Classroom Technology

The Quantified Baby: Ready or Not, Here The Products Come

By Benjamin Herold — March 30, 2016 7 min read
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From steps to sleep to stress, millions of adults have taken to tracking their daily actions in the name of self-improvement.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that the so-called “Quantified Self” movement is now making its way into early childhood, via wearable technologies that allow parents and caregivers to receive a steady stream of data about their infants and toddlers.

Take, for example, the Starling, a soon-to-be-released device from tech startup VersaMe. Drawing on hugely influential academic research about the importance of having “high-quality conversations” with your baby, the Starling can be clipped on to a child’s clothing, where it will track the number of words he or she hears and says each day, then feed that information into a smartphone app that encourages parents to meet daily goals.

“It’s about measuring and getting data around a previously unmeasured period of a child’s life,” said Jon Boggiano, one of VersaMe’s founders, in an interview.

“We want to make parents more mindful.”

In the recent past, such a notion would likely have provoked a backlash. Similar technology developed a decade ago has been adopted by researchers, but failed to find a market among individual consumers.

But with the rapid embrace of devices such as the Fitbit, more than 20 million of which have been sold, the idea of expansive self-tracking has quickly gained acceptance—and not just for adults.

Parents of young children can now buy everything from smart diapers to heart-rate and skin-temperature trackers, connected car seats to Wi-Fi enabled onesies intended to prevent against SIDS. The era of the quantified baby is at hand.

And that may not be a good thing, say some early-childhood experts.

“I’m not sure what we are gaining by having this information,” said Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.

“The crib is beginning to look like an intensive care unit in a neonatal hospital.”

What is the Quantified Self?

The Quantified Self movement burst onto the national scene in 2010, when Wired journalist Gary Wolf penned an article in the New York Times Magazine titled “The Data-Driven Life.

In the piece, he describes software engineers who rigorously track their diets, millennials who record how much time they spend washing their roommates’ dishes, and professors who tracked their cognitive performance and focus.

Six years later, 180 cities around the world are home to organized groups of people “who get together to get meaning out of personal data,” said Dawn Nafus, a senior research scientist at the Intel Corporation and author of the forthcoming book, Self-Tracking.

Most often, Nafus said, the focus is on everyday problems, such as preventing migraines and improving sleep. Self-tracking seems to be most beneficial, she said, for people looking to solve a particular challenge, become more aware of a particular bodily state, or collect “memories in data form” for personal reasons, such as making art.

The idea of self-tracking for children raises thorny questions of control and consent, Nafus said. Among hard-core practitioners, the idea has not really taken off, even as related products have started hitting the market.

For their part, Boggiano and VersaMe co-founder Nicki Boyd don’t fully identify with the self-tracking movement, but they hope its popularity will help their new product find a home.

“There’s a component of Quantified Self [in Starling], but we’re really much more focused on the relationship between parent and child,” Boggiano said.

Here’s how the Starling works: Parents attach a small, cute-looking device to their child’s clothing or carrier. A microphone embedded in the device (which VersaMe swears is waterproof, chew-safe, and BPA-free) “hears” all the words said by and around the child, counting them as they come in. None of that conversation is recorded, however; the transmitter inside the Starling simply sends data on word counts in real time to a smartphone app (iOS only, for now) using a technology called Bluetooth Low Energy (which VersaMe says emits 1,200 times less energy than the average cellphone.)

On the app, parents receive a steady flow of information—how many words their child has been exposed to that day, if they’re meeting their targets, and tips and feedback and encouragement on how to talk more (and more richly) with their child.

Importantly, said Boggiano—a parent himself, who says his 8 year-old hates smartphones because of how they compete for Dad’s attention—don’t have to be using their phone to benefit from using the Starling.

“Having a Starling [on your child] is like having a guardian angel on your shoulder, reminding you that you’re not only supposed to be paying attention when she fusses,” he said.

Concerns from early-childhood experts

Hirsch-Pasek and her long-time collaborator, University of Delaware professor Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, see a few problems, however.

First, they worry that tracking babies’ exposure to language is likely to increase, rather than reduce, parental anxiety.

“Too many parents are already scared to death that every move they make is going to hurt their baby,” Hirsch-Pasek said.

(For their part, Boggiano and Boyd cite anecdotal reports of reduced anxiety from Starling users, who say that seeing how many words they are speaking to their child relieves them of the worry that they aren’t speaking enough.)

More significantly, Hirsch-Pasek, Golinkoff, and other early-childhood development experts are concerned that tools such as the Starling are based upon a flawed understanding of the academic literature around infants’ language acquisition.

The starting point for the technology is the so-called “30 million-word gap,” made famous by the late University of Kansas child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley. The duo’s landmark 1995 study, “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young Children,” found that infants in working-class families and families living on public assistance heard dramatically fewer words during their formative years than infants living in professional households.

But while differences in the quantity of words that children hear became the popular takeaway from the study, the real finding of that and subsequent research, according to many early childhood experts, is about the quality of the verbal interactions in which the infants participated.

“Rich, serve-and-return conversations beginning at birth are incredibly important,” said Lauren Hogan, the senior director for public policy and advocacy at the National Center for the Education of Young Children. “There is some danger that tools like [the Starling] could actually interfere with such [high-quality] conversations because parents are so busy focusing on the number of words a child is hearing.”

Boggiano and Boyd acknowledge the concerns, but say they’re off base.

For starters, no parent is just going to sit in front of their child and say “Cat, cat, cat” over and over again to build up their word count, Boggiano said.

And any new talk that parents engage in is less likely to be the kind of directive, “clean up that mess” type of one-way conversation that is already happening than the type of conversational, back-and-forth exchange that the Starling attempts to encourage through tips and prompts sent through its app, he maintained.

“It’s really hard to increase quality without increasing quantity,” Boggiano said. “The number is just part of the game.”

‘It can’t just be about the technology’

There’s also concern among early childhood experts that the parents and caregivers who could most benefit from a tool such as the Starling are the least likely to plunk down $199 to buy it.

While Boggiano and Boyd disagree with the notion that only wealthy parents will be interested, they acknowledge that their business strategy is to sell to consumers first, and find a market among non-profit-type literacy intervention programs second.

It’s a different approach than that taken by the LENA Research Foundation, which has been using wearable technology to record parent-child interactions as part of academic research studies and social-service interventions for roughly a decade.

The most well known is probably the Providence Talks initiative, through which parents are visited bi-weekly in their homes by trained literacy coaches, who share with them nuanced data from LENA technology (including not just word counts, but information on conversational turn-taking), as well as strategies for talking with their children and information about community resources and supports.

“If the motivation is to help those families who have poor language environments, with not a lot of parent-child interactions, it can’t just be about the technology,” said Stephen Hannon, LENA’s president.

Boggiano and Boyd wouldn’t disagree. But they are betting that times, and technology, have changed.

By providing information in real-time, via a smartphone, direct to parents, with no intermediaries, they believe the Starling can tap into the growing phenomenon of data-driven self-improvement.

“We’re focused on parental behavior change,” Boggiano said. “It’s about getting their buy-in, to believe they matter and can make a difference.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.