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How companies learn what children secretly want

If you have children, you are likely to worry about their safety – you show them safe places in your neighborhood and you teach them to watch out for lurking dangers.

But you may not be aware of some online dangers to which they are exposed through their schools.

There is a good chance that people and organizations you don’t know are collecting information about them while they are doing their schoolwork. And they may be using this information for purposes that you know nothing about.

In the U.S. and around the world, millions of digital data points are collected daily from children by private companies that provide educational technologies to teachers and schools. Once data are collected, there is little in law or policy that prevents companies from using the information for almost any purpose they wish.

Our research explores how corporate entities use their involvement with schools to gather and use data about students. We find that often these companies use the data they collect to market products, such as junk food, to children.

Here’s how student data are being collected

Almost all U.S. middle and high school students use mobile devices. A third of such devices are issued by their schools. Even when using their own devices for their schoolwork, students are being encouraged to use applications and software, such as those with which they can create multimedia presentations, do research, learn to type or communicate with each other and with their teachers.

When children work on their assignments, unknown to them, the software and sites they use are busy collecting data.

For example, “Adaptive learning” technologies record students’ keystrokes, answers and response times. On-line surveys collect information about students’ personalities. Communication software stores the communications between students, parents and teachers; and presentation software stores students’ work and their communications about it.

In addition, teachers and schools may direct children to work on branded apps or websites that may collect, or allow third parties to collect, IP addresses and other information from students. This could include the ads children click on, what they download, what games they play, and so on.

How student data are used

When “screen time” is required for school, parents cannot limit or control it. Companies use this time to find out more about children’s preferences, so they they can target children with advertising and other content with a personalized appeal.

Children might see ads while they are working in educational apps. In other cases, data might be collected while students complete their assignments. Information might also be stored and used to better target them later.

For instance, a website might allow a third party to collect information, including the type of browser used, the time and date, and the subject of advertisements clicked or scrolled over by a child. The third party could then use that information to target the child with advertisements later.

We have found that companies use the data to serve ads (for food, clothing, games, etc.) to the children via their computers. This repeated, personalized advertising is designed specifically to manipulate children to want and buy more things.

Indeed, over time this kind of advertising can threaten children’s physical and psychological well-being.

Consequences of targeted advertising

Food is the most heavily advertised class of products to children. The heavy digital promotion of “junk” food is associated with negative health outcomes such as obesityheart disease and diabetes.

Additionally, advertising, regardless of the particular product it may sell, also “sells” to children the idea that products can make them happy.

Research shows that children who buy into this materialist worldview are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and other psychological distress.

Teenagers who adopt this worldview are more likely to smoke, drink and skip school. One set of studies showed that advertising makes children feel far from their ideals for themselves in terms of how good a life they lead and what their bodies look like.

The insecurity and dissatisfaction may lead to negative behaviors such as compulsive buying and disordered eating.

Aren’t there laws to protect children’s privacy?

Many bills bearing on student privacy have been introduced in the past several years in Congress and state legislatures. Several of them have been enacted into laws.

Additionally, nearly 300 software companies signed a self-regulatory Student Privacy Pledge to safeguard student privacy regarding the collection, maintenance and use of student personal information.

First of all, most laws, including the Student Privacy Pledge, focus on Personally Identifiable Information (PII). PII includes information that can be used to determine a person’s identity, such as that person’s name, social security number or biometric information.

Companies can address privacy concerns by making digital data anonymous (i.e., not including PII in the data that are collected, stored or shared). However, data can easily be “de-anonymized.” And, children don’t need to be identified with PII in order for their online behavior to be tracked.

Second, bills designed to protect student privacy sometimes expressly preserve the ability of an operator to use student information for adaptive or personalized learning purposes. In order to personalize the assignments that a program gives a student, it must by necessity track that student’s behavior.

This weakens the privacy protections the bills otherwise offer. Although it protects companies that collect data for adaptive learning purposes only, it also provides a loophole that enables data collection.

Finally, the Student Privacy Pledge has no real enforcement mechanism. As it is a voluntary pledge, many companies may scrupulously abide by the promises in the pledge, but many others may not.

What to do?

While education technologies show promise in some areas, they also hold the potential to harm students profoundly if they are not properly understood, thoughtfully managed and carefully controlled.

Parents, teachers and administrators, who serve as the closest protectors of children’s privacy at their schools, and legislators responsible for enacting relevant policy, need to recognize the threats of such data tracking.

The first step toward protecting children is to know that that such targeted marketing is going on while children do their schoolwork. And that it is powerful.

The article was published at How companies learn what children secretly want

Covered faces, distancing, hybrid learning: Campus gears up for new normal

There were many familiar sights as new CU Boulder students moved into their campus residence halls this week: teary-eyed parents, slightly awkward encounters between roommates, beds to make with extra-long sheets, and posters to hang up on walls.

