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Mommy, Daddy, and Their Precious Little Bundle of Data

How information collection, obsessive apps, and technological advances are making parents more paranoid than ever

When I was born, in 1987, the most high-tech piece of equipment available to my parents was the baby monitor. Today, there is no shortage of technology for perfecting parenting. There are smart baby beds, robotic nannies, and monitors that act as Fitbits for infants. There are heart-rate readers so parents can always know that their children are functioning normally. And now there’s Aristotle, a just-released device from Mattel that collects data about children and keeps parents informed about everything from their sleep schedule to what to buy them.

For those grown babies, there is the growing field of teen-tracking tech, marketed toward parents seeking to create a kind of familial surveillance state. There is a variety of products that follow where and how teens are driving, while others spy on their digital footsteps.

But even before your offspring has taken worldly form, technology can help optimize parenting. Pregnant women can use Belly Armor to shield their unborn babies from laptop radiation. There is an array of belts meant to be strapped to bellies that play music. You can even perform at-home ultrasounds. Technology has transformed parenting from a homespun or Dr. Spock–guided process into a data collection service that rivals CIA practices. Of course, this new market is accessible only to those who can afford it, likely the same subset of people who can spend money on quantifying themselves. The result is that modern parenting, like all things tech-connected, is becoming more paranoid by the day.

Before I go any further, I should add a disclaimer: I am not nor have I ever been a parent. I don’t know the crushing anxieties or ecstatic thrills that go along with creating and helping shape a human life. I have no idea what it means to be so fully invested in another person because you made that person, and to be responsible for their happiness, success, and safety. I did ask my parents about it, though.

"In general, everything."

That was my parents’ response when I asked them to name the hardest part of raising me. "We felt completely responsible for every aspect of your safety, health, and happiness. [And] we wanted to make sure you grew up to be a good person. … Also, we did our best to keep you from getting brain damage when you would hit your head on marble tables because you were upset." (It’s true, I did this; I’ve got the flat spot to prove it.)

My parents said that if baby Fitbits and sleep quantifiers were available to them at the time, they would likely have strapped me up with them. Why not? They’d do everything possible to ensure their daughter grew up to be healthy and happy.

And justifiably so — I was not an easy infant. I was born a month late — my poor mother carried me for 10 months — with a backward foot and scaley, broken skin. The doctors rushed me away from my first-time parents immediately so they could check if I had brain damage, and also to immediately break my foot and reset it to undo what damage had been done by my being "overcooked." My 25- and 27-year-old parents were at least a little traumatized by this, and the years of doctor’s appointments that followed were like the analog version of self-monitoring a child. Of course they would have loaded me up with health and wellness trackers.

But what about the after-the-baby part — What about me as a teenager? I asked. "Clearly we don’t have enough time to answer this question to its fullest, but the lack of information and misleading information from teenagers is the hardest thing for all parents," they said. (This was a very generous and partisan answer that I can translate as, "You were not great.")

As a teenager, I was a good student who sang in choir and played sports, but I also had older boyfriends and did some underage drinking. Once, a group of friends and I stole away to a hotel at the beach and lied to our parents about our destination. A left-behind printout of Google Maps directions tipped off one set of parents, and they quickly spread the news; as we were driving back, we learned our fate. On a separate beach weekend — also preempted by a lie to my parents (I am really sorry, Mom and Dad) — I successfully made it back without anyone being the wiser. That is, until I left an AIM chat session I was having with one of my coconspirators open; my dad discovered it and read about the whole thing. It’s memories like this that make me know: Were I a teenager today, my parents would almost certainly track my every move.

But would it have been good for me? For them?

It’s been well documented that the quantified-self movement has undeniably made us rather paranoid as a society. The simplest way to explain quantified self is to call it by its other name — lifelogging. By using devices, wearables, and other information-tracking systems, consumers can collect various data points and analyze their bodies and minds. Self-interest (or is it narcissism?) motivates people to track and trace their physicality to understand and improve results by asking questions: Do I sleep too much or too little? Am I burning too few or too many calories? What does this blip in this chart mean about the health of my pelvic floor? There is a difference between using technology to diagnose an ailment and seeking out numbers and stats about your body’s processes that you would otherwise never have — this doesn’t mean doing so is bad or good, it’s just a new level of knowledge and, in some cases, self-obsession.

