Home Sci/Tech We Need New Child Labor Laws for the Digital Age

We Need New Child Labor Laws for the Digital Age

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I pay my kids to do chores. They vacuum the rug, scrub the toilets, take out the recycling. It’s amazing how quickly they’ll turn away from video games when there’s money involved.

I know plenty of people would object to my method. They’d tell me that it’s not the right way to raise my kids. After all, popular opinion says that extrinsic rewards promote the “bad” kind of motivation. But the truth is, it’s only mainstream pop psychology and revenue-driven human resource departments that still cling to the dichotomy between intrinsic and extrinsic incentives. The experts know that this is a problematic oversimplification.

In the end, what really matters is how a person interprets the rewards. And that’s why I pay my kids to do their chores. I don’t want my boys to grow up thinking that cooking, cleaning, washing, and scrubbing should be a labor of love, a signifier of one’s dedication to the family, symbolic sweat equity that bolsters their moral and ethical net worth. Instead, I want them to see the financial value, to recognize that they’re participating in what economists call “unpaid care work.” A 2015 report from the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that this kind of work, disproportionately performed by women around the world, “amounts to as much as $10 trillion of output per year, roughly equivalent to 13 percent of global GDP.”

Every time my boys post a photo on Instagram or chat on Discord, they’re providing the content that other users will enjoy.

But chores aren’t the only work my kids do. They spend even more time creating capital in ways they may not recognize: playing video games and posting on social media. In fact, almost all of their digital activities can be described using game theorist Julian Küchlich’s term: playbour. He combines the words “play” and “labour” (he uses the British spelling) to signify how the distinction between leisure and production becomes unclear as digital media turns creative play into a commodity. Please don’t get distracted by the fancy jargon Küchlich borrows from the academic field of political economy. There’s nothing especially complicated about what he’s trying to say. It’s basically just the observation that every time my boys post a photo on Instagram or chat on Discord, they’re providing the content that other users will enjoy.

Remember that without their contributions, there is no product, no advertising space to sell; we’d all leave Facebook if our friends stopped posting. Similarly, YouTube is like a television channel where the majority of programming is produced by the audience. And while channels with more than 1,000 annual subscribers can earn some advertising revenue, very few YouTubers actually do; one statistical analysis found that just 3 percent of all channels get 85 percent of the eyeballs. Snapchat, TikTok, Reddit, Tumblr—and, yes, even Medium—depend heavily on content that’s crowdsourced from users.

Likewise, when my kids modify Minecraft code and upload new variations on the game — what gamer geeks call modding — they’re actually increasing the overall value of someone else’s intellectual property. Yes, my children are just having fun, but Mojang and Microsoft, which own Minecraft, benefit financially from my kids’ unpaid playbour. The mods may be free, but you need to purchase the original game to use them, and the product’s appeal, longevity, and market share all depend on the players’ ability to participate in a cool-kids’ ecosystem of modded digital play.

Undoubtedly, many readers will think I’m crazy for even suggesting that my children are being exploited when they’re playing online. After all, the kids are having fun. It’s what they like to do. We might even say that they’re “intrinsically motivated” to engage in playbour. But isn’t that precisely what’s been said about the exploited women who do all the unpaid care work? We’re told that they’re naturally inclined to be housewives, that it’s their moral duty — or worse still, that it’s an indication of healthy femininity. In the same vein, consider all those unpaid internships where aspiring young professionals, fresh out of college and racked with debt, are supposed to demonstrate their “gratitude for the opportunity” by working their butts off for free. Could it be that our attitudes around digital play are also reinforcing coercive identity narratives that justify an exploitative power structure? I think so.

Maybe we should think of data as a commodity resource and protect the rights of the minors who create it.

Consider the long tradition (still present in many parts of the world) of child labor — work done by minors who are indentured to the very grown-ups who promise to feed and protect them. Just like Cinderella, they are often conditioned to believe that a positive, persistent, and subservient attitude will ultimately guide them toward the palace ball. It’s no accident that the word “family” comes from the Latin famulus, meaning “servant.” Once upon a time, parents, employers, and evil step-siblings not only withheld the very wages with which young people might practice autonomy but also guilt-tripped the tiny employees with the rhetoric of codependency.

When Walt Disney’s Cinderella was released in 1950, it had been 34 years since the United States passed the first federal law regulating child labor but only 12 years since it had become outright illegal. The 1900 census revealed that one in five children were gainfully employed, often in mines, mills, and factories. As a result of those findings, the Keating-Owen Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. This law would restrict interstate commerce of goods produced by kids who worked more than eight hours a day.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court overturned the Keating-Owen Act just 273 days after it went into effect; the justices ruled that the federal government had no jurisdiction over manufacturing in individual states. Next, Congress tried to pass a few more restrictions on child labor, using roundabout measures to gain some authority. But even taxing the profits of companies that employed kids was deemed unconstitutional. Ultimately, it took a decades-long social and legislative battle — what today’s political pundits might call a “culture war” — to make child labor illegal in the United States. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was one of many New Deal–era policies that continue to protect children’s basic rights.

