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Data vs instinct: how tech is changing parenting

In this week’s episode of Tech Shock, we speak to Victoria Nash, director of the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), for her thoughts on the social implications of the Online Safety Bill – and how the ‘datafication’ of children could be changing the way we parent.

Broad brushes, blunt tools

While there are many reasons why we would want to block particular online content from children and young people, the OII’s research has shown that household-level internet filtering tools are “ineffective”. While these tools themselves are by no means foolproof, children have multiple routes of access to the internet, only some of which go through household devices. Is greater regulation – the Online Safety Bill – the answer?

Not quite, says Victoria – in part because of its reliance on “broad brush” measures such as age verification. Victoria is concerned that services will simply introduce a blanket ban for minors, due to the complexity of creating suitably sophisticated “granular settings” to navigate the different potential levels of maturity and experience within an age range – meaning some children will undoubtedly miss out. Age verification is a “blunt tool”, and “protecting minors may end up cutting off really great benefits of social media user generated content for vast swathes of children”.

A content watershed?

Victoria compares the Bill with the introduction of the broadcasting “watershed”, which specified that certain material “unsuitable for children” could not be televised before 9pm. “[Producers] knew in advance what was in that programme, what aspects might be problematic, and could flag that for parents. With online user generated content… the whole point is that it is unpredictable.” Category filters can prevent certain types of content from appearing in a child’s feed, but there “will always be at the margins questions about whether content does or doesn’t fall into those categories.” 

Tech tools like these have value, and Victoria acknowledges the complexity of striking the balance between “giving parents enough autonomy to make informed choices on behalf of their children, and… having tools that mean [they] don’t have to have detailed understanding of how each and every platform works.” But excluding children entirely is not the answer: exposure to risk is essential to building digital resilience. 

The datafication of children 

We are not the first generation of parents to experience a step change in technology. For example, digital baby monitors have only become commonplace in recent decades. But technology is changing the way we relate to our children in ways we may not even be fully aware of. 

We know that mobile phones can prevent our teenagers from joining in family dinner conversations, but are less aware of how technology has affected our conception of risk, or our reliance on digital prompts to understand our child’s wellbeing. 

Parents’ instincts are being driven down by reliance on “datafication”, a parenting phenomenon Victoria calls “the algorithmic child”. 

Seemingly objective, reliable facts are prioritised over lived experience and understanding of children as people. 

This human connection can’t necessarily be quantified. For example, “excellent teachers genuinely know our children as individuals; not just [their] academic strengths and weaknesses but their personalities, their emotional strengths and weaknesses.” 

This data-driven view ignores the vital context which must inform our moderation of children and the online world. “Sources of data are very useful, but… we should only be using them in the context of all the other information that we have about those children as real human beings.”

While parents should certainly make the most of the tools at their disposal, Victoria advocates: “talking to your children, connecting with them, finding out what they’re seeing, what they’re doing. Those strategies continue to matter, even when you have technical measures in place.”


Listen to episode 32 of Tech Shock: "How is tech changing parenting?"

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