How much is too much? Cheriton researchers balance information needs of parents with privacy of young children

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Researchers at the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science have developed a blueprint for designing effective information systems that will help parents receive efficient updates about their school-aged children.

The system comes out of a study that 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.

photo of Anastasia-Kuzminykh“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 Cheriton School of Computer Science. “Instead, parents prefer summary information, a recounting of what has happened during the time apart from their children.”

The researchers undertook a three-phase study that examined the information needs of parents with young children. The first of the three sequential phases of the study conducted was experience sampling.

During this stage, 10 participants (five mothers and five fathers) 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 follow-on semi-structured interviews with a subset of the experience sampling participants and cross-validated these data with a set of new participants. 

Finally, the researchers carried out Internet-based data collection to more fully saturate their analyses with balanced perspectives from 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. 

The researchers were then able to identify eight essential elements that should be included in any system designed to update parents on their children while they are in the care of others.

The elements that should be taken into consideration are the following:

  1. Grouping information into logical clusters based on parent’s information needs
  2. Systems should focus on providing information summaries 
  3. Information should be delivered in relation to situations where direct action is required
  4. Routine and exceptional situations should be distinguished from one another 
  5. Work-life balance should be taken into consideration 
  6. A child’s privacy should be a consideration 
  7. The technology used should be employed to support parent-child communication 
  8. Other caregivers should be included as a source of information 

“Incorporating these elements will result in parents getting more useful information about their children,” Kuzminykh said. “This data can then be used at the end of the day to connect with the child by engaging in conversations about things that transpired that day or influence that evening’s meal, for example, including vegetables if the child did not eat the ones they were given.”

More information

A journal paper detailing the design recommendations titled “How Much is Too Much? Understanding the Information Needs of Parents of Young Children,” authored by PhD student Anastasia Kuzminykh and her supervisor Cheriton School of Computer Science Professor Edward Lank, was published recently in the Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies.

This research was also featured in the news: Kid tracking apps should avoid feeling like an 'ankle bracelet,' study says, an article published on August 6, 2019 in CBC News Kitchener-Waterloo.

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