It’s likely that there is someone alive today who will have their entire life quantified by technology. From birth — or maybe even before it — they were being tracked and their data was being logged via apps, or maybe with the help of electronics and some devoted parents’ use of spreadsheets.

Frank Furedi, a sociologist who has written a book about parenting, thinks there are three major problems with data-hoarding parenting technology. One, it doesn’t always work. "Tracking technology is no better or no worse than burglar alarms that can send the wrong signals; so there is that sense that relying on this technology itself creates a lot of problems."

Second, there’s what can happen as a result of these false alarms. "If the technology says there is something wrong, then you become needlessly worried."

Last is the biggie. He said it makes parents obsessed with their children. "They live through them even more," Furedi said. "If you have a webcam in a day care and you can see your child while you’re working, you find yourself looking more and more at the webcam to see what little Mary is doing. It makes parents even more tied to their children."

Is that necessarily a bad thing? As someone who talks to her parents several times a week and unabashedly enjoys a nuclear-family group text (named #SQUAD) that we’ve had going for the better part of a year, I’m more tied to my family than most. That said, I’m not the product of a generation born with cellphones in their pockets, Find My Friends, or even in-home Wi-Fi. Those kids — and their parents — could be subject to effects we don’t yet know about. "The more you use this stuff," Furedi said, speaking of monitoring tech, "the more you become anxious. I think it’s an entirely unhealthy development that occurs and comes in between the parent and the child."

Developing autonomy, he argues, is necessary for both parents and children to establish healthy relationships and trust. The quantified-self movement can make you reliant on data instead of introspection and communication. Much has been written about the effects created by our increasing attention to gadgets, but in this new parental surveillance state, what about how it changes the family dynamic? And then, of course, what’s the impact on the children who stand to be continually tracked starting in infancy (or before)?

It’s probably too early to quantitatively say, but Furedi has some ideas. "It undermines the trust between generations. If you grow up thinking you’re being watched — always being watched — not only do you become more passive, you can’t cultivate trust."

Furedi, a professor at the University of Kent, in England, said that a few years ago while working on a project at a U.S. university, he noticed that undergraduate students were shockingly immature. He was surprised at how often many of them called their parents and asked them to come visit, and how the university promoted this connection. "I’ve got a son who’s finishing university, and it’s really funny watching some of the kids there. They really remind me of what I used to be like when I was 14," he said. "The sort of behavior patterns they’re developing are a teeny bit worrisome."

Part of the reason new parents are turning to technology could be because, simply put, they don’t know anything about babies. "What does it mean to be a parent now? People are raising their kids now without ever having touched a baby before. That’s never happened in human history," said Dr. Harvey Karp, a pediatrician who developed the "happiest baby" swaddling method. He’s also the founder and CEO of Happiest Baby, a company that creates products for parenting. (He is also very, very good at stopping babies from crying; see below.)

It’s true: Studies have shown that people are having babies later in life and are more focused on themselves through their 20s, and that nuclear families have been getting smaller over time, meaning fewer people have helped raise younger siblings.

"It used to be that by the time you raised your own child, you’d held babies, but that’s largely not true anymore," Karp said. "There’s a lot of anxiety, and people try to get a handle on that by looking for information, books, the internet, or data, which is really what quantified self is all about: Give me more data, let me watch their sleep schedule, monitor them. All of that is just people trying to be good parents and do their best job."

The concept of "It takes a village" has been slowly dying. More than ever, people are accomplishing the intensely demanding tasks of child-rearing on their own. "Your friends," Karp said, speaking to me about people my age who are raising children, "think that a normal family is two parents and a child, and that nuclear family is the biggest myth of all. There were never just nuclear families; people relied on their extended families." And beyond, he said: nannies and night nurses weren’t just frivolities of the rich and famous — many middle-income families enjoyed their help as well.

