Kid tracking apps should avoid feeling like an 'ankle bracelet,' study says

A study from the University of Waterloo recommends tracking technology for children should strike a balance between information and privacy and avoid overwhelming parents with information.

University of Waterloo study says privacy should be major consideration for apps involving kids

Kara Brisson-Boivin of MediaSmarts said tracking technology is becoming increasingly common in classrooms and daycares. (Shutterstock)

From nanny cams to pint-sized fitness trackers to classroom apps, there are many ways parents can keep track of their kids.

But developers making these kinds of surveillance technologies need to balance parents' desire for information with kids' right to privacy, and avoid sending out a non-stop stream of information, according to a new study from the University of Waterloo.

"The main goal of this study was to understand how to deliver this information about children to parents, so that [...] it's not perceived as an ankle bracelet, you know, for their children," said researcher Anastasia Kuzminykh, who is a PhD candidate in computer science at the University of Waterloo.

The three-phase study followed 10 parents over the course of several weeks and used a mix of questions generated through a phone app, semi-structured interviews and Internet-based data collection.

The study found tech was most helpful when it sent parents clusters of information with "actionable points" — for instance, that a child didn't eat lunch and may be hungrier at dinnertime — rather than a constant stream of information, said Kuzminykh.

When parents are confronted with a fire hose of information, "often this technology ends up being abandoned," Kuzminykh said.

The study didn't speak to kids directly, and Kuzminykh noted that further research should incorporate children's thoughts on how to strike the right privacy balance.

Researcher Anastasia Kuzminykh said tracking technology can help parents connect with their children, but cautioned that privacy must be an essential element of any app involving kids. (Submitted by Anastasia Kuzminykh)

'Why do they care?'

Kara Brisson-Boivin, who studies youth in her role as director of research at MediaSmarts, agreed that kids' opinions should be considered when it comes to technology that involves them.

She pointed out that the kids she speaks with are often baffled about why parents and tech companies want to track their activities in the first place.

"The kids are constantly kind of gobsmacked, like, 'Why do they care? Why do you want to know what I did in math class? Why do they want a copy of that math lesson?'" said Brisson-Boivin.

"And I'm not sure that we have a really good answer to give them right now."

Brisson-Boivin noted that kids today can potentially have a digital presence from the moment their parents post an ultrasound photo online. The long-term consequences of doing this aren't yet known, she said.

She said parents should do their homework about what tech they're using and that tech companies themselves should be clear about their terms of service and give parents options about what kinds of tracking they can opt in and out of.

Opting out of tracking technology entirely is another valid option — though it may be difficult to do, she said.

"Parents and youth have to sort of actively ask themselves, 'Is this something I want to do?'" she said.

"If not, what are the processes in place for me to inquire about alternative means of engaging in the classroom?"

Kara Brisson-Boivin said technology that tracks children should have very clear terms of service so that parents understand what they're signing up for. (Submitted by Kara Brisson-Boivin)


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