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When I was pregnant, one of the first parenting decisions my husband and I made was to keep personal information (including images) of our child off the internet. The thought of explaining to a teenager why so much data about them existed online, when they didn’t put it there, made me shudder. Two years later, I’ve moved from a desire to protect my kid from the big bad internet to the eventual goal of teaching my child how informed consent applies to using technology.
I consider this one of the most important aspects of parenting in the 21st century. I’m a web developer here at The Globe, which means I spend my days keenly aware of the pitfalls of modern technology. I knew from pregnancy I was going to limit what I shared, but after my child was born, I quickly realized that socializing online is a big part of modern motherhood. Online groups are built around shared details: geographic locations, schools and activities, even medical conditions. I see the value in this kind of support system, and it would have made meeting other moms in my neighbourhood easier, but I pulled back on participating because I’m not willing to expose the same level of detail as most people.
Partly, I’m trying to shield my kid from what’s legitimately dangerous about the internet down the road: predators, hackers or criminals looking to exploit information. Barclays estimates that by 2030, two-thirds of identity theft cases involving young people will be fuelled by data their parents shared online. On the other hand, there is too much we don’t know about the future consequences of having personal data available for anyone to take or sell.
Our efforts started out simply enough. We didn’t post online about my pregnancy or our newborn, and asked friends and family to do the same. Then came the difficult task of navigating the world of internet-connected baby gear. Anything that required a connection to our home WiFi or data to be handed over to a third-party was a non-starter.
Things have only become more complex as our kid’s life intersects more with systems out in the wider world. On the micro level, it’s hard to be in public without someone’s smartphone capturing a photo of us. At a toddler drama class one day, another parent was taking photos of her child and my husband gently asked her not to post pictures where our kid was visible. She agreed, but I have no way of knowing if she stuck to that promise.
This decision has affected our lives in a host of other ways, such as choosing a daycare. Many facilities we visited use apps to record details about each kid’s day, as well as always-on cameras so parents can check in through a web browser. And we never enter contests where brands encourage you to share photos of your child using their products. At public events like musical performances or library story time, we often hang out at the back, where it’s easier for me to keep tabs on cameras in the room. It can feel very limiting at times.
Looking forward to the rest of childhood doesn’t make me feel much better. Stories about child surveillance are everywhere, from summer camps using facial recognition software to send photos home to parents, to smart doorbells recording unsuspecting trick-or-treaters. Then there’s the growing reliance on software like Google Classroom, and even universities tracking student locations to enforce attendance. So often we’re blindly handing over personal information without first determining if it’s to our net benefit or not.
A research paper released last year by UNICEF and the Human Rights Center at the University of California Berkeley’s law school made recommendations to bring practices around the use of artificial intelligence in line with the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child. They include calls to action for corporations, educators, governments and parents, emphasizing shared responsibility in mitigating the harmful impacts of AI on children. Even Canada’s privacy commissioner has said that “the responsibility to protect privacy shouldn’t be mostly on the shoulders of individuals.” Governments and corporations must treat this seriously.
Pressure is mounting to strengthen privacy legislation here in Canada. In October, information and privacy commissioners and ombudspersons issued a joint resolution that urges modernization of privacy laws and public education in digital literacy, and calls for AI and machine learning technologies to be “designed, developed and used in respect of fundamental human rights.”
Back at our house, my husband and I continue to review data policies and raise our concerns about the surveillance that surrounds us. One day we want our kid to be involved in these discussions as we teach the ability to give consent and slowly transfer that decision-making power. This exercise probably means choices I’m uncomfortable with at some point, but if my child makes those decisions using critical thinking, I’ll know I’ve done my job.
Digital data collection is big business. Kids are not immune to this trend. But opting out of systems or socialization entirely shouldn’t be parents’ only choice. Rather than starting out life in a state of near-constant documentation and normalizing that reality, we’re aiming to teach our kid what a healthy relationship with technology looks like.
What else we’re thinking about:
I walk home from work most days, which gives me lots of time to listen to podcasts. I love narrative podcasts in particular and have been trying to learn as much as I can about the climate crisis. Enter Drilled, where host Amy Westervelt takes a true-crime approach to the history of climate denial. Season three, subtitled the Mad Men of Climate Denial, premiered in January and is chronicling the century-long effort of the fossil fuel industry to obfuscate the connection between burning coal, oil and gas and man-made climate change through very effective public relations work. When a new episode shows up, it immediately jumps to the top of my listening list.
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