If something is free, you are the product. And so are your children. Everything kids do online is being tracked. Their likes and dislikes, their mistakes, their biggest hopes and deepest fears. They are followed across multiple devices and an ever-expanding variety of digital platforms. All the data extracted is combined into individual profiles to target with personalized content and advertising. Given that many of our consumer preferences stem from how we grew up, it is easy to understand how marketable this information is.
The earlier kids’ attention is captured, the more data can be collected, and the more valuable it will be to use and to sell. Like credit history – the longer the data, the more reliable it is as a predictor of financial behavior, borrowing habits, chances of default, etc.
How big is Big Data?
What is Big Data? To put it simply, it’s the analytics used by Internet-based industries to run their business more efficiently and to make more money. Big Data deals with incredibly large data sets that are too complex for traditional analysis, and uses them to extract valuable information about patterns of behavior. The exponentially growing metadata, or “data about the data” includes data tracked across multiple devices, mobile data traffic, cloud storage, as well as data tracking by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT).
More of our lives are being tracked by the Internet of Things – the growing number of “smart” devices that invade our lives, from thermostats to fitness trackers. This is the new frontier of innovation and wealth. Every new bit of data captured is linked and added to other bits of data: video+time stamp+likes+shares+statistics, generating metadata.
This metadata is being organized and repackaged into new innovative digital products that demand more of our time and attention – and collect more data at the same time.
The value of data bits increases when they are linked together this way, building comprehensive profiles for AI that can understand humans better than humans understand themselves.
How big is the business powered by Big Data? Way bigger than oil, and growing at double digit rates. Market capitalization (calculated as the number of shares in circulation multiplied by price per share) of the top global technology companies is how the value of the company can be measured. Apple is valued over $1 trillion. Microsoft is over $1 trillion. Amazon dipped in and out of $1 trillion market capitalization a couple of times since 2018. Google hit $1 trillion in January 2020. Facebook is half a trillion.
This is what a trillion dollars looks like:
Regardless of which companies are included in the mix, or the market fluctuations, the tech industry is valued in the trillions of dollars. Each of the successful Internet companies measures their revenues in billions of dollars, sometimes (in cases like Amazon and Google) in hundreds of billions.
Big Data analytics runs the algorithms that enable these earnings.
Digital Media Business Model: an Ethical Dilemma
There is a terrible conflict of interest at the core of the data-driven digital media business. In order to generate profits, it needs to deliver personalized content to keep users engaged. The only way to do it is to use personal data, effectively making humans a commodity.
Which is a big ethical dilemma, much like slavery was for the cotton industry in the Americal South before the Civil War. They were convinced that without the free labor of slaves, the Southern economy would collapse. In our world today, free data harvested from humans powers digital marketing. As history moved forward, the Southern economy had to change to include compensation for labor. The digital economy will have to eventually reform to include consent and compensation for personal data.
Let’s hope it will not involve a Civil War.
Digital media and Big Data are two sides of the same coin. Internet companies provide desirable content, sell goods and services, and harvest data from the users. Big Data analytics is how this data is analyzed.
Tech companies then use the findings to create personalized content designed to nudge user behavior in the direction of higher profits for the industry – and harvest more data – to manipulate behavior more efficiently.
And so the cycle continues as humans are gradually stripped of the independent thinking and free will in a way so stealthy they do not even notice.
All parents are aware of the danger of kids’ personal information falling into the wrong hands. However, individual online predators can be caught and brought to justice. But what a big digital media platform does with the kids’ personal data, parents may not know. What we do know is that data is money – billions of dollars of it. Data can be sold to the highest bidder, anyone who is interested in manipulating the user. Isn’t that still a form of predatory behavior? Big Data is the 21st century robber barons – a derogatory name given to 19th-century American businessmen who were accused of using unscrupulous methods to get rich.
Yet this is exactly what digital marketing is based on. Facebook is very open about its personalized advertising service offered to businesses: it is called “retarget” your audience. Nothing wrong with getting ads relevant to your own interests, but without any ethical guardrails this can easily morph into ads targeted to exploit your deepest vulnerabilities – the kind you’d rather keep between you and your therapist.
