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When is too much monitoring?

UW researchers looking to find the sweet spot where technology is useful, but without too much loss of privacy


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Steve Kannon
Steve Kannonhttps://www.observerxtra.com
A community newspaper journalist for more than two decades, Steve Kannon is the editor of the Observer.

In the age of helicopter parenting and invasive monitoring technology, is there such a thing as information overload for today’s parents?

Apparently so, says a new study by researchers at the University of Waterloo looking into human-computer interaction.

The study examined the use of technologies such as GPS, fitness trackers and surveillance applications and the best ways these can be used to inform parents while respecting privacy. In looking at ways to design such technologies, the researchers found parents are looking for balance.

“In looking at how parents want to be updated about their children in settings like daycares, it’s clear they don’t want a constant stream of information on what is happening minute to minute, even though that’s now possible,” said Anastasia Kuzminykh, a PhD candidate in Waterloo’s David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science. “Instead, parents prefer summary information, a recounting of what has happened during the time apart from their children.”

Advances in technology have made real-time monitoring possible, but applications aren’t always in tune with actual demand, she suggests.

“It’s a matter of what’s needed versus what’s possible.”

There are endless streams of data that could be made available to parents, but many are interested in a balance that doesn’t overwhelm them while maintaining privacy concerns.

Parents differ widely in what they think is appropriate when it comes to monitoring their children with the use of technology, Kuzminykh notes.

“At the end of the day, it’s a personal choice for a parent,” she said of using technology, adding there are pragmatic reasons for such concerns. A live video feed from the home or daycare centre, for instance, would require parents to sit and watch it constantly – that’s not really feasible.

“Parents do struggle with the need to check in on this information.”

Noting that parents prefer relevant information provided in summary form, she said the key is for technology developers to match those needs.

Of course, not all parents are eager to adopt these technologies or to be overly invasive.

“There are polarized opinions and attitudes towards this kind of technology,” she said, noting some parents are simply opposed to “spying” on their kids.

[Stock image]
The researchers undertook a three-phase study that examined the information needs of parents with young children. The first of the three was ‘experience sampling,’ in which participants were prompted three times a day over several weeks through a specialized mobile phone app to systematically self-report about their children.
They were asked questions such as: Where is your child right now? Describe your child’s mood the last time you saw them. How worried are you about your child right now? If we could provide you with information about your child right now, what would you like to know?

During the second phase, the researchers conducted a series of interviews with some of the participants.

Finally, the researchers carried out Internet-based data collection involving both advocates and detractors of surveillance technologies and child GPS technologies in particular.

Based on data gathered from the three-phase study, the information needs of parents were grouped into specific categories: routine information, health information, daily activities and social and emotional information.

Figuring out which was important and how to present that to parents is the goal, said Kuzminykh. The end goal of her research is developing monitoring systems that meet people’s needs.

“We as technology designers need to … design it so that it meets all of those needs, but doesn’t violate privacy, personal space.”

There are many types of systems, and they all raise questions about privacy.

Parents do differentiate between overt uses of technology – e.g. video cameras around the house or GPS trackers – and covert uses, such as a tracking app on a smartphone.

The research indicated parents so have concerns about contributing to a growing surveillance state, for instance. The information collected by monitoring systems ends up in the cloud, so others could gain access to it, be they hackers or the service providers and anyone they might be selling information to.

“Ethics is a huge part of it,” she said of the development of the technology.

With that in mind, feedback from users will help to not only make the systems more usable, but perhaps weed out the most troublesome of the surveillance aspects. The technology is in its infancy, and it will evolve with feedback from the public over time, Kuzminykh suggests.

Her latest research involves parents, children and privacy, specifically on how parents’ use of sharing technologies such as blogs and social media impact their children’s privacy, and the footprints such postings leave behind.

Again, the aim is to help systems designers find a balance.

“What we’re trying to do is to decide what are the underlying needs … versus privacy.”

The monitoring research she’s carried out has led to a list of future refinements to the technology.

A paper detailing the design recommendations titled How Much is Too Much? Understanding the Information Needs of Parents of Young Children, authored by Kuzminykh and her supervisor in Waterloo’s Faculty of Mathematics, Professor Edward Lank, was published recently in the Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies.

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