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Caring Dataveillance: Women's Use of Apps to Monitor Pregnancy and Children

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Abstract

Parents, and particularly mothers, are increasingly using digital media and devices to monitor the progress of pregnancy and the health and development of their children. A plethora of apps is available for these purposes, including those designed for monitoring pregnancy and the health, development and wellbeing of infants and young children. This chapter examines and analyses the implications of these types of monitoring apps for women’s experiences of pregnancy and the care of children, drawing on the findings of two empirical studies involving Australian women. In doing so, two major literatures – dataveillance and feminist new materialism – are brought together to offer new insights into digitised caring practices in relation to children.
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Caring Dataveillance: Women’s Use of Apps to Monitor Pregnancy and Children
Deborah Lupton
Preprint of a chapter to be published in The Routledge Companion to Digital Media and
Children. Edited by Lelia Green, Donell Holloway, Kylie Stevenson, Leslie Haddon and
Tama Leaver.
Introduction
Parents, and particularly mothers, are increasingly using digital media and devices to monitor
the progress of pregnancy and the health and development of their children. A plethora of
apps is available for these purposes, including those designed for monitoring pregnancy and
the health, development and wellbeing of infants and young children (Barassi, 2017; Lupton
& Thomas, 2015; Thomas & Lupton, 2016). The vast majority of these apps are explicitly
designed for the use of mothers, because it is assumed they are more interested and active in
caring for infants and young children. Monitoring opportunities related to foetal development
begin from pre-conception, where apps help women track their ovulation and menstrual
cycles and prepare for conception by optimising the health of their bodies (Lupton, 2015,
2016b). Once pregnancy is achieved, another range of apps encourages women who are
expecting a baby to monitor the development of their foetus, often involving customisation
such as providing a name for the foetus and the expected date of delivery, and the opportunity
to enter into the app details of doctors’ visits and tests. Some apps are specifically directed at
encouraging women to monitor and record foetal movements and heartbeats. Many other
apps are available for caregivers to monitor their infants’ sleeping, feeding, growth and
development.
The broader sociocultural context in which these apps are developed and marketed is that in
which foetuses and young children are represented as vulnerable and precious, requiring high
levels of care and attention to protect them from harm, and where the ‘good mother’ takes
steps to do so (Lupton, 2012, 2014). Women in their reproductive and child-caring life stages
are under intense pressure to conform to the ideal of the ‘digitised reproductive citizen’ who
takes responsibility for finding, generating and using digitised information about pregnancy
and childcare in the interests of protecting and promoting their health, development and
wellbeing (Lupton, 2016b). Critical analysis of the content of pregnancy and parenting apps
has demonstrated that they tend to reproduce and reinforce these norms and expectations
about ‘good’ mothers. (Barassi, 2017; Lupton, 2016b; Lupton & Thomas, 2015; Thomas &
Lupton, 2016). Through the use of apps such as these, as well as other forms of digital media
such as social media and online discussion forums, women are able to actively generate
information about their foetuses and children. They are not simply passively accessing
information, therefore, but creating very personal datasets about their children, some of
which may be shared with others online.
This chapter examines and analyses the implications of these types of monitoring apps for
women’s experiences of pregnancy and the care of children, drawing on the findings of two
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empirical studies involving Australian women. In doing so, two major literatures
dataveillance and feminist new materialism are brought together to offer new insights into
digitised caring practices in relation to children.
The term ‘dataveillance’ refers to conducting watching of people by gathering information
about them, often these days using digital technologies to generate digital data about them
(Raley, 2013; van Dijck, 2014). Many contemporary forms of dataveillance are directed at
children, from pre-birth into adolescence, including the use of apps by mothers for
monitoring foetuses and young children as well as various forms of educational monitoring
once children start attending school (Gard & Lupton, 2017; Lupton & Williamson, 2017).