I asked my friend EJ, who’s pregnant, about whether she feels alone or unprepared. EJ, who is 27 and married, doesn’t live next door to her parents, nor is she about to hire a night nurse. She’s the first person in her social circle to have a child. "Part of what is so anxiety-inducing about becoming a parent right now is exactly what [Karp] is talking about," she said. "[Attachment parenting] preaches being with your baby at all times — breastfeeding, cosleeping, baby wearing, homeschooling. Which is the total opposite of how I was raised. I was formula fed, my parents had a night nurse, I had a babysitter."

EJ will not be attachment parenting. "That it is so in vogue points to a real trend in our culture toward being as pull-up-your-bootstraps, hands-on, and DIY as possible when it comes to parenting — which is kind of surprising given that technology has never made it easier to be a parent."

I press her on the idea that technology hasn’t helped parents. "I mostly mean in terms of scientific advances — it’s never been easier or safer to give birth, to pump milk for your kid if you’re a working mom, and SIDS rates have never been lower because of better cribs [or] because we know more about how to keep kids safe when they sleep," she explains. She said that what she feels, really, is that the back-to-nature way of raising kids seems like a reaction to our rapidly expanding technological times. At the heart of it is a fear of screwing up.

"Today, people think that when they have their child, they know what they’re doing, and it’s normal to raise them on their own," said Karp, "and if they have a hard time with that they are wusses. But the truth is parents today have the hardest job because no one ever did this on their own and it’s very hard to do."

But Karp said he’s not against parenting tech. In fact, he helped develop a smart crib for babies called SNOO that uses sound and movement to rock a crying baby back to sleep. Karp has been sharing information about how to calm babies and put them to sleep for years, but decided to translate that into a product. "Baby beds haven’t changed in thousands of years — they’re just little boxes," he said. "The idea was, ‘Can we bring technology with motion and sound and other protections and turn it into a 21st-century parenting tool?’"

The SNOO smart crib (Molly McHugh)
The SNOO smart crib (Molly McHugh)

While discussing SNOO, Karp spoke more broadly about sleep as well, mentioning that he’d read a story I wrote last year about the sleep-and-mattress market. "Like you talked about, there was this idea [that] it was macho to sleep less — and there’s this macha idea with moms: ‘I get up with my baby every time she cries.’ And it’s not like you’re a great mom because you’ve been awake 20 out of 24 hours," he said.

Karp explained that his company thinks of SNOO as more of a service than a bed, which helps explain its significant cost: $1,160, which can be made in monthly payments. "It’s like your own personal night nurse for something like $6.50 a day, and the rationale is this is not really a luxury."

It’s true that in spite and because of technology, we suffer from more social isolation, and while the internet can connect us all, extended family units are more dispersed than ever. When you think about how families once functioned as semi-communes, it makes sense that parents have turned to digital solutions. Certainly not all parenting tech can push parents into paranoia. Meyko is a device that, while creepy looking, effectively monitors children with asthma. And though SNOO is expensive, the goal of assisting new parents with sleeping is an admirable one. There’s also Leka, a rolling ball with a face that’s meant to help children with developmental disabilities.

But the larger market can seem predatory: Add the superfluous personalized data economy to the challenges and isolation that new parents face, and you have a paranoid consumer base looking for answers to questions they didn’t even know they had.

Given the emotional nature of parenthood, that data becomes more than just charts and numbers. Speaking in a larger sense about collecting personal data, one thing Karp said to me stuck: "This data we hold is very dear to us." I flashed through my college-era Facebook photos, my Instagram history, the 1SE videos I obsessively watch. Those are visual pieces of data; they conjure nostalgia. But graphical and tabulated information might do the same thing for someone else. A parent might look at a chart and instead of seeing lines and graphics see a first step, or a first slept-through night. Before we had cameras to document these moments, they were apparitional: So incredibly poignant and important, and then slowly fading, until the sharpness wore down and they were more story than report. And then consumer photography and video became widely available, turning us all into documentarians. It’s beginning to feel like the data movement is the next step, an annotation system for our visual memories, so we can keep these intimate moments as accurately as possible.

