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Mascheroni, G. (2018). Researching datafied children as data citizens.
Journal of Children and Media, 12(4). DOI:
Researching datafied children as data citizens
Three years after Kathryn Montgomery’s illuminating analysis of the ways in which Big
Data practices and imaginaries are re-shaping children’s media cultures in this journal
(2015), a host of new internet-connected and sensor-equipped products have been
created especially for children and their parents. The range of IoT (Internet of Things)
products for childhood includes such items as: baby wearables that monitor the baby’s
biometric data, health parameters and behavioural patterns (sleep, feed, change
patterns), and sell the promise of “peace of mind” to anxious parents; smart watches that
track children’s whereabouts; the Internet of Toys (IoToys), which includes dolls and
teddy bears equipped with voice and image recognition (such as Hello Barbie, My
Friend Cayla, CloudPets); robots, drones or other mechanical toys that are remotely
controlled and/or programmable through apps (such as Anki Cozmo, Sphero SPRK and
Dash &Dot); puzzle and building blocks (such as Osmo); arts-to-life products (such as
Play-Doh Touch); outdoor physical toys (such as the Springfree Trampoline); and teddy
bears that monitor the child’s health parameters (such as Teddy the Guardian). Thanks
to network connectivity and sensors, these new playthings collect play data, along with
personal data about children and their parents, and, potentially, data on the surrounding
Once things become connected to the internet and embedded with sensors and
electronics that support the generation and exchange of data, they are turned into media
that “mediate what has not been mediated before” (Buntz & Meikle, 2018, p. 18). As a
consequence, the very experience and meaning of being “online” is reconfigured.
Whereas being online may be characterised as discontinuous, “being connected is a
continuous experience” (Isin & Ruppert, 2015, p. 27). We generate a continuous flow of
digital traces as we move through, and across offline and online worlds, to the point that
datafication (defined as the ability to transform almost every aspect of social life into
online data, and thus quantify it) and dataveillance (the continuous surveillance of
citizens/consumers’ practices that datafication enables) now form for many the “general
background of everyday life” (Couldry and Hepp, 2017: 124).
Hence, the expansion of sensor-based networked objects aimed at younger
children and their families gives shape to a “datafied environment” (Hintz, Dencik &
Wahl-Jorgensen, 2017, p. 732) that sets the condition for the ubiquitous quantification
of children’s lives. We have now entered “a world of near-ubiquitous data collection”
(Montgomery, 2015, p. 267) in which behaviour, emotions, connections, and ultimately
people themselves, become collectable, quantifiable, predictable and monetised (Van
Dijck, 2014). Users of internet-connected things, including children, are turned into “a
resource that creates data” (Bunz & Meikle, 2018, 31): data are stored in corporate
platforms, aggregated and compared with other users’ data to profile and classify users,
and analysed through proprietary algorithmic models so as to predict future behaviour.
Under surveillance capitalism (Zuboff, 2015) and its data-driven business models,
children are situated as both consumers of products and services, as well as producers of
data. Child-focussed adtech (advertising technology, including the use of digital tools
such as trackers and data analytics) company SuperAwesome recently revealed that
children are exposed to between one and two million trackers per year, collecting
around five million data points. By the time a child has turned 13, this rises up to 72
million data points “collected by adult adtech delivering ads into kids and family digital
content” (Harris, 2017).
The implications of dataveillance for children’s privacy have been high on the
agenda over the last three years. The privacy risks of the Internet of Toys have been
exposed on a number of occasions, including: the Hello Barbie and VTech data hacks in
late 2015 (Holloway & Green, 2016); the privacy and security failures of My Friend
Cayla and i-Que Intelligent Robot reported by the #toyfailcampaign of the Norwegian
Consumer Council in 2016 (Mascheroni & Holloway, 2017); and the leak of over
800,000 user passwords and two million messages recorded by parents and children and
exchanged via CloudPet (Franceschi-Bicchierai, 2017).
Nonetheless, in what follows I would like to make the argument that most of the
public and academic discourses around the datafication of childhood have been
characterised by three shortcomings, namely: immediacy, atomism and essentialism.
This brings me to suggest a theoretical and methodological approach to the study of the
datafication of childhood that would frame the social, cultural and ethical issues arising
from internet-connected toys, wearables and other IoT devices as a matter of
citizenship. That is, by asking how the internet, and the Internet of Things more
specifically, is re-signifying political subjectivities, including those of children, and the
conditions under which citizen subjects claim their rights (Isin & Ruppert, 2015).