But this year’s move-in was unlike any other in the campus’s 144-year history: Students and their loved ones wore face coverings; welcome events rolled out online; and campus residents had to show proof of negative COVID-19 tests.

For incoming freshman Alison Naeve, of San Francisco, move-in was quick and easy. And sad. She cried as she said goodbye to her parents after moving into her room at Williams Village. But being in Boulder was also a proverbial breath of fresh air, even with the wildfire smoke.

“For us at home it’s even worse,” the biomedical engineering major said of the COVID-19 situation. “It’s nice to know when your roommate comes in I can give her a hug because we know we’re both negative, and to have a community that’s been taking it seriously is good.”

For months, diverse groups from across the university have worked to get the campus ready for fall 2020, striving to make this semester as safe, and as rewarding, as possible.

University scientists and staff formed a dream team that worked to align the campus’ fall plans with the latest research into COVID-19. CU Boulder also adopted a community-based strategy to slow the spread of the virus—one in which everyone on campus, from new freshmen to maintenance workers and professors, are encouraged to do their part to “Protect Our Herd.”

“These approaches overlay one another, and I believe they provide an application of the latest science and research on COVID-19,” said Provost Russell Moore. “We’re going to continue to fine-tune our approach; we’re going to be flexible and be able to act quickly to changing conditions.”

Research collaborations

In preparing for the unprecedented school year ahead, CU Boulder’s own researchers came to the forefront of the university’s response in collaboration with CU Boulder Medical Services.

Planning for the fall semester was “an incredible process where our researchers linked up with our top professional staff to think about how we prepare for our students returning to campus,” said Terri Fiez, vice chancellor for research and innovation.

The collaboration delivered results. As part of its fall plans, CU Boulder made facial coverings mandatory on campus, put new sanitization protocols in place and expanded classroom space and teaching hours to maintain physical distancing.

But the university also went above-and-beyond what many other campuses around the country are doing. CU Boulder, for example, boasts some of the nation’s top scientists studying how viruses can spread through microscopic droplets in the air. Drawing on their expertise, facilities’ staff overhauled ventilation systems for all of the campus’ roughly 13 million square feet of indoor space.

“It’s creating more of an outside air environment inside,” said Shannon Horn, a mechanical engineer in the Office of Facilities Management.

Testing and contact tracing will also be key to keeping campus safe. Students moving onto campus had to show proof that they had received a negative COVID-19 test within five days prior to moving in. Students that didn’t arrive with a test completed were tested on campus.

Meanwhile, CU Boulder researcher Matthew McQueen is launching a new for-credit course that will train students how to be epidemiological detectives. They’ll talk to their peers who have tested positive for COVID-19 and track down who they might have exposed as a way to curb any outbreaks.

“If we can focus on quarantining the people who were exposed to a known case, that gives us a chance to break the chain of transmission,” McQueen said.

And, to keep on breaking those chains of transmission, CU Boulder is conducting surveillance testing of its on-campus residents by monitoring their wastewater. A team of students and scientists have set up 20 wastewater monitoring stations across campus, which may be able to spot emerging infections in residence halls. Such surveillance could help the university get a head start on conducting targeted testing of individuals before they even begin to show symptoms.

Student responsibility

For the university’s students themselves, from newcomers in residence halls to doctoral candidates, CU Boulder may look very different this year. The university has sought to redesign the student experience to account for the coronavirus—while also ensuring that learners don’t miss out on what makes college fun and fulfilling.

Students, faculty and staff will begin each day by filling out a health questionnaire, checking off whether they’ve felt any symptoms of COVID-19.

They may check into their first morning class online along with about half of the students in the course. The other half may be with the instructor in-person, sitting in chairs spaced at least 6 feet apart.

When it’s time for them to attend classes physically, students may recognize a lot of the covered faces around them: They may belong to the same cohort of learners who live together in a residence hall and share many of their courses.

Throughout their day on campus, students, staff and faculty members will also be asked to serve as leaders for their communities—engaging in behaviors that care for the people around them. The same applies to students who live off campus. Some of them will act as “block captains,” partnering with the city of Boulder to decrease the risk of the pandemic spreading in the community.

The goal of all of these initiatives, of course, is to ensure the state’s flagship university can fulfill its mission to educate the next generation of citizens and leaders and foster the spirit of discovery through research.

“We have to do what we can to safely be on campus so we can stay open and continue working toward our degrees,” said CU Student Government tri-executive Isaiah Chavous. “It will require all students to take on an introspective lens and an increase in self-awareness that ensures we prioritize our health before anything else.”

The article was published at Covered faces, distancing, hybrid learning: Campus gears up for new normal