Digitised and other forms of surveillance are often understood in negative terms as an
authoritarian restriction of autonomy and privacy of those who are being watched (Lupton,
2016a). Much of the scholarly writing on dataveillance adopts a view that positions it as
repressive, invasive or exploitative, conducted by those with power on less-powerful citizens
(Andrejevic, 2013, 2014) as part of the digitised ‘control society’ (Best, 2010). While these
uses of digital data certainly exist and are worthy of critique, the more benign modes of
dataveillance tend to be ignored. When dataveillance is employed as part of familial
relationships and caring practices, the power dynamics can be very different. At the micro-
political level, dataveillance conducted as part of intimate family relationships or other types
of caring relationships can be an expression of love and attentiveness to others who need this
kind of care because of illness (Essén, 2008) or physical dependency, including infants and
children (Leaver, 2017; Levy, 2015) and companion animals (Richardson, Hjorth, Strengers,
& Balmford, 2017).
Adopting a feminist materialist perspective draws attention to these material dimensions of
these forms of dataveillance by acknowledging the more-than-human worlds in which
intimate relationships such as those between mothers and their children are conducted.
Human bodies/selves are viewed as entangled with other humans and with nonhumans such
as digital technologies, and as unbounded and emergent (Barad, 2007; Bennett, 2004, 2010;
Braidotti, 2016; Haraway, 2016). These human-nonhuman assemblages configure a ‘thing-
power’ (Bennett, 2004) that is dynamic and contingent on the time and space through and in
which humans move and the other humans, other living creatures and objects with which they
come into contact. Working together, humans and nonhumans generate thing-power.
Relational connections, affective forces, digital and bodily affordances and agential capacities
are part of this thing-power, inspiring and enacting action, knowledge and responses. This
perspective invites considerations of caring practices that acknowledge that they are more-
than-human and more-than-digital. Viewed through the lens of feminist new materialism
approaches, dataveillance involves continually-changing assemblages of humans-
technologies-data as humans learn to become and live with data (Lupton, 2018).
Details of projects
Only a small number of studies thus far have addressed how women during pregnancy and
the early years of motherhood are using apps. Existing studies have shown that they are
beginning to be used by women in countries as diverse as Germany (Goetz et al., 2017;
Wallwiener et al., 2016), Turkey (Şat & Sozbİr, 2018), and the USA (Tomfohrde & Reinke,
2016). Findings from two research projects involving Australian women are discussed in this
chapter. Project 1 involved a survey and focus groups with women who were either pregnant
or caring for a young child aged three or younger and was specifically focused on how the
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participants used digital media as part of pregnancy and mothering. This project involved an
online survey competed in late 2014 by 410 women around Australia who were either
pregnant or had given birth in the previous three years (full findings can be found in Lupton
& Pedersen, 2016) and a focus group study involving four groups with a total of 36 Sydney
women fitting the same description, which took place in mid-2015 (findings are outlined in
Lupton, 2016c, 2017). Project 2 took place between late 2016 and mid-2017. It included
women across a range of life-stages in interviews and focus groups, and had a broader focus,
asking them about their use of digital technologies for health-related purposes. A total of 66
women participants across Project 2 were involved in either interviews or focus groups about
their use of digital health technologies. Among the participants were women who were
pregnant or caring for young children, including two focus groups of mothers with infants.
Findings
Across the two different projects, it emerged that using digital media for pregnancy and
parenting, as well as for general health-related purposes, was very common. The findings of
Project 1 in both the survey and focus group discussions revealed that digital media were
very important to the participants. They used mobile apps, social media, content-sharing
platforms and online discussion forums to connect with each other and with family members,
post images and other information about their pregnancy and children, track their pregnancy
or their children’s behaviours and development, and learn about pregnancy, infants and
childcare. They commented that they were constantly googling to find information about
their children. Project 2, which included women across the life-stages, revealed that all of
them, regardless of their age, went online to look for health-related information not just for
themselves but for their partners and family members, including young and adult children,
grandchildren and elderly parents. The women were highly digitally engaged in their health-
and caring-related practices, willing and able to confirm to the ideal of the self-responsible
citizen who not only managed her own health but also that of her family members.
Both projects found that many participants who were pregnant or caring for infants and
young children had used pregnancy or parenting apps. The survey conducted for Project 1
found that almost three quarters of respondents had used at least one pregnancy app, while
half reported using at least one parenting app. Participants also talked about using period and
ovulation tracking apps when they were trying to conceive. This practice had encouraged
them to carefully monitor their own bodies in the effort to achieve conception, almost to the
point of obsession, as some of the women in a focus group noted.
