Look, Mum, no data!
By Anab Jain
We are at a turning point in the development of toys and technology made for children and adolescents. In recent years, Apple’s iPhone, iPod and iPad were named some of the most desirable toys of the year, marking the first time that technologies produced for adults, with significant online capabilities, were so widely touted as must-have toys for children. Infants play with tablets, smartphones and voice technologies before they can walk or talk. Childhood discovery is no longer constrained within a physical world children can touch and taste to understand. Their imagination can explore digital dimensions. Ways to learn and access information are endless.
Yet both producers and consumers face fresh challenges when toys are integrated into new technologies. The potential of toys and software accessible to children and adolescents reaches far beyond their marketed appeal. From environmental sensing, to passing data to the cloud, children’s sensory and communicative capacities are extended, but so too are corporations’ ability to influence children’s thoughts, beliefs and decision-making.
In the 1980s, the deregulation of advertising aimed at children in the United States allowed marketers and companies to build huge franchises that demonstrably increased the emotional bonds children had to products. They did this through the development of cartoons, expensive advertising campaigns and blockbuster movies. Today there is precious little regulation holding back toy manufacturers and the technology industry. They continue to innovate and disrupt, faster than parents can understand, consumer groups can advise and governments can legislate.
From the smart toys that listen to children while they play, to the family use of Amazon Echo, and the abundance of other software and hardware in use around them, children are exploring an emergent frontier of life, play and learning driven by connected technology. New research has drawn attention to the nature of the invasion of children's privacy by toys that capture, record and share audio information during play. This raises serious questions about privacy and safety in the home and online. It also raises important issues about what companies can do with the information their products record during a child’s play, how this can be used, how it should be protected and who is able to access it.
Children have always confided in their toys and teddy bears, but mainly in private, with the occasional overheard complaint or confession. Is it right to limit our children’s privacy in this way, or should parents be given total access to their child’s private moments to help aid their development? What are the incentives of the designers and producers?
The data gathered across our digital lives is often collected without privacy mandates, and it seems to be our responsibility to demand our data be encrypted. Reading the terms and conditions for every product is hardly something even the most diligent parent has time for. Consent becomes convoluted as our children’s data is easily passed to third parties who can use it for marketing purposes or to train new systems and artificial intelligence.
The sheer mass of quantitative data we can gather on our children raises concerns about how parents use it. How are children going to be protected from well-meaning but increasingly invasive parental practices? Should children have agency in their technological experiences and, if so, how?
Ubiquitous technology in the home creates some challenges for children and their parents. Designers need to be aware of the ethical issues involved in developing new software and hardware that are accessible to minors, because these technologies have the opportunity to help shape and enhance young users’ knowledge of the world and themselves.
But intentional design is crucial, because new technologies also expand opportunities for bullying, harassment and other more serious behaviour. Children and young people in their bedroom can be exposed to crime, abuse and radicalisation. Software such as Snapchat has even been designed to limit the readability of shared content, by making it unavailable after a user-determined time selection. WhatsApp, Signal and others offer encrypted communication channels. From a developmental perspective, how does the live streaming of our lives distort or develop who we are, and how do we nurture the best practices in our children?
With increasingly autonomous software and hardware, hidden discreetly within the technology that accompanies us wherever we go, we are ever more ignorant of how our devices actually work and the extent of what they are doing. Toy manufacturers and technology companies need to design their products and services with these things in mind. We need a better understanding of privacy, the fair use of data and the concerns of parents. As parents, we need to do a better job of holding these companies to account; we need to demand that our children be protected. We have more work to do in designing and building ethical, responsible and trustworthy technologies for children. We have more work to do understanding and using technology, and figuring out how to teach our children to steer themselves through the turbulence of our technological landscape.
Anab Jain is the director and co-founder of Superflux, a lab focused on emerging technologies for business, cultural and social purposes. She is also professor of industrial design at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. This essay was written in discussion with Jake Charles Rees, futures researcher at Superflux.
The digital challenges and opportunities facing young people