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Shedding Light on Children’s Digital Rights

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Technology has changed parenting as we know it, allowing mothers and fathers to transcend physical distances between them and their children. Sun Sun Lim of the Singapore University of Technology and Design, author of Transcendent Parenting – Raising Children in the Digital Age, believes this often comes at the price of children’s personal and private data, and explains why parents should be more circumspect when using technology to stay connected with their children.

Shedding Light on Children’s Digital Rights

Childhood under surveillance: From baby monitors to digital devices, parental monitoring could leave kids vulnerable to cyber threats (Credit: Naris Dorndeelers / Shutterstock.com)

What do a study lamp, parental aspirations and digital rights have in common? A lot more than meets the eye.

A recent Wall Street Journal article delved into the runaway success of a new gadget in China: the Dali study lamp produced by ByteDance, parent company of the hit social media app TikTok. Beyond providing light, this product is a shining embodiment of the techno-optimism and parental ambitions targeted at children in our digitalizing world. More than a mere lighting fixture, it contains two built-in cameras – one directly facing the child and another perched above – through which parents can cast a watchful eye from a distance, perhaps from their office, the mall, or another country altogether.

If parents are too busy to offer personal oversight, they can hire another person to supervise or tutor their children through the lamp. Indeed, this smart lamp can itself offer tutelage via its phone-sized screen. By harnessing artificial intelligence, it offers guidance on math problems, recites Chinese poetry and pronounces English words, with more services and subjects in the works. Children can upload videos of their homework for their parents to review, or even record video responses to interactive quizzes and share them with all Dali customers.

Educational tool or prying eye?: The smart lamp for children is a runaway success in China (Credit: ByteDance)

Educational tool or prying eye?: The smart lamp for children is a runaway success in China (Credit: ByteDance)

This voice-enabled device thus amalgamates the functions of lamps, smartphones, home assistants and social media. More expensive models come with “value-added” features such as detecting poor posture. When the child is seen hunching over, the lamp issues a voice alert, photographs the child and stores these images for up to three days for parents to examine at their convenience. The Dali lamp’s surveillant gaze is certainly not one to be trifled with.

Privacy and children’s rights advocates will understandably recoil at the prospect of such a lamp becoming a household product, let alone one that is flying off the shelves despite its hefty price tag. So what accounts for the fact that ByteDance sold 10,000 units of this US$120 lamp within its first month of introduction, and that its Chinese tech rival Tencent is in the midst of launching its own version? Surely, parents are averse to their children being constantly monitored through a panoptic apparatus?

Perhaps not, and indeed, the appeal of these lamps is hardly surprising. Intense parental investment in and concern for children’s academic performance are growing worldwide. Parents regard educational achievement as a passport to social mobility and will exploit all avenues to vest their children with every advantage. Purchasing a lamp that offers and supports academic guidance can give parents the (ultimately illusory) reassurance of doing the best for their children. In research for my book, Transcendent Parenting – Raising Children in the Digital Age, many parents shared how involved they are in their children’s lives, with digital connectivity intensifying their parental responsibility.

As my book argued, given their protective instincts, parents want to be there for their children and seek to transcend the physical distance between them, often employing digital means to check in on them. From CCTV cameras in preschools, to location-tracking apps and perusing social media posts to gauge children’s wellbeing, parental oversight has been digitally enhanced in an unprecedented fashion. The Dali lamp is simply the latest apparatus in this growing range of parental surveillance devices and equipment.

My research, however, also revealed the downsides of constant parental oversight – children’s opportunities to develop independence and autonomy are significantly reduced. Parent-child connectivity can adversely affect parents too. Digital tasks have now been added to the long list of duties parents already undertake to meet their children’s physiological and emotional needs.

Parents today must also manage their children’s busy schedules on multiple platforms, such as mobile apps for parent-teacher communication and online gradebooks updating parents on their children’s classroom and test performance. Parents are connected to other parents via chat groups, sharing notes on how their respective children are doing and measuring themselves against other parents. The constant flurry of notifications from these apps, chats (and now lamps) can also be stressful, inducing parents to persistently keep an eye on their children wherever they may be.

Digital native enlightened: But are his rights and privacy protected? (Credit: José Roma Abrantes)

Digital native enlightened: But are his rights and privacy protected? (Credit: José Roma Abrantes)

While parental surveillance is undesirable but arguably well intentioned, the surveillance of children by companies like ByteDance should give us pause for thought. The commercial exploitation of children by data-driven marketing strategies is on the ascent in pervasive but innocuous ways. Such “surveillance capitalism” is being orchestrated by companies systematically gathering data from children’s online and offline activity, including the content they consume and share, their interests and preferences, their learning activities and milestones, as well as their locational details. Even toddlers are not spared as their behavior can be tracked via the Internet of Toys, playthings that are connected to the online milieu through accompanying apps.

With ever younger users getting on the internet, more concerted protection for children from commercial and sexual exploitation on online platforms is surely required. Children are already the target of media content that shows the unboxing of attractive toys they cannot afford and exposed to the allure of fast food, fast fashion and harmful habits such as vaping. More egregiously, young people are also the target of sexual grooming in online platforms, and exposure to sexually explicit content. A conversation about children’s rights in the digital world is imperative, and urgently at that.

Encouragingly, children’s digital rights have been given explicit recognition. In February this year, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child adopted a General Comment on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment. Disseminated to governments worldwide, the Comment outlines how societies must honor children’s freedoms and rights to privacy, non-discrimination, protection, education and play in the digital environment. It also explains how states are obliged to ensure that businesses and organizations whose activities significantly affect children fulfill their responsibilities to children’s rights.

In the face of growing digitalization, this authoritative document provides useful guidance and indicates what more to do expressly to protect children’s interests, especially in the areas of privacy and data protection. Societies must take more active steps towards ensuring that children’s personal data is processed fairly, lawfully, accurately and securely, for specific purposes and with the free, explicit, informed and unambiguous consent of children and their parents.

One key issue is that the terms and conditions of digital products and services are couched in obtuse language that adults cannot understand, let alone children. Products such as the Dali lamp may proffer a slew of benefits, but parents may not realize that they extract a great deal of children’s personal and private data in exchange.

As more concrete measures are taken to protect children’s digital rights, parents can already choose to be more circumspect, and deliberate carefully before buying into the promises of corporations keen to prey on their insecurities. In a digitalizing world fraught with uncertainty, it is important to ensure that the path ahead for children is not just well lit but enlightened, too.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute

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