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Parents Frame Childhood for the World to See

Ayşenur Benevento, Psychology
Faculty Advisor: Colette Daiute
NML Awards: The New Media Lab Digital Dissertation Award (April 2017), The Social Justice Award (June 2018)

Parents Frame Childhood for the World to See

Why is The Project Important To Me?

I have been doing work on children’s and young people’s participation over the years internationally and I know for a fact that children are sometimes better decision makers when it comes to decisions of their and their peers’ lives. Media is my new interest in seeing how children and parents, as an authority figure in most cases, interact. As the first generation to grow up with interactive digital media, children of today are comfortable with collaborating and sharing information and do so in ways that allow them to act quickly and without top-down direction.  For example, after getting permission to play an online game on her parents’ smartphone, a 12 year old can easily use the Internet connection to share her score with others, preferably friends, who play the same game. Situations like this, of course, have profound implications and complications for the relationship that parents and children have. Potential consequences of the uses of media that are favored by members of a family present new and different roles for parents in supporting the use of media in the home environment.

In recent years, personal data production and the collection has become more pervasive than ever. Protection of children’s identity is at the core of the discussions on data regulation and protection. To meet the challenges of the era of big data and the expansion of sophisticated commercial tracking and profiling within digital environments, new regulations are being suggested and passed by state agencies in the Western hemisphere. Based on the concerns many parents have regarding their children’s media use, these regulations place considerable reliance on parents to manage their children’s access to online services. For example, according to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA) in the US, those under 13 are not able to use social media and other online platforms unless the social media site or platform obtains parental consent. Scholars, who acknowledge childhood as a sociocultural space and see children as social actors (see James, Jenks & Prout 1998), have many questions concerning these state-level decisions. Besides the regulatory questions, one practical question I will ask at this historical point in time is: “Should parents be the sole mediator of whether children can access online services when they are the violators of their children’s privacy rights?”

Posting of children’s pictures online is an interesting practice, as the power dynamics are completely visible and documented for the whole family but also to the world. Most of the time, parents initiate children’s interaction with media by using it with or in front of their child in the home environment. My research posits that parents’ portrayal of their children through media provides an important clue for understanding children’s and parents interaction, as it symbolizes parental material capital, social and media related values. Photos posted by parents are also important to look at in order to understand the social and cultural understanding of childhood, the childhood that is now available for the world to see.

Method

Instagram pictures with hashtags of #fashionkids and #letthekids will provide the context for the study because it has been recently observed that by using these hashtags, parents implicitly present their parental values by explicitly showing the context they desire for their children and themselves in these pictures. In order to understand the hashtag content and user statistics in general, I utilized two digital tools: 1) Netlytic (Gruzd, 2015) and 2) Iconosquare. After this phase, I applied values analysis on a sample of Instagram pictures with hashtags of fashionkids and letthekids. The obtaining of the metadata and visuals on Instagram is done via the code written for this purpose due to recent changes in Instagram’s API policy.

Apart from this digital phase, I contacted children (ages 7-10) and parents, not necessarily only “instamoms,” to conduct a projective activity where both groups create a story about a sample picture depicted as “fashion” kid and “let it be” kids. This phase is the part where we, for the first time, hear how children make sense of the sharenting online.

Findings

An activity-meaning system design sampling of postings with #fashionkids  and #letthekids and analyses of representative examples of the postings across the two hashtags indicated that these hashtags constitute cultures defined by distinct values (norms and beliefs) of ideal childhoods. Specifically, meanings conveyed in the #fashionkids culture appear to reflect clear and consistent motives about looking good, gender, posing, and possessions across the captions and photographs. Posts with #letthekids, on the other hand, revealed diversity of meanings, including conflicting and ambivalent ones regarding children’s emotional distance to the parent, the audience and the life at home. The diverse emphasis in values expressed in children’s photographs, in turn, allowed mothers and children to highlight different values they have about media use and parents’ strong influence in children’s depiction in photographs. A brief presentation of the findings of the comparative analyses can be found here.

Intellectual Merit

It is still not clear whether publicity is damaging for children in the long run but understanding children’s presence in parents’ personal social media accounts may hopefully shed some light on the concerns that many of us share for the generation that is growing up with unprecedented access to digital media.

In the United States, parents who post children’s private data, including their faces, are protected by law because the First Amendment affords strong protection to free speech. In addition, courts have been reluctant to grant children privacy rights in the family context (Bessant, 2017). In Europe, particularly in France and England, measures have been taken to give right children to be able to sue their parents due to their sharenting actions. To date, no child has brought legal proceedings against their parents to prevent them sharenting, or to obtain removal of information that has been shared (Bessant, 2017). However, sharenting is still a new phenomenon and therefore, far from being a norm. It is important that researchers investigate this new phenomenon systematically to inform public, including children, about their digital behavior and rights.

It is my hope that the findings of this preliminary study can: 1) provide a method for analyzing the construction of childhood in contemporary times and thus provide insights into how childhood is being defined more broadly by parents in society, 2) reveal how societal values, in this case, about childhood, are performed in digital spaces, 3) provide a foundation for a discussion  about children’s privacy rights and, 4) inform parents about the significance of their practices in online spaces.