Kids' data is a form of currency - and parents often decide how to spend it

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  • Leah A. Plunkett is an associate dean and professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law and faculty associate at the Berman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard.
  • The following is an excerpt from her book, "Sharenthood: Why We Should Think Before We Talk About Our Kids Online."
  • The book highlights how parents - often before children are even born - create "digital dossiers" that children are not consulted on, but can still have a major impact on their lives.
  • Plunkett says that adults trying to connect with one another digitally is not a bad thing, but that adults often aren't reflecting on the impact that their posts can have.
  • In this excerpt, Plunkett proposes that parents work with their children to create family data privacy plans. She also points out that many children know how to navigate the tech marketplace, and that parents can take notes from them on when and how to spend th currency of data.
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The drive for human contact - to see and be seen, to hear and be heard, to understand and be understood - is strong and positive. That more of these social connections are now digital - in "networked space," as leading privacy theorist Julie E. Cohen calls it - does not alter this drive. We aim to nurture our children with sustained, genuine connections, both with us and with others.

The adult urge to connect with one another - especially to seek advice, reassurance, and commiseration around the inevitable hassles of raising children - is positive. It shows maturity. It shows emotional and psychological resilience. It shows willingness to learn from new ideas. It is positive in and of itself. It's the how, why, when, and with whom we connect that is often problematic for our children. We are connecting, but we are not reflecting. We are connecting but not necessarily sustaining ourselves or addressing those needs that are driving us to describe our most intimate challenges with our children as "status updates" or in 140 characters or to record them in the format of Nest Cam footage.

What can we do to "only connect" more mindfully? We can think before we click. We can reflect more on what we are hoping to accomplish when we share our children's digital data. When we share, are we really looking for something more complex and elusive than a certain number of likes? By identifying and querying our reasons for sharing certain information in a certain context, we may make more mindful choices. By being in better touch with our own needs, desires, and fears, we may direct our energies in an ever more constructive and productive fashion.

Leah PlunkettLeah Plunkett.Courtesy of Leah Plunkett

We can also think about our kids before we click. You'd tell your teenager not to post a selfie from the bathtub. You should think about telling yourself not to post a shot of your toddler in the tub. You'd tell your teenager to use social media to create a positive portrayal of herself so future employers will be impressed by her savvy dissection of current events rather than how many tequila shots she had at Tommy's #houseparty last weekend, so you should think about telling yourself to post only a tasteful update about your ten-year-old's success at baseball rather than the fight he got into with his younger sister after the game ended. You can think of this "digital dossier" creation strategy as the "holiday card" rule of thumb: if you wouldn't put it in hard copy and mail it to a few hundred people in your life for display on their refrigerators, don't put it on the internet for thousands of people in, near, or outside of your life to repurpose and display indiscriminately.

We can think about kids, but actual youth input in and control of data-sharing decisions is largely a matter of personal and institutional connections. The law provides a limited to nonexistent framework for youth agency around whether, when, and why adults share their data. Even when kids under age thirteen go online and share their data in a commercial context, federal law doesn't require the digital service provider to get the kids' consent. Under the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), the provider must get consent from a parent. Our legal system is deeply committed to parents as gatekeepers for their children's privacy and activities, so the primacy of parental consent isn't going to change.

Read more: My husband paid me $15 an hour to be a stay-at-home mom. Here's what I learned.

The individual choices of parents, teachers, and other adults are another story. All of us can look for more and better ways to connect with the kids in our care to learn from and with them. For instance, parents can actively involve children in creating not just family media plans, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, but also a family data privacy plan. That plan can be a quick three parts: (1) familial concerns about and commitments to privacy, (2) research into the terms of use and other policies about existing or potential digital services that best align with the set of expressed preferences, and (3) some family habits that promote regular and responsible use of these or similar services. Some stock habits that might work well include the "holiday card" rule of thumb and "what would a thirteen-year-old say?" "What would smart Elmo say?" is also a possibility, but it's unclear whether Muppet artificial intelligence is more or less intelligent than an average adolescent.

Teens and kids are increasingly learning about how to use their real intelligence to make decisions about their digital privacy and other parts of their digital lives. Sometimes, those decisions include blocking parents from seeing certain social media content. Schools, other learning spaces, tech companies, and other institutions are offering more lessons about data privacy or "digital citizenship" more broadly.