The potential problem, however, occurs when all that data isn’t necessarily helpful — and it’s worse when it’s distracting. "There’s that saying, ‘How much knowledge is lost in information, and how much wisdom is lost in knowledge,’" said Karp. "Just because we have a lot of information doesn’t mean we have knowledge, and just because we have knowledge doesn’t mean we’re wise."

There was a large space at the Consumer Electronics Show, which concluded Sunday in Las Vegas, devoted to "beauty tech and baby tech." It was a ballroom, to be specific. (The brazen misogyny of how beauty and baby products were collected into one space, about how the lighting in this room was softer and the color scheme was in pastels, or about how nearly all the branding featured only women is another story altogether.) But the child-rearing devices spilled out of their designated area, taking up significant real estate at the show.

The CES beauty and tech area (Molly McHugh)
The CES beauty and tech area (Molly McHugh)

Wandering the rows, I stopped every so often to chat with exhibitors about their products. Remi is a smart alarm clock for kids that "coaches them to sleep better." Parents can control it via smartphone; it has a funny little face they can adjust remotely.

The Remi smart alarm clock (Molly McHugh)
The Remi smart alarm clock (Molly McHugh)

Remi uses light and music cues to train babies and children to sleep, but it’s also a speaker, so it can read them stories or play music. And, of course, it’s a sleep tracker. "So you can see, for instance, if there was a noise or something, what time that happened," a representative told me. "See this chart, this spike in the sound? You can actually tap that and a snippet of the sound will play so you know what it was."

The Remi app (Molly McHugh)
The Remi app (Molly McHugh)

Using Remi to record a child sleeping wouldn’t be considered invasive — it would basically make it a high-tech baby monitor, one that talks and trains and quantifies. Remi is just one of the many devices that fit the pervasive "Amazon Echo for kids" category at CES. The aforementioned Aristotle reads to kids, helps them with their homework, and reacts to things in their room thanks to object-recognition AI technology. I came across Memoo, a Google Home–esque device that acts like a smartphone that kids can’t control, with parents on the other end working it via an app. It offers voice reminders that you can program ("Don’t forget your backpack"; "Clean your room today"), reads stories, plays music, and features a voice-messaging system.

When I talked to brand representatives or handled the various products, I was asked the same thing first: "Are you a parent?" No, I’m not, I would say. Sometimes they would follow up with a jokey Phew! Lucky you! look. One representative, though, gently said, "Well, one day, hopefully, you will be." This was presumptuous, to be sure, but he began talking about his kids, as did most of these people. They all said some version of the same thing: We just want to do whatever we can; we want to give them the best.

Still, I can’t help but think of the paranoia that could be produced by being all-knowing about another life — I don’t even want to know myself this well. And then, if you decide you do want to track and trace your child from infancy through her teenage years, you have to settle on a system: Will you use this monitor, or that one? Should you opt for something more passive, like a hub in their room, or do you go full Fitbit? And if so, which one do you choose? More than one? Does your phone’s homescreen become a repository for apps updating you on your child’s health, happiness, and whereabouts? Will this technology make you obsessed with your child, or will it create a disconnect?

But as I started getting early-onset anxiety about hypothetical children that I don’t have — and about how this new wave of technology is forever changing parenting — I thought of something else my friend EJ had said.

"I, personally, have zero experience with babies, and don’t particularly like them. Do I think my baby will be fine regardless? Yes, because idiots like me have been rearing babies for centuries with no issue, sans Google or BabyCenter or What to Expect," she said. "I feel anxious anyway because we live in a super-anxious parenting climate, but I don’t actually think I’ll mess my kid up irreparably, because despite what the baby books tell you, that’s actually kind of hard to do."

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