#OIILondonLecture An interesting lecture by @VickiNashOII of @oiioxford at @BritishAcademy_ this evening, entitled Connected cots, talking teddies and the rise of the algorithmic child.
Since the early days of the World Wide Web, people have been concerned about the risks to children. Initially, these were seen in terms of protecting children from unsuitable content and from contact with unsuitable strangers. Children also needed to be prevented from behaving inappropriately on the Internet.
In the days when a typical middle-class household had a single fixed computer in a downstairs room, it was relatively easy for parents to monitor their children’s use of the Internet. But nowadays childen in Western countries think themselves deprived if they don’t have the latest smartphone, and even toddlers often have their own tablet computers. So much of the activity can be hidden in the bedroom, or even under the bedclothes after lights out.
Furthermore, connection to the Internet is not merely through computers, phones, tablets and games consoles, but also through chatbots and connected toys, as well as the Internet of Things. So there is increasing awareness of some additional threats to children, including privacy and security, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for parents to protect their children from all these threats. (Even confiscating the phones may not solve the problem: one resourceful Kentucky teenager managed to send messages from the family smartfridge.)
And as Dr Nash pointed out, it’s no longer just about how children use the internet, but also how the internet uses children. Large-scale collection and use of data is not just being practised by the technology giants, but by an increasing number of consumer companies and other commercial enterprises. One of the most interesting developments here is the provision of surveillance tools to help parents monitor their children.
Parents are being told that good parenting means keeping your children safe, and keeping them safe means knowing where they are at all times, what they are doing, whom they are with, and so on. All thanks to various tracking apps that provide real-time information about your children’s location and activity. And even when they are at home, asleep in their own beds, there are monitoring technologies to track their temperature or breathing, and alert the parents of any abnormal pattern.
Dr Nash argues that this expectation of constantly monitoring one’s children contributes to a significant alteration in the parent-child relationship, and in our norms of parenthood. Furthermore, as children become teenagers, they will increasingly be monitoring themselves, in healthy or unhealthy ways. So how should the monitoring parents monitor the monitoring?
One of the problems with any surveillance technology is that provides a single lens for viewing what is going on. Although this may be done with good intentions, and may often be beneficial, it is also selective in what it captures. It is so easy to fall into the fallacy of thinking that what is visible is important, and what is not visible is not important. Those aspects of a child’s life and experience that can be captured by clever technology aren’t necessarily those aspects that a parent should be paying most attention to.
Linda Geddes, Does sharing photos of your children on Facebook put them at risk? (The Guardian, 21 Sep 2014)
Victoria Nash, The Unpolitics of Child Protection (Oxford Internet Institute, 5 May 2013)
Victoria Nash, Connected toys: not just child’s play (Parent Info, May 2018)
Victoria Nash, Huw Davies and Allison Mishkin, Digital Safety in the Era of Connected Cots and Talking Teddies (Oxford Internet Institute, 25 June 2019)
Caitlin O’Kane, Teen goes viral for tweeting from LG smart fridge after mom confiscates all electronics (CBS News 14 August 2019)