Behavioral ads targeting kids – naïve, trusting, and easily influenced – are manipulative and illegal.
Even with the privacy laws in place, what happens at the intersection of a child’s developing brain and sophisticated AI algorithms monitoring and manipulating their digital behavior is just too complex. It’s not rocket science – it’s a whole lot more complicated than rocket science. Even a dual PhD – in neuroscience and computer science – is still unlikely to provide a scientist with enough knowledge to comprehend it all.
Add general lack of transparency. Researchers generally do not have access to the algorithms of digital marketing used to target young people (unless a court order is issued). These algorithms are trade secrets of the multi-billion dollar industry, and the companies guard them like a hawk – they realize how the findings of such research can limit the freedom of data mining from minors they currently enjoy.
Transparency will compromise the entire business model.
So the data keeps flowing. Food companies put sugar in your kids’ cereal to make sure they crave it and consume as much as possible of these “sugar bombs” so you buy more at the supermarket – and they make more money. It’s just business, and they do not care if kids become obese.
In the same fashion, companies producing digital media for kids’ consumption, add likes, notifications, game prizes, infinite scrolls, autoplay and countless other perceived rewards to their product to make sure children crave and consume more and more of this digital diet.
Even with online educational platforms my Kindergartener used when we were in the COVID-19 lockdown at home it was clear: the more video-game-like the application was, the more he enjoyed it. On the other hand, when the learning resource required more traditional independent thinking, 5 minutes later I would hear: “I am bored!”. He would watch the clock until his “recreational” screen time was supposed to start.
The more screen time, the more direct and subliminal advertising can be fed to the kids, and the more data harvested at the same time – a double benefit for the digital media, a push and a pull strategy. They are not legally obligated to care about the negative implications of too much screen time to children’s physical and mental health, their school performance or relationships.
An individual of any age is a gold mine for data, and shall be mined for profit.
Tech companies are not inherently evil, they are simply profit-seeking enterprises, as companies in the market economy should be. But with a human as their resource to extract attention and data, the unfortunate side effect is humans being depleted – like a mine that had been mined excessively. It is left hollow until it collapses. Just look what’s going on with young people’s mental health these days, and see that the walls come crumbling down.
Privacy protection for kids
The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is a US law first enacted in 1998, providing children with some protection from digital marketing and data collection. The law requires digital media platforms targeting children younger than 13 years old to limit the collection of personal information, obtain verifiable parental consent, disclose data collection practices and protect the data. The regulations were updated in 2013 with restrictions on behavioral targeting, personalized advertising and location-based marketing.
While well-intentioned, the law has two obvious flaws:
- Parents are too busy to read through the fine print of terms and conditions, which is complex and confusing.
- Kids simply lie about their age and click “Agree”.
If they want to use a popular digital media service or social network they are legally too young for, they will find a way. I can confirm how common this is first hand because my preteen did exactly that, not bothering with “verifiable” parental consent (which would not be given!). It was so easy, he advised his kid sister to lie about her age too.
Once children turn 13, COPPA does not apply. Teenagers roam free without privacy protections in an unregulated, commercialized digital jungle. Things they share about themselves voluntarily are combined with unknown behavior tracking and data mining techniques to construct a very comprehensive picture of who they are. What they love or hate, fear or aspire to, can be used commercially without their – or their parents’ – knowledge.
Meaning if you do not agree to these conditions you cannot use the service.
It’s a false dichotomy – an illusion of choice where there is none. Where is the “Disagree” button? Where is the benefit of using the service without giving it the permission to collect and use your or your kids’ data? If the service sells something, I want to be able to retain my free will to decide whether to buy it or not. Right now, even if I did not purchase anything but merely visited the site, the valuable resource – data – has been already extracted. Collected and sold without my consent, and no one offered me a commission.
This is a form of theft. We are the owners of our own data – and need to be paid if our data is used for commercial purposes.