The first limitation in the current discourse concerns what, based on Ruppert,
Isin and Bigo (2017), I call “the immediacy” that pervades many responses to the
datafication of children’s lives. Media representations of the privacy risks of IoToys
epitomise such fear-based, immediate reactions to the threats of dataveillance. The
discursive constructions of IoToys that adhere to a framework of immediacy are also
characterised by a second limitation, that is, atomism or epistemological individualism.
Most media discourses frame privacy risks as individual rather than social problems and
depict parents as individually responsible for protecting their children’s data
(Mascheroni & Holloway, 2017).
The vulnerability of children’s data stored in unsafe corporate platforms, the
non-transparent sharing of data with third parties, and predictive marketing certainly
pose serious concerns. However, focussing on privacy as an individual problem risks
shifting the attention from the broader social implications of datafication for children’s
futures, in favour of individualistic and immediate frames. The question is the re-
positioning of children both in the market, as digital consumers and digital labourers
(Holloway, in press), and in society, as citizen. Beyond an intensified commodification
of children’s media cultures (Montgomery, 2015) that results from the extension of the
surveillance business model of social media to almost every sphere of social life (Bunz
& Meikle, 2018; Van Dijck & Poell, 2013), concerns have been raised over children’s
rights and future life chances (Livingstone & Third, 2017; Lupton & Williamson, 2017).
Based on such premises, and in the attempt to move beyond both immediacy and
atomism by looking at longer-term and social consequences, I agree with those
approaches that frame the datafication of everyday lives, including those of children, as
also and fundamentally a matter of citizenship (Hintz et al., 2017; Isin & Ruppert, 2015;
on children see Barassi, in press). Predictive analytics of the data collected since a child
is in her mother’s womb can structure, and potentially circumscribe, her access to
resources and opportunities once she grows up. As already pointed out by Kathryn
Montgomery, the continual generation, collection and measurement of data about
children gives shape to “‘digital dossiers’ that could follow young people into
adulthood, affecting their access to education, employment, healthcare, and financial
services” (2015, p. 268). Through algorithmic-based social sorting users are temporarily
assigned to “measurable types” (Cheney-Lippold, 2017) – that is, mutable, dynamic and
proprietary classifications based on how algorithms compare an individual’s own data
to pre-existing models of a “child”, a “woman”, a “citizen”, etc. Such algorithmic
identifications not only represent and speak for users, but also regulate them by
discursively mapping out the structure of opportunities and constraints available to
specific “measurable types”.
Beyond automating their access to resources, datafication and dataveillance are
transforming the conditions under which people, children included, enact themselves as
citizen subjects. One may argue that young children are not yet capable of positioning
themselves as citizen subjects. However, even if we conceive of children as “non-yet-
citizens” or partial citizens, whose social media presence and digital dossier is often
initiated by their parents before they are born (Barassi, 2017; Leaver, 2017), we should
nonetheless interrogate how they are socialised into surveillance culture - either
through their own engagement with IoToys, IoT devices and digital media use more
generally, or their parents’ practices of sharenting (the oversharing of information about
their children by parents on social media (see Blum-Ross & Livingstone, 2017)) – and
with what consequences. “Surveillance culture” means that surveillance is now
normalised and domesticated and “forms part of everyday reflections on how things are
and of the repertoire of everyday practices” (Lyon, 2017, p. 825). Surveillance
imaginaries include notions of transparency and openness (Isin & Ruppert, 2015; Van
Dijck, 2013) that render data sharing not only socially legitimised, but also desirable
and normative. As a consequence of their growing up amidst a surveillance culture,
children become “calculable persons” (Lupton & Williamson, 2017) who are
simultaneously calculated by adults and, increasingly, by a vast array of IoTs, but who
are also socialised into surveillance imaginaries and practices. “These calculating
children are both calculated and metricized as data traces, but also encouraged to
calculate about themselves through encountering their own data” as Lupton and
Williamson write (2017, 787). They incorporate what we might call a “quantified
habitus”, learn how to share mundane aspects of their daily lives, and how to measure
their bodies and activities against the backdrop of standard measures, in order to
improve their performances in every field (be it education, sport, gaming, or even
popularity on social media).
This leads to the third short-coming of debates around datafication that I would
like to address here, that is, the risk of essentialist generalizations and deterministic
assumptions. In framing datafication as a matter of citizenship, I do not mean to suggest
that children should be considered as “passive data subjects” (Isin & Ruppert, 2015, p.
4), nor that datafication is homogenously experienced or produces uniform effects on
children. While under many circumstances governments and corporations “compel
citizen subjects to constitute themselves as data subjects” (Isin & Ruppert, 2015, p. 90),
conceiving of datafication as an all-powerful, uncontested and universal force may
obscure how data practices are reconfiguring citizenship, primarily for those who are
considered as citizens-in-the-making.
