LTMCO: Big Tech N Babies

By Karine Vann

August 25, 2021



Back in January, I mentioned I was having a baby. Well friends, on January 20, 2021, I gave birth to an actual cherub and I have been mothering it up ever since. It’s worth mentioning that just weeks before my son was born, the state of Massachusetts implemented its new Paid Family Medical Leave program, significant because it marks the first time 1099 contractors and gig workers (like me), a typically invisible workforce, can qualify to receive benefits like maternity and parental bonding leave of up to 11 weeks. So thank you progressive MA voters for practicing what you preach and crafting inclusive legislation that allowed me to take a 3-month maternity leave to be with my son. P.S. If any self-employed, gig working parents-to-be are reading and have questions about how to apply, please write to me.


But I digress.


Mothering is great so far, but not without its challenges, and I think one of the biggest for me has been that many of my concerns about modern life and where we’re headed have intensified.


On some level, I guess this is a normal reaction to having a child. It is not uncommon for new parents to feel fear over a variety of things. However, this fear is usually relegated things like sharp edges, germy countertops, or even a pillow near a sleeping newborn’s face that’s just too close for comfort. (Another digression, if I may: As parents, you are lectured ad nauseum about the risk of SIDS—a horrifying acronym that stands for “Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.” Why it’s called a “syndrome,” I don’t know, since unless you Jesus, death can only happen once. But new parents will learn that any move they make either decreases or increases their child’s chance of literal sudden death. A pillow in the crib, for example, increases risk of SIDS. A fan in the room decreases it. The list goes on.)


Anyway, all this goes to say that the primary category of fear for today’s parent seems to be immediate threats in the physical world. I guess I have those fears, too. But outweighed by my fear of sharp edges are the newer, less visible, yet what I consider more nefarious threats specific to this generation and onward, that result inevitably from the continued incursion of big tech into the lives and psyches of innocent and unsuspecting children.


Parents will spend countless hours wringing their hands over when to start their kid on purées, but when it comes to the psychological consequences of letting small children, who are just learning language, interact with corporate artificial intelligence software, like Alexa… folks, It’s the Wild West.


To be fair, the American Academy of Pediatricians recently upped their recommendations on kids and screen use: It now calls for no screen time at all for children until 18 to 24 months, except for video chatting, and says kids ages 2 to 5 should get an hour or less of screen time per day. But anyone with young family members knows that few parents even come close to implementing these recommendations. And corporations pretend they don’t even exist, and continue finding ways to replace what should be profound and fragile moments of self-discovery and creativity with one-click consumption.


Several weeks ago, a New York-based toy retailer released a new online feature that allows kids as young as 3 years old to shop for gifts and check out with minimal adult oversight. Facebook is plotting to create an Instagram specifically targeting children under 13. Raise your hand if any of that sounds like a good idea.


And yet finding other parents that share my concerns about what’s happening has, so far, been pretty impossible. I am consistently shocked to find that questions about how to safely and ethically incorporate technology into children’s lives get close to zero real estate in online parenting columns.


A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon an organization that shared some of these fears I have. It’s called Fairplay (recently changed from Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood). I’m a pretty big fan about what they preach—I mean when you really read their site, some of the stuff on it is downright subversive. They’re calling out some seriously important stuff, like advocating against the overuse of educational technology, which I’ve never seen anyone do. Typically, the narrative is that schools need more technology (and some really do!). No one ever actually asks, “When is there too much technology?”


At the same time, even they are guilty of the sin of over-dependence on screens, which makes it a bit hard to take some of what they do seriously. I’ve been on their listserv for several months and the poetic irony is that I have yet to see them mention facilitating anything in-person. (Though apparently they are planning an in-person conference at some point in the future!)


Am I overreacting to all this? My gut says no, but at the end of the day, only hindsight can be 20/20. I’m not saying go cold turkey with your kid and technology. This is the world we live in, and until some serious systemic reforms are made, we are all just figuring out how to work with what we’ve got. In the meantime, I continue to be hawkish about sharing imagery of my son to social media channels, which, as a proud, new mom, is a huge temptation nearly every second of the day that I’m constantly having to resist.


Immediate physical threats are not to be brushed off, but at the same time, the solutions are pretty commonplace: Baby proof your home, gate the staircase, cover the plug outlets. But how do you baby proof your child’s brain from corporations trying to hijack them?


Check out all the art and columns of August's Boston Compass at www.issuu.com/bostoncccompass