Datafying the family home: Notes on Barassi’s ‘Child Data Citizen’

In her book ‘Child Data Citizen: How Tech Companies are Profiling Us from Before Birth’ (2021), Veronica Barassi provides a detailed investigation into how families, specifically children, become datafied subjects through household devices and software systems. Her analysis raises important ethical and social justice questions about these processes, with particular emphasis on children’s rights. Using a mix of ethnographic, autoethnographic and literature backgrounding (patents, policies, media articles, academic work) Barassi (2021) details four case studies of different technologies: health, education, social media and ‘home life’ data. The book focuses on timely issues of discrimination, algorithmic bias and social justice; as well the problems associated with informed consent, data (in)accuracy and how little we know about what it means to have our children datafied from before birth.

In this blog post, we focus on the chapter ‘Home Life Data: Home Technologies and Children’s Rights’, as it is particularly relevant to our ‘Data in the Home’ research project. Just as Barassi (2021) provides a detailed analysis of home assistant devices – their history, how families use them (or resist using them) – we will do the same. However, our focus is not only on the more controversial issues listed above, but also the very mundaneness of these technologies and how through their mundaneness they are (re)shaping modern family life. So, while Barassi focuses on key questions related to data privacy and the issues associated with biometric data, we are also interested in the motivations families have for purchasing these devices, how they incorporate them into their lives and the understandings and practices they associate with them.

Smart home assistants provide a great example for exploring connections between a range of users, devices, goods and third parties. As Barassi (2021) explains, these devices rely on a business model structured around “home hubs” formed by various connected devices (smartphones, smart sensors, smart goods and light switches etc). Smart home assistants also nicely capture a range of ‘techno-myths’ which Barassi (2021), referring to Mosco (2004) summarises as: techno-solutionism, data fetishism, and AI quasi-humanity. These technologies are surrounded by a sense that they are almost ‘magical’ in how they operate and that they provide solutions to a range of household ‘problems’ all delivered in a way that may tap into our ‘humanness’ by being voice operated and conversational.

One key question we will be focusing on in this project is just how many Australian families now have smart assistants, including when and why they acquired them and to what extent children interact with them. But we’re also interested in the families who do not have them as this can tell us a lot about the discourses and metaphors associated with them.

We are also interested in more mundane, less ‘magical’ devices and their data flows. For example, TVs are devices that have been in family homes since the 1950s and still occupy a significant share of children’s leisure time (Rideout & Robb, 2020). Further, while broadcast TV viewership has dramatically decreased, a range of subscription based streaming services, which can be used on smart TVs, computers, tablets and phones, mean that television viewing has remained a constant feature of family life. Growth in sales of smart TVs has increased during the pandemic (Stewart & Crossan, 2022) although pre-pandemic data show that 84% of US households with children aged 0-8 already had a smart TV and 87% had a streaming service subscription (Rideout & Robb, 2020). This data set also shows that viewing some kind of TV is still the media activity that children spend most time on (YouTube and streaming service content taking up the biggest chunk of this) accounting for 73% of overall screen time for 0-8 year old children (Rideout & Robb, 2020). This is also the case in Australia (Rhodes, 2017).

Streaming services and YouTube produce behavioural and other kinds of data just as social media[1] and other online activities, for work, healthcare and leisure do. While we may at times find something ‘magical’ about the algorithms that show us content we might be interested in, the fact that TVs feel like they’ve always been there doing basically the same job, might make their status as internet connected devices in the data economy, less noticeable. However, in many respects this is where their power lies.

Given the dominance of TV and TV-like consumption in households with young children, and the range of privacy considerations attached to this (Kelly et al., 2021), it makes sense to ensure that we adequately account for and interrogate these practices as part of overall household data flows. This does not mean artificially separating these practices from all the other data flows in homes, but it does mean including them even though they are not so obviously ‘new’ and problematic.

Two other points worth noting here relate to the role of parent values, belief systems and mediation strategies and the role of children in contributing to data flows. First, Barassi (2021) notes that parental values, attitudes, beliefs and household rules play a big role in shaping household data flows, and she calls for attention to these constructs to occur alongside analyses of devices and technologies. Second, while Barassi (2021) has a strong focus on the multitude of largely adult inputted data about or related to children, there is less here about the data that children themselves may produce in their own everyday interactions with devices and software, particularly as devices are now a kind of ‘supervisor’ of children when parents are busy. What desires and habits do children have around digital devices and how does this impact the personal data generated?

Barassi’s (2021) book makes an important contribution to how we understand contemporary family life in a datafied society. She notes that due to the speed of technological change and trends in adoption, it is very difficult to compile a list of all the devices connected to the internet in the family home. However, we argue that it is fruitful to pursue this task, noting the likely transience of research data. Not all families are equally digitally connected, so it is worth noting how socioeconomic status, culture and location intersect with datafication. We hope to map a range of data flows across devices within households so we can begin to understand the volume of data produced by different families in different locations, exploring how their individual habits, beliefs and routines shape these.

References:

Barassi, V. (2021). Child Data Citizen: How Tech Companies are Profiling Us from Before Birth. MIT Press.

Kelly, G., Graham, J., Bronfman, J., & Garton, S. (2021). Privacy of Streaming Apps and Devices: Watching TV that Watches Us. Common Sense Media. https://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/research/report/privacy_of_streaming_apps_and_devices-final.pdf

Mosco, V. (2004). The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power and Cyberspace. The MIT Press.

Rhodes, A. (2017). Screen time and kids: What’s happening in our homes? (Australian Child Health Poll). Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne. https://www.rchpoll.org.au/polls/screen-time-whats-happening-in-our-homes/#:~:text=Parents%20averaged%20almost%2040%20hours,averaged%2032%20hours%20per%20week.

Rideout, V., & Robb, M. (2020). The Common Sense census: Media use by kids age zero to eight, 2020. Common Sense Media. https://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/research/report/2020_zero_to_eight_census_final_web.pdf

Stewart, D., & Crossan, G. (2022, February 17). Consumer electronics sales: During the pandemic, computer and TV sets outgrew smartphones. Deloitte Insights. https://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/insights/industry/technology/consumer-electronics-sales-growth-covid-19.html


[1] Barassi frames YouTube as social media in her book. I suggest, in light of how children actually engage with YouTube that it is better framed as video content viewing, at least for our purposes.

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