Datafied Families

Posted by on Aug 17, 2019 in Child Data Citizen Project, News
Datafied Families

When I asked Mike (the father of two children under 13 years of age, who lived in Los Angeles) if he could imagine the data flows that came out of his family life, he laughed looked up and said,  ‘massive amounts; unimaginable amounts’ and then he added “if one thinks about the data we produce in my family, we are talking about all types of data: location and time stamp; things that I like on social media or that I share; our browsing history; our health; online banking;  home bills (I have automated everything that I possibly can); school data; all our entertainment choices; everything we buy. We don’t have home technologies or at least not yet and no Amazon Alexa, but I think it’s coming […].

From location data to school data, from social media data to health data, his family is in fact datafied. Mike believed that this was a relatively new phenomena, and slow process, and that 10 years ago there was little family data out there. In the last 10 years, he believed, something changed; there was a shift in the ways in which society understood and valued personal data and consequently in the amounts of data that we produced and collected, and I think he is right.

I just finished the first draft of my book for MIT press, and in chapter two I explore this transformation. I show that– in the age of surveillance capitalism – families, and children are being datafied from before conception. Prospective parents often search Google to find information about ‘how to get pregnant’ or download fertility apps to track ovulation. From the moment in which they ‘think’ or decide to conceive, they are immediately profiled for their ‘interest’, and their future children have the potential to become data subjects.

As soon as they conceive, many families in the UK and US download pregnancy apps. The market for these apps has grown exponentially in the last 10 years. They also use social media to share photos of ultrasound or important details about the pregnancy. Once a baby is born, parents often use baby trackers to manage the baby routine. Families who do not use apps often rely on the information of the top baby-focused websites like BabyCentre or WhattoExpect, which track them. I personally never used an app, but Google and  Baby Centre and all the other websites I visited, including their ‘third parties’, knew I was pregnant of my second child before my family knew. As children grow up, their behaviors, everyday contexts and personal details are collected by all sorts of technologies in family life, from home technologies, educational apps, and games to social media.

But children and parents are not only being datafied because they rely on a variety of data tracking technologies which produce, track and share children’s personal data, they are also being datafied, because the businesses, services and institutions that families encounter in their everyday life  (e.g. the bank, the doctor, the school, the supermarket etc.) have all become data-driven and parents are forced to comply.

The book explores the thoughts, feelings and understandings of parents like Mike, who try to make sense of the everyday datafication of their children and family life. It shows that for many, today, it has become impossible to escape this process of datafication or to protect the privacy of their children. Yet the datafication of family life can have clear implications for our lives and the lives of our children.