Participant: I was very diligent with recording my health when I was trying to get
pregnant. So, you can use an app to record like literally daily symptoms of like, put in
your period and then all kinds of if there's any signs of discharge, if you’ve got a
temperature, you put in all of your details and it tells you when you are at your most
fertile.
Participant: I got a bit obsessive about it. I was told that I wouldn’t be able to fall
pregnant, so I was like obsessively putting information in and checking it. And I don’t
think I would want to use it again, because it was a bit - I was a bit addicted to it.
Participant: I was using it daily and tick if I took my vitamins and ticking off this and
that and it kind of make trying to fall pregnant very scientific and mechanical and it
wasn’t fun. For me it was all about having a baby.
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Women who were pregnant or had young children had used apps for tracking the progress of
their pregnancy and finding information (apps such as Ovia and What to Expect When
You’re Expecting) child vaccination records, infant development monitoring (in particular,
the Wonder Weeks app), and parenting advice (for example, Baby Center). These apps served
a combination of information provision and generating new data about their infants’ health
and development. Some participants mentioned pregnancy apps, including those that showed
the size of the foetus as it grew, comparing it with fruit as a way of helping users
conceptualise the foetus in visual terms. Women who used these kinds of apps described how
the apps helped them to develop a relationship and bond with their foetuses and generate a
sense of excitement about their pregnancy.
Participant: I think it was Pregnancy [app], the one that tracks youryou know, how
far along you are, what’s happening, what’s happening with baby. Yeah, because it
kind of made me feel excited as well, month by month seeing baby grow and all that
kind of stuff.
Participant: I like the app where it says, the baby’s the size of an avocado. Like that
sort of inspires me, it just makes it a little bitbecause you can’t see [the foetus] and
when it’s early you can’t necessarily feel itso it just kind of—I’m a visual person,
so it just helps.
Some of the new mothers in one of the focus groups had a conversation in which they talked
about apps for tracking feeding, nappy changes and sleep. They said that they found these
apps helpful because ‘we’re still new mums’, as one woman put it, and ‘you’re just so tired
all the time’ as another added. A participant in this group went on to note that apps for
tracking their babies can be helpful when they are dealing with trying to note the routines and
behaviour of their babies:
You’re thinking about so many different things, it’s so easy to forget to look at the
clock when they get up from their sleep. Or yeah, to pay attention to the clock. So it
can really help if you’re like, “Why are you cranky? Maybe you’re tired?” … So it
gives you that information that you might not have kind of been able to keep track of
yourself.
These participants went on to describe how they were ‘offloading information’ from their
brains to the app, ‘so you don’t have to rely on your brain so much’. One woman said that if
she went to a child health centre for her baby’s check-up and was asked how many nappies
she went through a day, she could pull out her phone and check it on the app. These
participants described inputting these data in the middle of the night, when changing or
feeding their babies, or first thing in the morning.
In a different focus group, another participant described the distress and tiredness she had
experienced in dealing with her new baby’s needs. For this woman, using infant monitoring
apps was a significant means of coping with these feelings and managing the chaos of her
life. Using digitised monitoring of what appeared to be highly unpredictable and mysterious
behaviour of the infant helped her to gain an understanding of her baby’s needs and patterns,
as well as working towards finding some respite from lack of sleep.
Like when your baby’s screaming when you try to put her to sleep and you don’t
realise youd only fed him two hours ago, so its gone from screaming because she
doesn’t want to sleep to screaming, “Im hungry!” By inputting all that into the apps,
like I know when it was changed last week, when it fed last, how long it slept during
the day, if its teething, then it sleeps less or if its having a good day, it sleeps more.
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Its really good for understanding whats going on with the baby. Yeah, so I at the
moment I just do it for sleep because Im obsessed with sleep as most mothers are and
you can just like so for me, it makes it easy to see like if hes a bit cranky, I’ll look
at the phone and “Oh yeah, hes due for a nap”. So, he has a pattern thats emerged so
he can only really stay awake for two hours before he gets tired. But otherwise I
would lose track of that.
