Dec 19, 2019

Your kids’ data is already online. How much do you want to add to that?

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Think before you share on social media, says Leah Plunkett of Harvard. Today's kids have a digital history they didn't choose and can't escape.

Over the next couple of weeks, parents will take many photos of their children, maybe in cute holiday outfits or visiting Santa or lighting the menorah. We will almost certainly post many of those pictures online. 

But the author of a new book wants us to think before we share. She argues that between social media, tech in education and the vast system of government, advertising and digital data collection that we live with every day, our kids are getting an online history that they didn’t choose and can’t escape.

I spoke with Leah Plunkett, a law professor at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and author of the new book “Sharenthood: Why We Should Think Before We Talk About Our Kids Online.” The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Leah Plunkett (Photo courtesy of Plunkett)

Leah Plunkett: There is a whole ecosystem out there of other institutions who are interested in data that may seem irrelevant but has the potential to be aggregated, analyzed and reshared in a whole number of ways, both now and in the future. We know that kids that wind up involved in our justice system are subject to an increased level of data tracking and data monitoring, and in some instances, data sharing. I write about camps and after-school programs; I write about really just about all the spaces that we’re taking our kids into are increasingly digital and are increasingly watching.

If you’re going to be sharing on social, don’t put anything on it that you would not have put on a holiday card and send to 300 people.

Leah Plunkett

Molly Wood: What should parents do that is low guilt, or low difficulty, considering that we live in the world we live in?

Plunkett: We should let ourselves off the hook in terms of feeling guilty. Some practical tips, Molly, would be: If you’re going to be sharing on social, don’t put anything on it that you would not have put on a holiday card and send to 300 people, everyone from your great aunt to your boss — definitely don’t post pictures of your child in any stage of undress. When you are thinking about having smart devices in your home, think about going low tech or no tech.

Wood: Is there a nightmare scenario that you worry about where all of this data basically becomes a digital shadow that follows kids throughout their lives? Or is there an equalizing effect considering the fact that everyone has this problem?

Plunkett: There could be both. I definitely have my 3 a.m. scenario of what will it look like when the child conceived on New Year’s applies for college? There is a digital predictive program that is saying, “Gosh, based on all these different digital data points, we can now predict for this educational institution or this employer that this child either deserves this opportunity or doesn’t.” Then I wake up and I think maybe what we will see is that once we look to artificial intelligence to say who should be hired to be the next CEO of this company, maybe that will be an equalizer, maybe we can train the AI to move past biases and blind spots and actually give everyone a fair chance.

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

This isn’t entirely about making us feel guilty for all the photos we have shared or will share online, but it’s also about how those photos and the data on our kids gets used in ways we didn’t intend. Earlier this month, a group of consumer advocacy organizations asked the Federal Trade Commission to take a hard look at digital media companies that target kids online with content and advertising — meaning how they track kids’ behavior and activities, and how they store and collect that information.

CNBC reported that the letter asks the FTC to subpoena that information from a group of companies that it doesn’t name. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood told the outlet that — no surprise — they’re definitely talking about YouTube, Facebook, Disney, Twitch, TikTok and Google, among others, to figure out how deep the data collection goes.

There’s also a story in the Guardian about parents in a Maryland public school district who got the district to agree to delete all the data they’ve collected on students once a year. The story says the policy may be the first of its kind in the nation and notes that the district is located near the headquarters of the CIA and the National Security Agency, which is why the parents there might be a little more privacy-minded than most. 

But honestly, maybe something like that should be standard even if your kids aren’t little spylets.

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