Opinion: Move over Big Data – give 'Little Data' a go

Opinion: Move over Big Data – give

by Helen Connolly

Childhood has traditionally been a carefree period where the demands of adulthood were kept at bay by both adults and the institutions they oversee. Not so anymore. The worries, stresses and tiredness of adulthood have landed at the feet of our children, and they are explaining and complaining that they feel just as burnt out as “their” adults do.

It’s almost like we have created a contagion of anxiety where adults’ preoccupation with telling children how stressed they are, has finally taken hold in children. They’re now echoing our complaints so much, that they’re saying they don’t want to grow up if their future as an adult is about having no friends, no fun, and no way to pay the bills. And who can blame them?

That’s not to say that parents and teachers aren’t having some tough times, but let’s spare a thought for children who are also navigating and coping with social and cultural diversity alongside complex family situations, many of which often require children to be living in more than one household and feeling as though they’re permanently on the move.

Imagine keeping track of your life across two households? How would you go maximising your school, homework, family, social, and relaxation time in each? Then add changes to transport routes and parent availability, along with physical and developmental changes, and it’s no wonder our children are feeling anxious and stressed out too.

And if that’s not enough, from their earliest years we continuously fill children’s heads with fear. Whether it’s a fear of no future due to the climate crisis, dying from skin cancer if you don’t wear a hat (even on an overcast day), of bringing the wrong food to school and causing anaphylaxis in your best mate, or fear of being a ‘litterbug’ because your sandwich wrap might enter the ocean and choke a dolphin, the message that living in ‘the world’ is definitely something to be feared, has certainly taken hold.

Our ongoing obsession with collecting big data has even extended to measuring every aspect of children’s performance in childhood. It wasn’t that long ago that measuring childhood simply involved getting kids to stand up straight against a wall so they could have their height marked off with a pencil placed at the top of their heads. Fast forward to today and we’re living in a time of ubiquitous measurement and collection of everything our children do. We measure how much sleep and physical activity they have, what their daily food and water intake is, what height and weight they are, and how well they’re learning. Whilst quick math’s and spelling bees have always been a feature of school life, emerging technologies now track how much a student is using each Microsoft product, purportedly to give the school vital metrics on each student’s productivity.

Living in the shadow of this 24-hour cycle of measurement and metrics is adding multiple layers of competition and comparison into nearly every aspect of a child’s existence. It’s not surprising that kids are talking about wanting more down time with family and more freedom from the constant monitoring, testing, and homework that dominate their day to day lives; these are the ‘stressful things’ that have become the dominant features of their 21st century childhood.

But while we’re busy measuring and monitoring every aspect of childhood, what are we actually doing, ‘IRL’, to find out how kids are really faring?

In a world obsessed with data – it’s “little data” that adults get when they ask children “who they are’, ‘what they can do’, or ‘what they love’ about their lives. It’s the data that explores ‘what’s going on’ with them at school and at home. Little data is the data that asks adults to know and value children’s diverse interests, hobbies, and ‘favourite things’.

Where is the investment in listening to children and what they are asking us to do for them?  This is the genuine and authentic “little data” that is needed if we are to measure how children see the world, expressed through ideas that have been collected and described in their own words, uncensored, and free from adult interference.

This is surely the data that matters most. Why? Because it provides us with deep insight into a world we can’t possibly fully occupy, know, or understand. It’s the world in which our children and young people are the experts. It’s where they have a language and way of seeing the world that is particular to their daily experiences, cultivated by the impact of ‘all of the things’ that happen in their lives.

This is the data that represents everything coming at them daily to be interpreted, lived through, and adapted to constantly. It shines a light on their interests, passions, aspirations, and struggles, as well as on what wonderful ideas they have for shaping a better world. 

It’s this “little data “that takes them seriously and which gives them a shot at maintaining their wellbeing, confidence, and trust in adults, and in the systems we’ve put in place around them.  It’s “little data” that lets kids tell adults they’re ‘trying their best’ rather than data that reveals what they are not so good at, or which records and compares the differences between them and their peers, adding pressure and unhealthy levels of competition, which mount up over time to create higher levels of stress and anxiety seen in today’s children and young people than in any other generation before them.

Little data allows children and young people to tell us what they really think. For example, ‘that they’re actually smarter than grownups think’ and that ‘they can be trusted’. Little data reveals that children are almost ‘always willing to help’ and when they aren’t it’s usually because something else is bothering them. It’s little data too that reveals they’re caring, kind, funny, powerful, strong, and brave, as well as being great at making good friends and caring for siblings.

Little data tells adults what makes children scared and uncomfortable or feel hurt and upset. It’s the data that can tell us what makes them feel sick alongside ‘who’ and ‘what’ they want to be when they grow up. In fact, little data is the data we should be focused on. It’s the data we should be monitoring and analysing more closely. It’s also the data that generates real value through its regular and long-term collection, as it enables us to see how attitudes to various experiences, beliefs, and ‘things’ inevitably change generationally.

Sadly ‘little data’ is not valued or considered significant at this time despite that when it comes to building relationships between children and adults that are based in trust, all the big data in the world can’t replace listening, empathy, and validation. Big data doesn’t help build respect, cultivate hope, or nurture trust for a better future. It contains no insight into how adults can better support children to feel loved, valued and included.

It’s time for big data to move over and give “little data” a go. Supporting children to have a say and to tell us what they think about their lives is the only way we can hope to deliver on the things they want us to do for them, for other people, and for our planet.

Helen Connolly is the Commissioner for Children and Young People SA.