Several women in both projects made specific mention of using the Wonder Weeks app,
which provides information on the cognitive development of infants and how this affects
their behaviour. The women found this app reassuring, as it helped to explain why their
infants may be particularly unsettled:
Participant: So I don’t have the notifications on it or anything, but if [my baby’s] been
real crazy, shitty for no apparent reason, sometimes I’ll check that and be like, “Oh
she’s going through a developmental leap this week and I don’t have to worry about it
she’s okay, so she’s not sick or anything, she's just having a mental growth spurt.”
Which is great.
Participant: Yeah, it’s reassurance isn’t it?
Participant: Yeah, it’s reassuring to be like, “Oh!” And it makes sense because they
change so much!”
Participant: It’s happened to me a couple of times, where I just genuinely do not know
what’s wrong with this child. And then you’re thinking, “Is she teething, is she sick, is
there is she constipated?” Then you’ll [think], OK, well she’s going through a leap
so that is probably the reason.
It was evident from the focus group discussions that new mothers spend far less time thinking
about their own health or searching for information about it online, as they are currently
preoccupied with their infants’ health and wellbeing. As one woman explained:
I know if I'm not feeling well, whereas with [my baby] I don’t know. Is he just being
a baby or is he unwell? Is there something wrong? Whereas with myself, I know if
I've got a cold or whatever. So it’s much more about him than about me.
Those women who had been using self-tracking apps to monitor their health and fitness
before the birth of their babies said that since the birth they have not been interested in using
these devices because their attention has been diverted to their infants’ health and wellbeing.
Their lives had changed so significantly that there was no longer any time or interest in
continuing these practices. Their self-monitoring had become devolved to monitoring of their
infants’ bodies.
Affective responses were key to women’s explanations of their relinquishment of self-
tracking. One woman noted that she had de-activated a fitness tracking app on her phone
because she kept receiving notifications from it that she had not reached her goals, and she
simply wasn’t able to engage any more. Other participants in the same focus group agreed
that such apps ‘make you feel bad about yourself’ or ‘guilty’. One woman suggested that
there should be a ‘baby option’ programmed in the app (‘like holiday mode’) that changed
expectations about step counts or calories expended for new mothers:
Like [my baby’s] having a clingy day today. I could barely put him down this
morning. As if I’m going to get 10,000 steps!
The participants in this group also commented that they didn’t want to track their sleep,
because it would simply be too confronting to document exactly how badly they slept when
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they were disturbed by the needs of their infants. As they found it difficult to eat meals at
regular times and to ensure they were eating nutritious food, these women also didn’t see a
reason to track their own food intake. They felt as if they had not yet ‘had their body back’
and it was difficult to return to the same kinds of fitness routines or eating habits they kept up
before becoming pregnant, because they now had to respond to the demands and needs of
their babies.
Id like to be able to go out for runs in the morning like I used to, but I cant, because
most of the time were still asleep because thats his best sleep, around 7am. Then I
cant leave him at home and I cant go running with him. So I dont go running.
One focus group included women who were struggling with mental health conditions, such as
post-natal anxiety. They suggested that an app that an app that sent them friendly, supportive
reminders to care or take time for themselves and their own health and wellbeing would be an
ideal replacement for the self-tracking apps they had given up using.
Participant: Itd be nice if you had someone to just if you could put an app on your
phone that sends you really lovely friendly messages that were just sporadic
reminders to drink water.
Participant: Just like…
Participant: Eat something healthy today.
Participant: That didnt make you feel bad about yourself.
Discussion
The findings of the two projects provide insights into women’s experiences of engaging in
dataveillance related to pregnancy and motherhood using apps. Expectations that women
should aspire to the ideal of the ‘good’ mother who seeks out knowledge and intensely
monitors the health and wellbeing of her foetus or children existed for decades prior to the
emergence of digital technologies. However, the close and continual tracking that digital
media such as apps can offer provides new opportunities for women to practice this kind of
caring labour, as well as manage the often-chaotic and physically demanding experiences of
living with infants.
