Parenting & Technology: “Okay Google, How Do I Raise My Kids?”

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Guest post by Tim Steele, husband of our contributor Kristin Steele

In 2014, I wrote how Father’s Day had changed my life, and how daunting it seemed preparing to raise a child in the new digital age. With this year’s Father’s Day fast approaching, I traveled back in time to re-read and revisit my impending parenthood concerns. The good news is, in the last five years I have not broken my daughter (at least not visibly). Technology has changed though. Twitter is no longer limited to 140 characters. Privacy is now a service offered and sold by Apple. Google Glass faded into obscurity, and wearable technology never really made it beyond the watch. Alexa helped us lift our heads out of screens. Smart homes got smarter. Even with my added benefit of working in technology, none of this has made it any less terrifying as I am navigating the minefield of modern-day parenthood. There are still lots of questions I don’t know the answers to, and new concerns as my daughter grows up in an always-connected society. Ultimately, I found that the challenges I am facing today as a parent aren’t necessarily unique, just a little different. In the end, I can find at least one answer from the generations of parents of the past.

modern-day parenting

Before my daughter was born, I had already secured her Google account name. She has yet to log in or send her first email, but by the age of two, she could mumble enough of, “Hey Google” to activate the Google Home sitting in our kitchen. In a bizarre way, Google has become part of our home and part of our family. It acts as some omniscient modern day Speak & Spell, answering questions about words, weather, animal sounds, outer space, and curious thoughts and questions that children come up with as they explore their world. My daughter is four, so she has thousands of questions and curious thoughts. Amazon’s Echo wasn’t released until almost a year after my original article, and I never imagined a world where my daughter would have such easy access to a million answers, yet be surrounded by always-listening microphones. That is the cost of this convenience: she is the product, and Google is building a profile of her before she even understands what Google is. Having a two-year-old with “Google” as part of her vocabulary is the kind of brand-penetration that make marketers dreams become true. Do I unplug the fun speaker that makes animal noises because of scary words like “Big Data” and “Predictive Analytics”? When she gets older, I feel like I am going to have to have a new “the talk” that isn’t about the birds and the bees but about the cost-benefit trade-offs of allowing companies to harvest our data in exchange for modern day convenience. The birds and the bees seems like an easier talk.

In 2014, I was concerned about interactive touch screens taking over, and making sure my daughter was prepared to live in a world of smudged glass. At some point in the last five years, we realized that proliferating screens was not the best way to interact with computers in our day-to-day lives and that using something more natural like our voice was easier. My daughter can’t read or type out a Google search, but she can say, “Okay Google,” and ask it to turn on the basement lights or set a timer. Digital assistants talk to us and respond to us like people, and I have found that it can be very confusing for a child. We have had to explain to my daughter the Roomba is not a pet. It is not a living thing with feelings, and it doesn’t need to be fed. We had a Vector, and my daughter would carry it around, pet it, and talk to it like the dog. She didn’t understand that it wasn’t alive. Robots and technology have started to integrate so tightly into our lives that they have become mundane. It is no longer amazing that my vacuum has more technology in it than the Apollo Lunar rockets. I just get mad at it when it gets stuck under a chair. It has been through the eyes of my daughter, who reminds me to say “Please” and “Thank You” to Google, that makes me realize how Jetson-esque our life is becoming. She is growing up surrounded by robots and artificial intelligence, providing feedback throughout her day, automatically turning lights on and off, and taking over the weekend chores such as mowing the lawn and vacuuming. If that is her normal, what is she going to consider innovative?

raising kids in a digital world

As I stated in my previous article, I have had nurses tell me they experience increased anxiety in parenthood. They can tell you every awful disease that starts with a simple cough. Working in technology, I get insight into what Big Tech is doing to harvest more data. Analytics are getting bigger, predictions are getting better, and it is becoming easier to coerce our behavior. We are losing our free will and our privacy, and as a parent, this is a “cough” that absolutely terrifies me. My Google Photos automatically identifies my daughter. It knows who she is. Every time I take a picture with my daughter on my phone and share it, a little part of me feels like I am betraying her. I am feeding Silicon Valley her data before she even knows what that means or can truly consent to it.

Since I wrote my original article in 2014, privacy and ownership of our data have only gotten worse. Some of these wounds are self-inflicted (i.e., sticking always-listening devices around our house.) Facebook has had a few rough years with data breaches and scandals like Cambridge Analytica, but 2018 as a whole was a really rough year for Silicon Valley. Data breaches are mainstays of our news cycle. Apple is now selling privacy as a feature. Some promising things have happened in the last year, though: the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). Governments have started to step in to protect citizen privacy and our right to our data, and it feels like we are starting to take back ownership of our status updates. That gives me hope for my daughter. I hope it isn’t too little, too late. We live in a society that shares everything – Snapchat and Instagram stories, Facebook Live, YouTube Channels – and we can’t be protected from ourselves. Is she even going to value privacy? I am still not sure how I am going to explain to her that the Internet is permanent, and anything she puts on there will be there forever. Can you imagine having the dumb things you thought, said, and did as a teenager etched into time, never to be truly forgotten?

2014 feels much longer than five years ago. Technology moves fast, and my little girl is starting pre-Kindergarten in August. In 2014, elementary school kids were starting to be issued laptops and iPads. In 2019, elementary school kids have their own iPhones, and I can get status updates on my daughter’s school day via notifications from an App on my phone. In 2014, I was afraid that I was going to have to ask questions that have never been asked before. What I’ve found is that my parents and my parent’s parents also had these feelings. The concept of social media did not exist prior to the year 2000, so there are some things I am facing that are new. However, the answer to social media, technology, and how to raise kids in a fast-paced, digital society is not new. It is the same answer my mom used to give me when I was growing up: “Turn it off and go outside.”

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