How the Internet of Things is going to change childhood, for good and bad

Are we about to see the emergence of the quantified child? Does the rise of the Internet of Things spell the end of childhood?

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Tomorrow's quantified children might find it difficult to ever feel like they are on their own. Image: iStock
The Internet of Things is going to change childhood.

Parents are going to be able to track where children are, how often they brush their teeth, when their diaper needs changing, what their temperature is (which can tell you everything form when they're getting sick to what mood they'll be in when they wake up), how strong their grip is and how firmly they suck on their dummy (useful child development indicators for how motor skills are developing) - and which movement pattern executed by their motorised rocker puts them to sleep most efficiently.

You could track eye gaze when they're doing their homework and when you're reading them a digitized book - which you can do sitting next to them or from across the world with the right app - and compare that to the attention they pay to games and cartoons they're watching on your tablet or phone, or maybe even when they're talking to real live people.

There's even an app for the Apple Watch that reminds you to "interact with your kid" when they've spent a certain amount of time watching videos on an iOS device; in case they were so quiet you forgot they were there.

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Some of these innovations are great. Every worried parent wants to know when their kid has a fever. Knowing that your kid is underwater because they're wearing a swimband tethered to your phone by Bluetooth could save their life. Tracking gaze when your child is looking at educational software is a good way of finding out if they're engaged and learning things or bored and confused. But will we see competitive eye tracking, with only children showing a certain level of engagement getting into the best schools?

If your baby doesn't sleep through the night that is exhausting and being able to work out whether they sleep better when their room is warmer or colder could give everyone a more restful night. But if you have to travel for work, getting a text message or email every time your child cries is only adding to your stress.

A warning that the sensor in your baby's cot didn't detect any abdominal movement in the last 15 seconds might save a baby's life, or it might terrify the parents every time the sensor gets pulled off. A game that rewards kids for brushing their teeth for the whole two minutes beats standing over them and nagging - or it could be one less chance to talk to your children in a busy day.

The £949 Cambridge Crib has a self-rocking mode (using air pumps and a jet screen) that can rock your baby to sleep while you fall asleep yourself (or more likely catch up on some work).

But all of these advancements lead to the questions: How much of parenting can we automate? And what happens when we do?

New parents want to know how well their child is feeding and growing, and it's common to be told which percentile a baby is in for height and weight and growth and weight gain, but that can turn competitive. That's only going to get worse the more we track.

When these babies grow up, which will they find more embarrassing: pictures of them naked as a baby, or a social network their parents joined that tracked when they first slept through the night without wetting the bed?

Two more big questions are: just how much do we want to track children and who gets to see the data?

If you sign up for 23andMe and give them your DNA so you can find out whether you have a genetic disposition to something unpleasant and the company sells that data in a (hopefully) anonymised data set, that's your own decision. As a parent, do you have the moral right to hand over behavioral tracking information about your children?

And closer to home, how much privacy will you give your kids? The debate about the right level of monitoring of what your children do on their computer at different ages - from which games they play and websites they visit and who they talk to online - could pale before the discussion of how closely to track your children in all these new ways in the physical world, and what the psychological implications might be.

Do you want to get an email or a text every time your child starts crying while you're at work? Will that help parents who go back to work to feel closer to their children, or just more guilty about going back to work? With webcams that can recognize different family members, you'll be able to know what time your kids get in from school, whether they bring a friend with them, which room they're in... You could put an end to arguments over who forgot to shut the fridge door, but do you want to turn your own home into a Panopticon?

John M Ford's Growing Up Weightless is a fascinating books about what it would be like to live on a space station or planetary colony. Think 'surveillance society' and then some. After all, when everything is a pressurized container, you're going to have about as much privacy as you do on a plane - possibly less, because solid and liquid waste is going to be recycled communally rather than pumped out at the end of the flight, so even that might have to be tracked. When opening the wrong door won't just kill a child who wanders outside but might endanger the whole colony, childhood is going to be very circumscribed.

Finding somewhere to be on their own consumes a lot of time and attention for Ford's young protagonists. Tomorrow's quantified children might have the same problem without even going into space.

Read more by Mary Branscombe:

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