Richardson and colleagues (2017) have drawn attention to what they entitle the ‘careful
surveillance’ undertaken of companion animals by the humans who live with them, some of
whom use at-home monitoring cameras to check on the activities of both their children and
their pets. As Richardson et al. point out, this form of monitoring may be asymmetrical and
non-reciprocal, involving the watching of one subject by another, but it is also ‘careful’,
incorporating both caring affects and practices and notions of maintaining responsibility for
the close monitoring of the health, safety and wellbeing of those humans or nonhumans under
one’s care. Richardson and colleagues call for attention to be paid to the ethics of how this
digitised form of care is achieved, and the tension between care and the restriction of freedom
of those who are subjected to dataveillance.
This chapter adopts instead the term ‘caring dataveillance’ as a means of working across the
concepts of dataveillance and caring practices as they are experienced in and with the use of
apps for pregnancy and parenting. Digital devices, in these contexts, become part of the
materialities of care, or the spaces and things that are imbricated in and with caring labour
and caring affects (Brownlie & Spandler, 2018; Buse, Martin, & Nettleton, 2018). The
projects’ findings demonstrate the centrality of relational connections such as those between a
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woman and her unborn or her children to the thing-power of these digitised assemblages.
Affective forces such as the desire for better knowledge and understanding of their foetuses
and babies as well as for intimacy and to successfully perform caring impelled and were
generated in and through women’s app use. Women often took up pregnancy or parenting
monitoring apps to counter their feelings of anxiety, inadequacy, uncertainty, fatigue and loss
of control, and they reported that apps helped them manage and cope with these affects. The
women’s use of these types of apps enabled them to perform acts of maternal caring by
actively preparing their bodies for pregnancy and monitoring the progress of pregnancy and
the behaviours and wellbeing of their infants. The apps helped women develop a sense of
connection with their foetuses and build on their relationships with their infants, supporting
them to better know and understand their foetuses and children. When women were dealing
with the unpredictable and changeable behaviour of their infants, apps that could discern
patterns in the babies’ behaviours and emotional responses enabled them to feel reassured
and more confident in a context in which their own bodies were struggling with tiredness and
coping with the unfamiliar physical demands of providing care to a new infant. Some of this
intense work, including monitoring infants and remembering when they should be next fed,
or put down for a nap, could be devolved to the app.
These findings, therefore, also demonstrate the shared capacities of dataveillance that involve
entanglements of sensory and technological capacities between women, foetus or infant,
device and the data that were generated in and with these assemblages. Maternal caring
involves a set of interembodied practices and affects that is distributed between the
foetal/infant body and that of the mother (Lupton, 2013a, 2013b). By using monitoring apps
to track their reproductive cycles, pregnancies and infants’ bodies, women were
simultaneously monitoring themselves and their children. As the findings demonstrate, when
the participants became mothers, the focus on conducting dataveillance on their own bodies
shifted to the bodies of their infants. Indeed, their capacity to engage in self-surveillance of
their own bodies became limited, as their interests and energies became absorbed into
attempting to understand their babies’ behaviours and meeting their needs.
Caring dataveillance, in this context, was much more than vigilant watching on the part of
women to protect the health of their children. It was a practice directed at attempting to
regain a sense of control over their lives and lessen some of the burden of caring labour. In
this way, caring dataveillance could engender some forms of self-care, while closing off
others. For some women, previous habits of self-tracking their bodies were re-directed to
their babies’ bodies. They had become aware that their lives and bodies had changed so much
that these apps were no longer useful and were generating distressing affects of guilt and
shame, emphasising the negative ways in which their lives had changed following the birth of
their infants. In this context, the thing-power of the apps worked positively towards
enhancing the caring surveillance of pregnancies and infants but against dataveillance of the
post-birth body. The apps generated good but also bad feelings. One solution to this, as
suggested by the focus group of women coping with mental health conditions, was an
imagined app that would encourage new mothers to turn their attention for a while away from
their infants and focus again on themselves, encouraging a benevolent and supportive mode
of self-caring dataveillance.
In conclusion, any discussion of the ethics of caring dataveillance needs to acknowledge that
the agential capacities generated in and through these practices can both open and restrict
freedoms for the watched subjects and also those who engage in watching. Caring
dataveillance can be experienced by women as a liberating practice, but it is undertaken in a
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broader context in which it is demanded of them as part of the norms of ‘good’ (watchful)
motherhood and where their own affective and physical needs may be neglected in the best
interests of their infants.
Acknowledgement
The funding for both projects was provided to the author by the University of Canberra.
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