By today’s standards, it may seem shocking that it would take so long to pass laws protecting kids. But think about it in historical context. At the time, the United States was still pretty orthodox when it came to the Puritan work ethic. Mainstream morality judged a person’s inherent worth according to their output and productivity. “Good American citizens” would have objected to idleness from both children and adults. The values parents wanted to instill in their children were obedience, devout prayer, and a strong work ethic. The joyful, playful and free-spirited version of childhood to which we’re accustomed had not yet been invented. As Steven Mintz writes in the 2004 book Huck’s Raft, about the history of American childhood, 17th-century parents frequently complained about “children playing ball or flying kites in the street.” Play was once considered “a sinful waste of time.” Things didn’t change until the late 19th century, when Friedrich Fröbel’s kindergarten movement fortified the idea that childhood should be a safe time for playful exploration, psychological development, and constant learning.

Maybe it’s time for another change. With playbour in mind, we might reconsider the issue of children’s digital rights. Sure, lots of organizations and policymakers have looked at how our kids interact with technology. Some have even tried to regulate Silicon Valley. But most of these well-intentioned advocates rely on poorly framed arguments about health and well-being. They’ve tried to convince us that screens promote a sedentary lifestyle, that smartphones disrupt the family dinner, that video game violence causes school shootings, that social media leads to narcissism and depression, and that nefarious user-interface designers — who leverage manipulative behavioral science to keep children addicted to digital devices — are permanently damaging the human brain.

These are the predictable “moral panic” arguments, the same technophobic hysteria that seems to accompany all transformative tools. Before you let these hypotheses sway you, remember that when Gutenberg invented the printing press, many people complained about the loss of communal storytelling; they worried that independent reading would make folks antisocial. Likewise, 19th-century physicians warned parents to keep their children off locomotives because the unnatural speed of a steam engine would surely cause neurological damage. I suspect that our current crop of concerns will look just as silly in retrospect.

With one exception: the privacy of our data.

Anyone who uses the internet has surely noticed all those new user agreements — updated terms of service — that were put in place because of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This is the European Union’s collection of laws that require all internet companies to ask their customers for permission before collecting personal data. According to Article 8, my kids will need to celebrate their 16th birthdays before they’re legally able to agree. Similarly, in the United States, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) sets the age of consent at 13. But both of these regulations only protect personal data like names, emails, and IP addresses — anything that can be traced back to an individual. Meanwhile, there’s still a whole lot of impersonal data being mined while our kids play online. The choices our children make while playing video games are all being recorded and logged into giant databases. Who owns this data? Not them. Not even their parents.

Many people have said that data is the new oil. It’s not. “While data and oil can both generate value, the parallels stop there,” writes Adam Schlosser, project lead on digital trade and data flows for the World Economic Forum. “Oil is also a single-use commodity, while data can be reused and shared for new purposes and insights.” And that’s exactly what will happen in the long run. The data that my kids tirelessly produce every afternoon when they get home from school — through their playbour — will eventually fuel the artificial intelligence economic boom.

At this point, we’ve blindly accepted the freemium model of digital play; at most, we complain about its predatory casino-like marketing techniques. But recognize that the real profits will come, not from the small transactions — the skins, power-ups, and loot that my boys buy daily — but rather from the data created by analyzing the actions and behaviors of minors. That’s why many folks have called for open exchange, arguing that data should a public resource, not a corporate asset. But a transparent and communal data repository seems highly unlikely. In 2017, Vladimir Putin said that the nation that leads A.I. will be “ruler of the world,” and China has invested billions of dollars toward becoming the global leader in A.I. by 2030. Of course, Silicon Valley’s A.I. race — and the data hoarding on which it depends — has been going on for more than a decade. But now geopolitical rhetoric raises the stakes.

So maybe, even though data is not the new oil, we should still think of it as a commodity resource and protect the rights of the minors who create it. Then we could institute something like the current laws that regulate natural gas and mineral leases. In Pennsylvania, for example, drillers are required to pay royalties of at least one-eighth (12.5 percent) of the proceeds for resources extracted from the lessor’s land. If we applied the same thinking to digital play, then corporations might load up my kids’ 529 tuition savings plans with a dollar amount that correlates to the duration of time they spend on screens creating data assets. Just imagine how quickly that would change the screen-time debate and expose the socioeconomic realities of the broadband gap.

Whether we do it through taxes, dividends, or royalties, the bottom line is that we should be compensating kids for their playbour. We need to find a way to redistribute the value they create so they ultimately benefit from their own hard work. Either that or we can keep pretending that a child’s data contributions are just a matter of goodwill — that our kids should all be intrinsically motivated to share the fruits of their playbour free of charge.

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