Kids data should be off-limits for data mining and digital marketing, period, end of story. The burden of proof should be on the companies, not the families. Data collection by the Internet of Things smart objects should be made illegal. The potential for misuse, or kids’ private information falling into wrong hands is just too great.
The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood and other advocacy groups are dedicated to end marketing to children, pushing companies like Nickelodeon, Hasbro, Amazon, and others to stop targeting children. Their advocacy is based on the evidence that child-targeted marketing – and the excessive screen time it encourages – undermines kids’ healthy development. The list of organization’s achievements includes a settlement that forced Google and YouTube to limit data collection and targeted advertising on kid-directed content, Mattel cancelling the release of an always-on digital assistant designed to “live” in kids’ bedrooms, and a campaign against Hello Barbie, a doll that recorded children’s conversations and shared them with unnamed third parties.
In 2018 Facebook was caught in a scandal about targeting children for years with in-app game purchases, resulting in kids unintentionally racking up millions of dollars on their parents’ credit cards. After the incident, the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, along with 14 other advocacy groups have launched a campaign urging Facebook to discontinue Messenger Kids, designed specifically for children under the age of 13. Their argument: since Facebook already preyed on kids and parents before – it will do so again and is not to be trusted. Well, Messenger Kids is still going strong. In fact, any of the dozens of communication tools kids use – TikTok, Snapchat, and others – continue to collect kids’ data.
Customers in training
Ubiquitous tracking of online activity creates a digital dossier for every kid – like the KGB in Soviet Union following people throughout their lives collecting more and more facts that could be used against them. KGB used informers to collect incriminating information – Big Data uses data mining, in addition to people happily informing about themselves on social media.
Remember those little child-size shopping carts that some supermarkets have? With a little flag “customer in training”? I have adorable photos of my kids using them. But when kids are online, they are “customers in training” all the time, whether they are aware of it or not. Their data is being collected, their online profile is being built. When they grow up and acquire purchasing power of their own (beyond what they can convince us to buy for them now), Big Data is going to be ready to manipulate their purchasing decisions.
Abstinence from digital media is unrealistic. Children are “digital natives”, with their identity, socializing, and customer preferences increasingly residing online. Which makes their present and future buying power a juicy target for digital marketing. Personalized advertising is at the center of it, its business model relies on collecting data from users. In the absence of comprehensive legal protection for children’s privacy rights and blurry understanding of who actually owns the data, the temptation is just too great. If a particular digital platform does not harvest the data and its competitor does, they will just lose the business.
High moral ground does not pay.
Big Data analytics follows kids and teens across their online social networks, analyzing their conversations in real time on all of their devices to determine who and what influences them, and how they in turn influence their friends. Their Facebook newsfeed and other online content is personalized by sophisticated algorithms that integrate advertising based specifically on their interests. My 13-year old dreams of going on a Caribbean cruise – and that’s exactly the ads that YouTube is showing him – how do they know?! He comes to us begging for a cruise vacation. At some point we will probably surrender.
It is working.
Discrimination may be illegal in real life, but in the digital world it exists in plain sight. Content and advertising are personalized based on kids’ ethnicity all the time, with Hispanic and African American kids seeing different ads compared to their Caucasian peers. Advertisers may be “celebrating diversity”, but they are not color-blind.
Young brains are still developing and do not fully mature until the age of 25, which makes them especially vulnerable to influence from those who understand cognitive biases – the creators of digital media. “Influencer” is a lucrative profession now. These could be online personalities kids admire, whose YouTube videos they watch and whose Instagram accounts they follow – along with their friends.
Marketing scheme then becomes simple – get the influencer to broadcast the product or idea, and harness the power of peer pressure to convert their teenage audience into instant customers!
We can be sure that in the future the algorithms and artificial intelligence used to target our kids as customers will be so sophisticated that resistance would be futile. They will pay before they know what hit them. Payments of the future will be so quick and easy they won’t even have time to stop and think. Those few seconds we still have today while we enter our credit card number will be replaced by a phone tap or a fingerprint scan or a voice command.
Data collected on these future customers when they were children will be very valuable to make this happen.
Customers pre-programmed for impulse buying – an advertiser’s paradise!
