Addressing the challenges of digital parenting in the era of big data

  • Awareness
  • 18/09/2019
  • Andra Siibak, Professor of Media Studies at the University of Tartu

Parenthood has undergone a transformation in today's digital and data-oriented society. Many gadgets offer the option of monitoring, analysing, saving and even sharing our offsprings' development, behaviour or movement online. Although many believe that technological aids make the challenging tasks of parenting slightly easier, active use of digital gadgets has brought about a completely new problem – datafication of childhoods. Andra Siibak, Professor of Media Studies at the University of Tartu, reflects on the implications these trends are currently having on parenting.

"Whether it be a pregnancy or baby app, a tool for monitoring kids (baby monitors, toddler trackers), a smart toy (such as Furby Connect, Hachimals' interactive animal, and so on), or simply an online platform, social media group or forum targeted towards parents, these tech-laden phenomena have created what we call the datafication of children. Researchers have reached a consensus that today's kids are being planned and raised in a world in which nearly all facets of life can be monitored, analysed as well as manipulated and "datafied" via some technological process.

Sharenting on social media

"The datafication of childhoods and kids' lives begins even before they are born. Today it is not unusual for new parents to communicate the joyful news of expectancy to friends and acquaintances via social media by, for example, sharing an ultrasound image. Researchers believe that sharing toddlers' photos has become a social norm in this digital age, an activity that inherently accompanies parenthood. Sharing kids' images on social media is so common that in 2010, for example, a survey conducted among parents from eight countries revealed that up to 81 per cent of two-year-olds have some kind of a digital footprint due to their parents' online activities.

"Estonian parents tend to be more hesitant to share their children's data and photos on social media. The results of EU Kids Online, a survey conducted among more than 1,000 parents in the summer of 2018, showed that:

  • 17 per cent of participants post about their children on social media once a month or more frequently;
  • 49 per cent almost never post such content;
  • and 32 per cent never do.

"As social media allows us to stay in touch with our close ones quickly, conveniently and efficiently, it comes as no surprise that Estonian parents mostly (in 63 per cent of cases) share photos and videos of their children while communicating with family and friends. However, quite a small portion (38 per cent) of respondents admitted to asking for the child's permission before sharing the photos. University of Tartu student Merike Lipu's Master's thesis in communication management included a qualitative research project which revealed that kids (9–13-year-olds) would like to have more say in what kind of information and photos of them their parents share on social media. Therefore, upon posting, parents should not forget the fact that, in addition to shaping their own image, they are affecting their children's digital personas.

Your child needs your protection!

"The digital footprints left in the deepest parts of the internet are by no means the only reason why researchers who focus on the younger users have been trying to launch the conversation about datafication and children's privacy over the past years. For example, several British researchers worryingly note that recent developments in smart toys and parent-oriented mobile apps clearly point towards the ever-increasing tendency to use technology to monitor kids and commodify childhoods. Pregnancy and baby apps, platforms monitoring children's movements and behaviour as well as various smart and interactive toys are a part of every good parent's toolkit.

"Obviously, the creators of tech companies and apps know how to best appeal to the parental conscience. In marketing campaigns, parents are promised peace of mind and kids that are cared for, secure and happy – what parent would not be excited by the prospect? What parent does not feel tempted to buy a smart gadget or download a mobile app to help ensure that their kids are happy, joyful, healthy and satisfied with their lives?

"Of course, it is true that smart gadgets and apps for parents can help with the difficult task of parenting. For example, the EU Kids Online survey showed that 23 per cent of parents who participated use parental controls online that warns them if their kids attempt to make purchases via applications. 22 per cent use different technologies (such as GPS) to monitor their children's location and 21 per cent programmes that allow them to observe the websites and programmes their children use online. Thus, apps and parental control can be of help in preventing both financial setbacks as well as negative online and offline experiences.

"Besides praising these benefits, it is crucial to ask yourself what negative effect might be elicited by using these smart solutions. Are we as users really ready to sign away part of our own and our children's privacy for it to be shared with the service provider and who knows what kind of third parties? What could one do with the data collected? How might the data, which seem chaotic and uninformative at first glance, provide input on both my kids' and my entire family's movements, behaviours and habits? What's more: how does this digital monitoring affect the parent-child relationship and mutual trust?


"As the results of the EU Kids Online research proved, children are not very aware of their parents monitoring their online activities or movements. Only 13 per cent of participants (more than a thousand children) knew that their parents were tracking their movements using technological tools; only 10 per cent knew that their parents were using programmes which allow them to monitor online activity.

"As parents, we are faced with several important issues here. Firstly, how can we incorporate children into discussions about technology use, enabling families to develop so-called digital habits so that there is mutual respect and trust? Secondly, we should consider the extent to which we as parents are willing to trust tech companies and service providers and believe that they use our data and that of our children benevolently and justly."

Find out more information about the work of the Estonian Safer Internet Centre (SIC) generally, including its awareness raising, helpline, hotline and youth participation services, or find similar information for Safer Internet Centres throughout Europe.

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