Your kids’ data, on every screen … is your child reading?

I’m an optician and have designed an app called MyThree for children to track their eyesight and update family via text message. To my knowledge, this app is the first of its kind, but there’s already a new one coming out in the UK that promises to protect kids from violence at school. While it’s aimed at specifically older kids, it’s easily expected that parents will start using it to track their own children’s activities.

If you think about the fitness bands or activity-monitoring bracelets that we are already accustomed to seeing in schools, these track the child’s step count, sleep, calorie burn and so on, but they are almost completely passive devices. They have to be physically worn, or while in gym class there have to be headphones with the “activity” settings enabled. Most often, a child wearing them can’t see them at all as they are typically designed for adults.

The iPad, however, is a radically different beast. Yes, it’s still about fitness and it has a slimmer profile, but there’s an inherent difference in the sort of data it collects. The iPad collects and transmits key data instantly, instantly! It’s easy, and it’s actionable, and it’s a lot more actionable.

And it is actionable! Apple’s Watch has probably been the most influential of all the wearable technologies, in part because it can sense when we’re moving and when our heart rate is falling. But we can probably bet that any parent of a seven-year-old who has a really keen eye for pattern recognition will spend a significant amount of time looking at their kids’ SleepPredict tracking device every night before bed.

All of this begs the question: Why stop at counting steps or heart rate when we can track data in much more comprehensive ways? In fact, apps are already interested in our kids. Here are a few examples:

Snapchat: of course. The photo app is an absolutely massive social network, and it’s actively trying to target its parents by using facial recognition to track what it calls “persistent acquaintances” – people who hang out with your children regularly enough for you to start to wonder if they might cause trouble.

Careful Parent Alert: Careful Parent Alert uses geofencing technology to track and trace where your kids are with an eye toward ensuring that your child won’t run away. The system is currently available to a limited number of people in the US, though they claim to be working on bringing it to the UK.

Psychology Today: This app is designed to monitor your kids’ behavioural and psychological health, alerts you if they are at risk and provide insights into what is going on in their head. It is currently available to anyone with an iOS device through the App Store.

Ravensburger: Ravensburger has actually been around for 20 years and has 30 million users worldwide. It is an award-winning children’s cognitive intelligence game-cum-learning tool that’s designed to improve reading, writing and speaking skills. However, parents can use it to monitor the safety of their kids as well.

You get the picture. The internet is a profoundly exploitative place. If nothing else, it’s an entirely private place that can be potentially incredibly harmful for some of the people you least expect. If it can also easily track your kids, it probably does.

Children are already data-mined as they move around school, shopping, socialising, reading. They are increasingly being used to track their parents, and then to sell us products or recommendations on what to buy. Although you would think that there’s one less reason to track my kids’ activity on Facebook or Snapchat, there are probably multiple more, and they may be very different motivations.

The good news is that there are very few restrictions on data collection and use in that space right now. Sure, Android and iOS don’t allow data collection from apps, but there’s no such restriction in Google Play and there are very few parental controls that apply to the App Store. People might assume that things will change. For every app that has an interesting app store promotion scheme, there is probably another that does a lot of good with minimal data collection.

But how many do we really trust?

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