Catch them early
Making kids into customers is critical for winning the growing competition for limited human attention in the digital media world. If the business does not generate new customers, it slowly dies from attrition.
Over 2 billion people on the planet already use Facebook. Messenger Kids is Facebook’s solution to the privacy laws compliance problem that limits social media access for kids under 13. It is marketed as a safe communication tool for children, and as such, was even recommended by our school during the COVID-19 lockdown. The pretext is giving parents control over children’s social media lives. But it still gives Facebook access to kids’ private conversations with friends and family. And the chance to collect valuable data.
Facebook is not a charity institution. Everything that it does is geared for profit – present or future. Kids Messenger is free, it engages users early, and gets the kids used to relying on Facebook as a communication tool. Facebook said that they will not automatically migrate user information to a full Facebook account when they grow up. But if we know anything about human behavior, the kids will do it themselves – who would want to lose their whole carefully constructed social history? All their contacts, pictures, conversations?! Social media profile becomes part of their identity. Losing it would be devastating.
Besides, if they are already used to Facebook, it’s too much work to migrate to another platform – bingo, customer retention for Facebook is guaranteed.
That’s why the app is there – capture users early.
Google classroom was a saving grace in a coronavirus quarantine. Seriously – Google Meet and Google Docs saved the education process in our school district – and across the country. Google is easily the most successful example of early user engagement. By now kids are so used to Google digital tools utilized at school every day – they would not consider using anything else when they grow up. They are customers for life. The tools are free, mankind is eternally grateful, and the data from all this activity flowing to the Cloud will be used… for what?
Maybe, not even Google fully knows at the moment. But for the profit-seeking business the motivation is always there to use data for making money. A decade from now kids school performance might become very handy to predict their purchasing or voting behavior.
Why kids are vulnerable to privacy violations
Children do not think twice about signing off their privacy rights to the latest app – all they care about is getting the fun features the app provides. Older teens might stop and think for a moment, but conclude that privacy is a small price to pay for participation. No one reads the fine print.
Everyone clicks “Agree” to terms and conditions and signs their life away.
What’s their alternative after all? Complete abstinence from social media where all of their friends hang out?
Teenagers have always been known for risky behavior. Impulsivity is their natural state for biological reasons: their emotional brain is in overdrive, their rational brain is still under construction, and by the way, the rational and the emotional do not talk to each other. The connections for inhibiting impulsive behavior are not fully developed yet.
Their emotional volatility is high (think – middle school drama), their attention is fractured between multiple digital tasks, their developing brains are overstimulated by overconsumption of digital media.
Young people are simply not equipped to accurately estimate the risks they face online, and fall easy prey to the digital temptations.
A friend shared this story about a 12-year old girl. She got her first phone and was really excited to start using the TikTok app that all of her friends were on. TikTok is all the rage with pre-adolescent girls these days. Her parents told her to limit conversations on the app to two of her closest friends. She agreed. A couple months later her parents discovered that the girl has over 700 followers all over the world, including grown men. They freaked out, naturally. And how did their daughter react? “What’s the big deal? They are my followers, they like my stuff, they are interested in me! These are my friends!”
She is not getting her phone back any time soon.
Stories like this, combined with the fact TikTok is a Chinese company that owns the data girls so naively share with anyone who would listen – including things like real names and GPS locations – has parents seriously worried how this data may be used. Especially by the company in another country that is not subject to US or European laws.
In February 2019, the FTC fined TikTok’s holding company ByteDance $5.7 million for failing to comply with COPPA privacy law. ByteDance agreed to pay the largest COPPA fine to date and to add a kids-only mode to the TikTok app. Not all such privacy violations are caught. Enforcement of compliance becomes impossible across borders – the only reason app developers in China listened was because they wanted to keep access to the US market. Their annual revenue in 2018 was $7.2 billion. No international legislature exists at the moment to protect a 12 year old girl from potential dangers of hanging out with 700 strangers online.
