By Stephanie Nguyen, Daniella DiPaola, and Cynthia Breazeal
Thousands of schools have closed across the United States due to the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing families to become increasingly reliant on digital platforms and resources to educate and keep their kids occupied. During this time of “distance learning,” advocacy groups like the Common Sense Media and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood are engaging with parents to provide homework help resources and help them plan activities during this transition.
Policymakers are seeking to strengthen privacy safeguards from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Education (ED) for online education technology-related platforms. In late March (2020), Senators Ed Markey (D-MA.), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) wrote a joint letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the Federal Trade Commission. The letter encourages the FTC and ED to “jointly issue guidance to ed tech companies in order to protect student privacy” by creating clearer privacy policies and issuing guidance for parents about data collection and sharing, security risks, and tracking.
Beyond initiatives with policy and law, another way that people can try to reduce the risk to children from privacy breaches is through cultivating new education opportunities. How might we integrate complex topics like AI, privacy, and security in relatable ways that empower children to be conscientious consumers of these platforms and technologies? How might we do this in a way that allows children to see both the pros and cons of any technology, and increases their intuition and awareness around data protection and collection?
This is a unique time to engage and teach children about the benefits and limitations of technology. “Let’s ask our kids—in developmentally appropriate ways—what they like about connecting through tech platforms and how those platforms fall short of providing the rich experience afforded by face-to-face and hands-on learning,” David Monahan, Campaign Manager at the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) told us. “For younger kids, that might just mean asking concrete questions about what’s different between online and in real life. For teens, it’s a great way to open up discussions about persuasive design, privacy, and advertising.”
Many organizations, institutions, and practitioners have researched and created online workshops and curricula related to privacy, data collection, and use. Common Sense Education, the NSF backed privacy curriculum at UC Berkeley, Harvard Berkman’s Center’s Digital Citizenship, Cyber Civics, and Intel & Discovery Education’s Digital Safety Program are just a few examples of ways that different teams have pulled together resources to help teachers and parents spread this knowledge in creative ways.
Our approach was to avoid solely listing the dangers and the “What not to do’s” when using connected technology. Instead, we reviewed existing materials related to data privacy and AI related topics and talked directly with parents and kids to see what privacy topics are relevant and important to their digital lives, such as YouTube videos with targeted ads and Pokemon Go with location data collection. Then, we created these workshops based on assessing needs and gaps of available age-appropriate content on these topics. Our goal was and continues to be to encourage students to form their own opinions and think more critically about the platforms they use every day. When piloting these activities, it was apparent that our students could form their own opinions and used those insights to drive new technical designs and ideas.
In this post, we share some new data privacy and design activities, and at-home tech and AI debate guides for families that our group has developed and piloted in the Boston area with the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts. There are four resources in this release:
1) We introduce data privacy with an activity to build intuition about the opportunities and limitations of YouTube recommendations. (Ages 7-9). Resources here.