When Alexis Hancock signed her child up for child care, she wasn’t expecting to have to download an app to participate. When that app began to send her photos of her child, she had some additional questions.
That experience is not unique. Across the country, more and more child care programs are signing up to use administrative technology. Some of these tools are mobile apps that allow for easy communication between teachers and families and also facilitate billing. Others provide direct video access into the classroom, allowing families to watch their children interact with both teachers and other students.
But research and formal dialogue on the effects of this administrative technology on students, teachers and families has been sparse. Experts say that while there are concerns about security and privacy, there is no one right way to approach the technology. Meanwhile, researchers who study early childhood education say that these tools can either empower classroom teachers — or increase their workplace stress.
An Unlocked Door
Hancock is not just a concerned parent, but is also director of engineering at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting digital rights. Her initial experience with the app her center had set up raised questions for her about the security of the data, and she began to research the mobile app companies as part of her work.
“The main concern with this classification of apps is there is really no regulating body for privacy and security,” she says.
She found that two-factor authentication, which helps prevent data breaches, wasn’t standard on the mobile apps. Though the measure isn’t foolproof, Hancock compares not having it to not having locks on your doors. Its absence was even more concerning due to the sensitive nature of the population generating the data.
“You don’t want someone to experience a data breach before they are even able to type on a keyboard or know what a word is,” Hancock says. “The worst case scenario is hundreds of pictures of children and their data being leaked.”
That data could be used to target children before they are even online.
As a result of a report that Hancock published, some companies did add two-factor authentication and implement other changes, but she says she’s not sure how widespread those are across the industry.
Last year, researchers in Germany examined 42 of these mobile child care applications. They found that even though children aren’t directly using the technology, it can still leak sensitive information about them.
There are three points of contact where data could potentially be accessed and leaked: administrators, teachers, and parents, according to Jim Siegl, senior technologist for youth and education privacy at the Future of Privacy Forum, a nonprofit organization focused on data privacy. Without more advanced security measures, hackers could potentially gain access to the data by using re-used passwords. In 2019, hackers were able to access, watch and control Ring surveillance cameras across the country using passwords that were found in past data breaches.
There currently are no broad data privacy laws aimed at the early childhood space, says Bailey Sanchez, policy counsel in youth and education privacy with the Future of Privacy Forum. Laws like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) don’t typically apply in these situations, and so if parents are worried about the security of a specific app, they will need to do a bit of their own digging.
Sanchez says she sends her child to a center that uses two apps, one of which has a camera to watch the classroom.
“I trust that my school is doing the best thing, but you just don’t have that same access to information,” she says.
And because so many families struggle to find child care options, especially post-pandemic, parents and guardians concerned about the use of tech tools might not have much choice in the matter.
“Your privacy rights and information you have might be dictated by availability,” Sanchez says.
An Intentional Approach
Jennifer Chen, a professor of early childhood education at Kean University, says early childhood program directors should be thoughtful and intentional about any new uses of technology. That means thinking hard about the best ways and places to use new tools and the ethical implications of any choices.
“Technology is a double-edged sword,” Chen says. “But it can be beneficial if we use it carefully.”
Some mobile apps, such as those that allow for translation to languages other than English, can break down difficult barriers between educators and families. Cameras deployed thoughtfully can also help teachers go back and reflect on what is happening in their classrooms and get a full picture.
“It can be helpful to capture what the teacher notices in the classroom and use it as an assessment tool,” Chen says.
Online, many child care program directors say cameras specifically can help them protect themselves and teachers. If an employee is wrongly accused of abusing or otherwise hurting a child, cameras can provide evidence to counter that claim.
Shu-Chen Yen, a professor of child and adolescent studies at California State University at Fullerton, says that while there may be benefits, there are also drawbacks when administrators unilaterally place cameras in classrooms.
Cameras have the potential to make teachers and other classroom employees anxious or otherwise not themselves, she says. They may feel that administrators or parents don’t trust them.
“In our field, especially for early childhood education, relationship is everything,” Yen says. “If you trust this person, why do you want to install a surveillance camera?”
A small study out of Israel suggested that cameras created embarrassment among educators and made them avoid specific activities, like dancing. They could also disrupt routines in early childhood programs, although staff also reported that cameras were one way to maintain mutual trust with families.
Yen said that any anxiety or uneasiness on the part of educators could affect the classroom experience for children, who are picking up on and learning body language responses.
“In child development we talk about one concept called social referencing,” she says. “When children do not know how to react in a specific situation, they look up to the adults that they trust and copy their emotion.”
Though cameras may be right for some centers, Yen said, directors should also be thinking about protecting themselves by hiring people that they trust.
Katie Sloan, a faculty member of human development and family studies at Central Michigan University, worked previously in child care centers with cameras. She said that in the background of the deployment of these apps, early childhood workers are often in incredibly precarious positions financially. In her research, many of these workers have spoken about being burned out by financial struggles and complying with increasing regulations in the industry.
“They don’t have enough energy sometimes to do their work. There’s not enough money for them to pay their bills,” she says. “People are feeling really undervalued.”
That backdrop can affect whether teachers are likely to feel inconvenienced by new expectations or empowered by them. Some educators may like using mobile apps to connect with parents and families, Sloan says. Others may find requirements to do so burdensome. Cameras could facilitate relationships, or they could raise difficult conversations when families differ on what they want for the classroom.
Overall, it’s important to ask workers what is right in their context and whether technology is working well in their classrooms, Sloan says.
“People should have power over the ways that they’re surveilled,” Sloan says. “What is this surveillance for? Is this supporting people doing this work? Or is it policing people in these spaces?”