Sharenthood Cover ArtSharenthoodCourtesy of MIT Press

These learning experiences are likely to become more common. Notably, in 2016, Washington state passed a law that appears to be the first of its type in the country that requires digital citizenship instruction in schools. There is a movement underway to persuade other states to follow suit. How "digital citizenship" will be defined and taught is still evolving, but under any conceivable definition, it should be a level of instruction that was not available to today's parents when they were kids back in Tom Sawyer's time.

Youth today are likely to possess a level of sophistication with their digital self-creation skills that transcends their parents'. Parents presumably will continue to possess superior skills in navigating the brick-and-mortar world and its institutions and in engaging in the type of risk-assessment "executive-functioning" skills that neuroscience tells us are more the province of the "olds" than of the youngins.

The likelihood that Tommy or any other of today's Tom Sawyers will want to sit down for a family summit and action planning is slim. They're too busy white-washing the fence all by themselves, without even being asked. But even in the absence of some sort of defined plan, a parental habit of checking in with children and teens as digital data decisions are made has the potential for significant positive impact on parental practices.

Teachers, educational administrators, school boards, legislative committees, vendors, and other decision makers outside the home also would do well do solicit youth input into data-handling decisions and options. Twenty-first- century Toms are lighting up digital territories. We can glean some insights from the paths they blaze.

Read more: A billionaire agreed to pay off my student loans in full. Here's what it was like - and how I plan to pay it forward.

Respect: Valuing children's digital capital

You're online, flipping between your work email, your former girlfriend's Instagram pics, and your local news channel. You get a pop-up ad: "Tom & Huck Bro Co.: we give the olds a raft to ride through digital waters." Sick of meeting requests, #blessed photos, and parking structure drama, you click. You laugh. Tom & Huck is a company of teenagers offering to serve as "personal guides to help adults have fun and be cool online." They charge $50 for each consulting session and less if you do a package. You laugh some more. Then you click on their YouTube channel. You're stunned into silence. Their last "how to" video had 2 million views. Since when did kids stop painting fences and start running the internet?

Most kids aren't tiny tech tycoons. Most kids are players in the tech marketplace, though, through their own interactions with digital services and those of the adults in their lives. As we make decisions about whether and when to exchange our children's private data for free or low-cost digital services, we need to "follow the money." We don't need to go full Moneyball and come up with a dollar figure. We don't even need to think that we're engaging our kids in digital day labor by our handling of their data.

But we do need to recognize our kids' data as a form of currency in the twenty-first-century economy. It's also a future-cy because the choices we make about our children's private data today will likely affect their life prospects for years to come. And depending on the type of content we're sharenting, we may also be taking creative content from our children that could have value to them as intellectual property - a scenario that the Council of Europe addresses when it advises member states who create play-based resources online using youth contributions to have "measures in place to protect the child [creator]'s intellectual property rights."

Read more: I'm a mom who quit my job, sold my house, and invested every dollar I had into launching a company that's grown 2,000% in 5 years

The economics behind sharenting are typically opaque to users. The website for a social media platform tells you it's free. It doesn't ask for your credit card, so you don't ask what price you're paying or how you're paying it. The app for your favorite store pushes a discount code to your phone while you're shopping. You use the code to save money, and the store uses data about your purchase for its own purposes. In these and many similar transactions, your children's data is part of the transaction. Your social media posts are about your kids, and your purchases are for them. You're paying for these digital and related services in part with your kids' capital.

Ask yourself: is the service you are getting worth parting with this information about your children? In some cases, the answer is yes. Let's say that you need to buy diapers and you don't have a lot of money. Diapers cost a lot of money. It's worth letting your preferred retailer figure out that your four-year-old isn't toilet-trained yet to save money on those diapers. In many other instances, though, the price seems too high. You post a YouTube video of your child's remarkable invention at summer robot camp. It gets a lot of likes, but it also spawns a lot of copycat creators who crowd the field and undermine any potential for your child to be the leading developer of her tech vision. You contact Tom & Huck for advice. Their diagnosis: epic parent fail, yo.

Leah A. Plunkett is an associate dean and professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law and faculty associate at the Berman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard. Excerpted from "Sharenthood: Why We Should Think Before We Talk About Our Kids Online" by Leah A. Plunkett. Copyright 2019, The MIT Press. Reprinted by permission of the MIT Press.

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