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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

What You Should Know About Big Data and Parenting: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

It’s impossible to ignore the ongoing cultural obsession with big data. Over the past few years, big data has steadily become the most talked-about technology in the corporate world, only recently being replaced by the “internet of things,” according to Gartner’s 2014 Hype Cycle of Emerging Technologies.

Big data is the effort to use the huge amount of data that contemporary technology enables us to collect in order to make more informed decisions about, well, everything. For-profit companies, nonprofit organizations, state, local, and federal government agencies, healthcare providers, and more can all use big data programs to mine the data they collect and learn about the people they serve, their employees’ productivity, their internal processes and finances—essentially any activity that ends up as a piece of data in a database.

It’s not surprising that the general public is starting to pay attention to the relationship between big data and parenting. Parents are always looking for better ways to keep their children safe, healthy, and happy, and those with expendable income are willing to pay endlessly to do so. From a marketing standpoint, parents are lucrative group to reach.

This puts parents in an interesting position, though. On one hand, big data could help us be more informed—we could potentially know more about our children’s health as babies, their academic performance as kids, and their whereabouts and unauthorized purchases as teens. On the other hand, big data allows marketers to use our personal information to try to convince us to buy stuff (even more so than they are now). So, it’s crucial that all parents understand exactly how their family fits into the big data revolution.

Fortunately, many brilliant people are thinking and writing about this right now. I scoured the internet in an attempt to round up a variety of perspectives on big data and parenting and how it could potentially harm or help us and our children. Here’s what I found.

The Good

Hospitals and parents begin capturing data about children pre-birth, and parents know that those first few months of life with baby typically involve a lot of data gathering: frequency and length of sleeping, frequency and quantity of feeding, frequency of diaper changes, and so on. All of this data is collected in a frantic attempt to identify patterns and assure yourself that your baby is normal, healthy, and will eventually let you sleep for more than 45-minute stretches at a time.

A number of apps have been developed to make this process easier, from the most basic data-recording iPhone app (like Medela’s iBreastfeed) to the forthcoming Sproutling, a “FitBit for babies” that measures vital signs and provides predictions, based on patterns, about when baby will wake up and what type of mood she’ll wake up in. Other apps, like Evoz, go to the next level: automating data collection by capturing it periodically over Wi-Fi and, once the user base gets large enough, enabling parents to see how their child’s behaviors compare to those of other children his age.

Once children outgrow their cribs, big data follows them into the classroom, allowing educators to measure students’ performance over long periods of time, assess what subjects they’ve truly mastered, and evaluate the long-term effectiveness of teachers. Big data applications could eventually allow administrators to optimize student-teacher pairings, predict skills gaps and reorganize accordingly, and generally improve teachers’ ability to pinpoint not just when students are struggling, but why and how.

From a health and education perspective, big data could mean big things for parents and teachers who want to make our children healthy and well-prepared for adult life.

The Bad

Of course, this massive effort to collect information about our kids should raise a big red flag for parents, because we’re all in agreement that our children aren’t data points. They’re human beings—vulnerable ones!—and we want to protect them.

In her article “Big Brother: Meet the Parents,” Stephanie Simon of POLITICO chronicles the backlash against the collection of student data. A retired math teacher’s comments provide a good summary of parents’ concerns: “We don’t know what they’re tracking and we don’t know what the implications are going to be for these children in the future[…]Going for jobs in the future, trying to get into college—we’re in uncharted territory and we just don’t know the implication it’s going to have for the children.” While laws like the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) exist to protect students’ identities and personal information, it’s clear that educators and policy makers need to do a better job at communicating with parents about how they’re collecting data, what they’re doing with it, and how it will benefit their kids.

But the potentially harmful implications of big data go beyond privacy concerns. A number of experts have pointed out that “data-driven parenting applications” prey upon and potentially increase parental anxieties, making us more anxious and stressed out, not more informed and confident. These applications may collect data, but, as any smartphone user knows, devices break, fail, present errors, and, unless we know what to do with that data, may provide relatively little value. In a blog post last year, pediatrician Claire McCarthy admits that she worries that “the latest gadgets will make parents even more anxious—and make them feel like they have to be staring at their gadgets all the time, like they have to know everything that is happening with their children every single second to be good parents. That’s not helpful—and could set parents up for some really unhealthy habits as their children grow.”

The Ugly

McCarthy’s concern points to a larger issue, the one at the heart of many parents’ and doctors’ concerns with big data and parenting: The human element—a parent’s intuition, the complex, indescribable mental connection between a parent and child—is a vital component of knowing, understanding, and caring for your child (at all ages).

When the real human behind the data is ignored, things get ugly—fast. And, though I’m a marketer myself, I have to admit that marketers and advertisers are the biggest perpetrators of poorly executed and insensitive applications of big data to parenting.

I’ve written about my frustrations being marketed to as an expectant and new mother before, but my minor grievances pale in comparison to that of April Salazar, contributor to The New York Times’ Motherlode blog. Salazar terminated her pregnancy at five months because her son had a fatal birth defect. Then, a few weeks before what would have been her due date, she received a sample of Enfamil baby formula with a pre-printed postcard reading, “You’re almost there!” A cruel, heartbreaking reminder of her difficult decision.

I remember receiving samples and “congratulatory notes” from baby formula companies like these. As Nathalia Holt points out in her must-read article for The Atlantic, “Bump Tracker: Nine Months of Big Data,” brands that target pregnant women and new parents mine women’s social media posts, newsletter sign-ups, magazine subscriptions—anything they can—to figure out if they’re pregnant, when they’re due, and what type of parent they’ll become. Brands use this information to send mothers coupons and encourage them to develop loyalty to their products. As Holt points out in her article, “An expectant mother’s data is worth fifteen times that of the average person’s. Merchants know that a new baby means that serious purchases are about to be made and that brand loyalty, often acquired before the baby arrives, can yield years of dependable purchasing.”

So, using big data to find the right buyers, particularly when those buyers are parents, is a strategy with a good ROI. But it fails to take into account miscarriages, pregnancy complications, and personal choices—elements of actual life that aren’t metrics or data points. And that small oversight reveals the big problem with big data.

I’m certainly not against data collection. If big data can help me be a better parent, keep my son safe and healthy, and make the best decisions for my family, I’m all for it. But my comfort level is a direct result of my demographics: I’m educated. I have a general understanding of big data. I’m a marketer who understands how companies target consumers. I know how to protect my identity, at least to some degree, online. The bottom line is: Parents must educate themselves on how data collected about themselves and their children can and will be used, hold brands and legislators accountable, and demand transparent communication and appropriate protection of data.

In a guest post for VentureBeat, Lynette Owens, founder of Trend Micro’s Internet Safety for Kids and Families program, writes “My wish? That parents remain the final arbiters of all data collection in any form and in any way on our kids. The more informed we are of what’s being tracked and why, the better we can make the best choices to keep our kids safe in a world where big data looms large.”

My thoughts exactly.

Photo courtesy of Justgrimes.