No right to be forgotten, no chance to be forgiven
When kids make a mistake online, whether it is sharing inappropriate photos, engaging in cyberbullying, or anything else their immature brains might prompt them to do, they have no “right to be forgotten”. Wikipedia defines the right to be forgotten as “the right to have negative private information about a person to be removed from Internet searches”. The right to be forgotten was implemented in European Union, but not in the US.
Online privacy protection law exists in the US for children younger than 13, but teenagers are totally exposed. They are wide open exactly at the time when they are experimenting with their identity, trying to find out who they are. What they want to do is share their experiences with friends and family. They also might want to hide their emerging identity from parents and teachers, and freely explore the digital world in the company of their peers. They should have the freedom to try out different things, make mistakes, and course-correct without the risk of exposure.
That’s not what happens. Social media is a minefield. There are plenty of horror stories about kids getting into big trouble after doing something online without thinking. A tainted online reputation cannot be erased. They cry: “I did not mean to!”. But they cannot take the self-incriminating content back, once it’s posted, it takes a life of its own.
After a digital mistake, it’s too late to remain silent. Without the right to be forgotten, everything kids say or do online can – and will – be used against them.
- Kids get expelled.
- They get arrested.
- They are denied college admission.
- They get their families into legal nightmares.
- They are denied employment decades later.
The mistakes of youth are criminalized and can wreck the rest of their lives.
The mistakes of youth can haunt children for life, long after they matured, long after they regretted those mistakes. “What was I thinking?!” The problem is – they did not. Teen brains were not fully equipped for thinking. But what they did at 13 will affect them at 26 and beyond.
Anyone can Google them and see that their reputation is ruined – forever.
What exactly is Big Data watching? Technological visionary Kevin Kelly in his book The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future lists all the devices and systems that track human activities (as of 2016):
- Car movements – every car since 2006 contains a chip that records your speed, braking, turns, mileage, accidents whenever you start the car.
- Highway traffic – cameras on poles and sensors buried in highways record the location of cars by license plates and fast-track badges. Seventy million plates are recorded each month.
- Ride-share taxis – Uber, Lyft, and other decentralized rides record your trips.
- Long-distance travel – your travel itinerary for air flights and trains is recorded.
- Drone surveillance – along US borders, drones monitor and record outdoor activities.
- Postal mail – the exterior of every piece of paper mail you sent or receive is scanned and digitized.
- Utilities-your power and water usage patterns are kept by utilities.
- Cell phone location and call logs – where, when and who you call (metadata) is stored for months. Some phone carriers routinely store the content of calls and messages for days to years.
- Civic cameras-cameras record your activities 24/7 in most city downtowns in the US
- Commercial and private spaces – today 68 percent of public employers, 59 percent of private employers, 98 percent of banks, 64 percent of public schools, and 16 percent of homeowners live and work under cameras.
- Smart home – smart thermostats (like Nest) detect your presence and behavior patterns and transmit these to the cloud. Smart electrical outlets (like Belkin) monitor power consumption and usage time shared to the cloud.
- Home surveillance – installed video cameras document your activity inside and outside the home, stored on cloud servers.
- Interactive devices – your voice commands and messages from phones (Siri, Now, Cortana), consoles, smart TVs, and Amazon Alexa are recorded and processed on the cloud.
- Grocery loyalty cards – supermarkets track which items you purchase and when.
- E-retailers – retailers like Amazon track not only what you purchase, but what you look at and even think about buying.
- The IRS tracks your financial situation all your life.
- Credit cards – of course, every purchase is tracked. Also mined deeply with sophisticated AI for patterns that reveal your personality, ethnicity, idiosyncracies, politics, and preferences.
- E-wallets and e-banks – aggregators like Mint track your entire financial situation from loans, mortgages, and investments. Wallets like Square and Paypal track all purchases.
- Photo face recognition– Facebook and Google can identify (tag) you in pictures taken by others posted on the web. The location of pictures can identify your location history.
- Web activities – Web advertising cookies track your movements across the web. More than 80 percent of the top thousand sites employ web cookies that follow you wherever you go on the web. Through agreements with ad networks, even sites you did not visit can get information about your viewing history.
