In the first post on data mining and kids, I argued parents should be cautious when it comes to corporate data mining and advertising aimed at their children. Children are more prone to be influenced by stories told to them than adults. Thus parents should consider modest precautions to prevent their children from being targeted by corporations interested in profiting from them at their expense.
Data mining for targeted advertising is not the only type of data mining we experience on a regular basis. All major internet search providers, including Google, individualize search results based upon data collected regarding our online behavior. Google, in particular, has made some changes recently. In case you were sleeping under a rock while Google pestered you with its EULA changes, there are no more silos of information at Google. What you do on Google+ influences what you see on Google News; both of these can change the results you find in a search. You might as well face it, if you use Google — and that is all of us — you may think that you are wild and free, but you have a bright yellow ear-tag with a number on it, a radio collar with a unique frequency and a server dedicated to tracking your every step in the Google universe.
I recognize that behind this personalization of search results is a healthy and good impulse. Google is attempting to present me with relevant search information and trying to keep my search page from simply becoming polluted with spam. From their perspective they think of this as a good customer experience, and I somewhat agree.
However, I have had some recent experiences which have caused me to question whether or not Google’s personalization has some unintended consequences. As a writer, I use social networking to promote what I write, including Google+. Recently several of my own articles from GeekDad have shown up in the “Spotlight” feature on the Google News page. This has happened even though I have turned off all the personalized search features I can find. The first time it happened, I have to admit I was half-way through writing an excited email to my colleagues at GeekDad before I said, in my best Lisa Simpson voice: “Wait a minute!” I searched again in a different browser and made sure I stayed logged out of my Google account. My article didn’t appear in the spotlight column.
That first incident got me thinking, and the more I thought about it the more concerned I became. The problem with Google’s approach to client data is that it turns the internet into one big echo chamber. In my personalized news, on my social networks, and potentially in my searches I see those items which I have inadvertently programmed the computer to spit back out at me. If I am programming the search engine to show me those things related to that which I have seen before, it becomes more difficult to be surprised, to learn, or change my point of view based on unexpected information. The internet becomes a big echo chamber. This can be even more problematic for kids, who even more than adults, need to have a wide range of experiences and to learn from unexpected points of view.
So what can a parent do to make sure their children see a wide variety of information when online? Well, first of all make sure you turn off the personalized searches which Google throws your way. That is simply the echo chamber coming back at you. This is also important from the standpoint of not letting your kids’ information get recorded as easily by Google as well, but this is only moderately effective because the tracking cookies still connect your information to your account.
It is also important that parents be more proactive as well. Perhaps the answer to this little data mining problem is to intentionally make sure that your kids seek out information from sources you and they wouldn’t normally read. Challenge them to understand various points of view and to pay attention to the unexpected information, whether that is when they are seeking out entertainment online or when they are working on a school project.
Then lead by example. Do you only listen to the news sources which agree with your point of view? Do you seek out the unexpected online, or do you stick with the familiar? Do you see the internet as an educational and self-improvement resource or merely an extension of your television? Without such proactive choices on our part, I worry that Google will just show us and our children exactly what we told it to show us, and we won’t even realize what we’re missing.