Within critical data studies, and media studies more generally, a call for the need
to de-essentialise the study of datafication, through a focus on agency (Couldry &
Powell, 2014) and the material contexts of data practices (Kennedy & Bates, 2017;
Kennedy et al., 2015) has emerged. Non-media-centric approaches to datafication
(Couldry, 2012; Couldry & Hepp, 2017) foreground the social practices through which
digital traces are produced, negotiated, resisted and made sense of in the context of
everyday life. How people experience datafication in their everyday encounters with
tools that measure their digital presence; how they enact, or resist to, surveillance
practices; how digital footprints are entangled with socially situated practices and power
relations: these are some of the research questions that a non-media-centric approach
invites us to address.
In line with this approach, bringing the digital citizen to the centre of our
concern helps to distance ourselves from essentialist understandings of the datafied
child as a homogenous category of “passive data subjects” (Isin & Ruppert, 2015, p. 4)
and foregrounds the socio-technical contexts – the material artefacts, the communicative
and social practices and the organisational arrangements as defined by Lievrouw and
Livingstone (2006) – in which digital citizens are embedded and perform themselves.
Isin and Ruppert define digital citizens not as a pre-existing and pre-constituted entity or
capacity, such as the ability to participate in society through the internet. Rather, they
understand citizens as both subjects of power and constraints. Accordingly, digital
citizenship is defined as being constructed partly through automated social sorting that
mobilises citizens as “objects of data (about whom data is produced)”, and partly
through the enactments of users as “subjects of data (those whose engagement drives
how data is produced)” (Ruppert, Isin & Bigo, 2017, p.3). Citizens enact themselves as
(digital) citizen subjects by making rights claims, that is in their subject position as
bearers and claimers of rights. “The citizen subject is both a result and an effect of
making claims about rights that may or may not yet exist.” (Isin & Ruppert, 2015, p. 62)
Framing citizenship not only as a legal status, but a performative, processual and
socially situated practice “opens up possibilities for thinking about children and young
people as citizen-subjects” (Third & Collin, 2016). Because of their ambivalent position
as citizens-in-the-making and boundary-marking figures who problematize notions of
citizenship, rights and the digital (including the online and offline as distinct categories)
(Livingstone & Third, 2017), children are more likely to engage in potentially
disruptive acts of citizenship. Their digital acts, and their digital rights claiming, are
potentially transformative of the practices and norms of doing (digital) citizenship.
Children’s data practices have an imaginative value, opening up the space for diverse
rights claims. For example, children’s engagement with social media shows how the
rights for privacy and freedom of expression are contested and potentially conflicting.
And it is in the context of the everyday that the potentialities for contesting acts of
citizenship emerge (Third & Collin, 2016), which plant the seeds for alternative
framings of datafication that incorporate, contest and move beyond an exclusive focus
on data subjects’ right to privacy.
Taking the view that datafication constitutes a matter of citizenship also has
methodological implications, insofar as it should encourage children and media scholars
to embrace a broader research agenda (Livingstone & Third, 2017) and devise novel
approaches to data collection and analysis. While the algorithmic calculations are
proprietary and, therefore, remain opaque to investigation, digital media and
datafication provide new sources of data and expand the methodological toolkit for
researching children and media (Foucault Welles, 2016) and documenting their lives
(Thomson, Berriman, & Bragg, 2018). However, digital methods also present
researchers with new epistemological and ethical challenges, first and foremost the
temptation to assume “big data” as more accurate and objective data that speak for
themselves (boyd & Crawford, 2012). In this respect, the focus on data practices and
acts of citizenship can and should complement digital methods and help to avoid the de-
contextualisation of media practices. As the calls to de-essentialise our theorisations of
the social consequences of datafication suggest, a focus on data practices is much
needed in order to overcome the “discursive reductionism” (Storm-Mathisen, 2016) of
much research in the field so far. Such a practice-based approach should take into
consideration the complex entanglements between the digital and the material – that is,
the digital materialities (Pink, Ardèvol & Lanzeni, 2016) – that emerge within everyday
practices. The practices through which children engage with IoToys and other IoT
objects are always embedded and embodied and involve the encounter with both the
digital and the material dimensions of such technologies. Children’s data are produced
as the outcome of their use of IoToys and IoTs devices, in ways that are never
completely determined by the technology and its agency as a tool for datafication, but
always socially situated.
To conclude, I have argued here for an understanding of datafication as a
question of citizenship, that would recognise children and their parents as both passive
and agentic data citizens. Theoretically and methodologically, this approach would
attune children and media studies with the contemporary calls for a non-media-centric
approach to datafication that contextualises digital footprints within the texture of
everyday life (Couldry & Hepp, 2017).
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