Pixel Parenting: Protecting the Data of Gen Alpha

Of parenthood’s myriad challenges, negotiating a digital world with children has to be high up on the list. Making this now ubiquitous landscape safe for a generation that is ‘digitally native’ yet simultaneously not old enough to understand the implications of online behaviour makes for a complicated equation. This is especially true when we consider that many of us are only just now questioning our own digital behaviour, the issue of data collection and the role of big tech in shilling our private information to interested parties.

Data is no longer an impersonal set of numbers; each piece of information gathered from us is a brick in a psychanalytical puzzle that puts together our identities for monetisation purposes. For parents of ‘Generation Alpha’, regaining or retaining privacy around their children’s digital presence on digital platforms, often retrospectively at this point, can be challenging. In the past year, TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance, Google and YouTube have all been fined for selling young users’ data to third-party advertisers.

According to research from Wunderman Thompson Data, 53 per cent of American parents are “very concerned” about the security of their children’s pictures, with 92 per cent of children under two in the US having an online presence; albeit largely a result of parents’ innocuous urges to share pictures and pride in one’s children. Whether you’re telling the world you’ve had a baby, boasting about their first tooth or just putting up a photo of a family day out, this ‘sharenting’ leads to complexities around children’s right to privacy.

This flow of data makes children uniquely valuable to companies, and also means their digital footprint can extend beyond their parents’ control. With the potential for information they’re neither aware of (or have consented to share) remaining online indefinitely there are definite implications for later impact on education, employment and identity theft.In America, lawmakers are revisiting the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act potentially to allow parents to erase the data that companies have on their children. But what are the tech giants themselves doing to address this situation? Not enough, I’d argue with many, only been driven into action by lawsuits, rather than a fundamental need to protect.

Amazon’s answer has been to create a safe, digital ‘walled garden’ across the child-friendly versions of its smart devices, ad-free content and new privacy features on its Echo Dot Kids Edition. Facebook’s Messenger Kids took a different route, making its privacy policy more easily understandable and tweaked its parental controls. However, as industry observers noted, there is still plenty of room within this seeming goodwill to collect and share private information.

A new wave of companies though may offer the future, building their entire concept around privacy itself. London-based Yoto, for example, has recently launched an audio player that gets rid of camera, microphone and ads and runs instead on Near Field Communication (NFC)-enabled cards – the same technology that enables contactless payments. Can such perspectives and products offer a much-needed safety net for Generation Alpha? Or will big tech continue to offload all the responsibility onto parents, requiring them to negotiate this pixelated minefield while protecting their children’s identities and futures in an increasingly complex and ever-changing world? Only time will tell.

We have to plan for the future use of data