- Social media – can identify family members, friends, and friends of friends. Can identify and track your former employers and your current work mates. And how you spend your free time.
- Search browsers – By default Google saves every question you ever asked forever.
- Streaming services – what movies (Netflix), music (Spotify), video (Youtube) you consume and when, and what you rate them. This includes cable companies, your watching history is recorded.
- Book reading – public libraries record your borrowings. Amazon records book purchases forever. Kindle monitors your reading patterns on ebooks.
- Fitness trackers – your physical activity, time of day, sometimes location, often tracked all 24 hours, including when you sleep and when you are awake each day.
This list is getting outdated – fast. The Internet of Things transforms children’s entire environment into a surveillance operation that monitors their data through WiFi-enabled sensors, stores it on the Cloud, and analyzes it for marketing purposes. Even toys are not private anymore. The maker of VTech toys settled a lawsuit after collecting data on hundreds of thousands of kids without parental consent. Mattel’s Hello Barbie doll uses a voice recognition software and artificial intelligence similar to Siri, Alexa, or Google Now.
If a toy like this is compromised, hackers can collect personal information such as the child’s name, address, and habits. And make the doll tell the child anything they want. It’s scary.
The Internet of Things is expanding data collection and profiling in unknown ways. Amazon’s Alexa is ALWAYS listening. The Nest thermostat is recording your patterns of behavior. Fitness trackers are transmitting your biology data to the Cloud. What’s next? Quite likely technology will literally get under our skin. Elon Musk’s latest project Neuralink aims to put a wire in everyone’s head that can download information directly into the brain.
We would not know where our own thoughts end, and manipulation by Artificial Intelligence begins – experts all over sound alarm bells that this may be the end of humanity.
The Matrix is real.
And the Martix of Big Data will know everything about us, starting from the earliest childhood. First, the longer the data history, the more accurate predictions of behavior it can produce – like credit history but a lot more comprehensive.
Second, and scarier reason, is artificial intelligence figuring out childhood insecurities and psychological problems – just think of potential commercial implications of exploiting the deepest human vulnerabilities!
How about childhood traumas so many people have that lead to psychological problems later in life? Can you envision big pharma using this data to market expensive and unnecessary antidepressant drugs to young women after they analyze their middle school social media feed? How many beauty products and diets and plastic surgeries can you sell to someone with body image issues? How many expensive brands and luxury products to someone insecure about their self-worth? How many pills and therapies to the depressed and anxious? The list is endless.
AI pressing the right buttons in the human brain can manipulate human behavior in numerous ways. It already does – a notification ping reliably makes you grab your phone – by design.
In the future, humans can be made to buy, consume, vote, marry, have children, and die the way artificial intelligence tells them to.
I am all for market economy and capitalism – I grew up in the Soviet Union and the idea of government control is quite appalling to me. However, the free market is also about free will of the individual making informed choices for themselves, instead of being controlled and manipulated by the Big Data into making decisions that are not their own. Humans need to remain humans, not degraded to being a resource, like in the movie “The Matrix”, where people are a source of power to the machines, unaware that they are enslaved.
Kevin Kelly’s solution to the total surveillance of Big Data is to make surveillance mutual: watch the watchers. People should know what is being tracked about them and how it is used. And have the right to prohibit certain uses.
For children to participate safely in the digital world their fundamental right to privacy needs to be protected, and parents are the last line of defense. To adequately protect our kids, we need to know the dangers. Parents should educate themselves about privacy threats, and talk to their children about safe behavior online. Digital footprint cannot be erased – so tread lightly.
The general rule of thumb is not to share personally identifiable information like real names and addresses, and not to say anything that they would not say in person. We have many ideas in the Solutions section of our website about how to control the content children consume, and limit their screen time. However, even if they say nothing – as long as kids are online, they are being watched. We can only mitigate the exposure.
Unfortunately, even the smartest of kids do not have the brain maturity to fully comprehend the consequences of sharing their data online.
It’s up to the parents to protect their privacy – or what’s left of it.
Explore existing screen time management solutions here:
Footnotes and sources:
Kevin Kelly The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future
Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay