Signe Opermann, PhD, is a researcher in Media Sociology at the Institute of Social Studies, the University of Tartu (EE). She is a member of the Work Package 4 team and contributes to editing CO:RE short reports and blog posts.

University of Tartu
University of Tartu
CO:RE at UTARTU
Key Topics

The team at University of Tartu identifies and monitors the most relevant topics in the broad field of digital technologies in the lives of children and young people. In collaboration with experts from different disciplinary backgrounds, the team publishes a series of blog posts and short reports.

Beyond that, the team actively engages all main stakeholders, including academics and students, policy makers, professionals working with children and young people, caregivers, ICT industry and public media, to continuously report on their perceived hot topics and blind spots in the field.

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