When people ask me what I study in grad school, I usually respond in one of two ways:
1) A rounded explanation of how I am interested in families with young children, and the ways that digital and analog technologies play a role in shaping psychological, social, and literacy development, or,
2) I say that I basically study “babies and iPads.”
The latest video of the “babies and iPads” genre, below, claims that for a 1-year-old, “a magazine is an iPad that does not work.”
Earlier this year, I spoke at the annual Digital Media and Learning Conference (2012 conference website) on this topic and a textual analysis I did on the increasing amounts of these types of YouTube videos. While theoretically, conceptually, and methodologically, my study was underdeveloped (at least, so says two different academic journal rejections,) I figured that instead of making revisions and going through the lengthy resubmission process, that if I posted the revised version here and it got a conversation going in a more public forum, then my work wouldn’t go completely to waste.
Two of the most globally viewed viral YouTube videos to date – “David After Dentist” and “Charlie bit my finger – again!” – feature very young children as filmed by their parents in domestic spaces: the backseat of the family car and a cozy armchair in the home, respectively. One growing category of viral YouTube videos features very young children (approximately 6-months to 3-years-old) and sometimes their parents as well playing with the parents’ Apple touchscreen devices. The most popular of these YouTube videos, “A 2.5 Year-Old Has A First Encounter with An iPad,” has well over one million views. Of the video, which was posted three days after the release of the first generation iPad, Mashable wrote, “For a company who prides itself on making easy-to-use products, this kind of unsolicited marketing is pretty much pure gold [for Apple]. The litmus test for ‘user-friendly’ until recently was ‘can my mom use it?’ Increasingly it might become ‘can my toddler use it?’”
In regards to technology and family practices, the above quote alludes to a potential evolution of norms concerning utility and usability. Within a family, is it more important for technology to be ‘so easy, even older adults can use it?’ or ‘so easy, even a baby can use it?’ The Mashable article presupposes that this moment in time might be a critical juncture in generational relationships surrounding technology, with the parents of young children (who are themselves children of older parents) caught in the middle. Many of these parents of very young children are young enough to be considered “digital natives” themselves, to employ the oft-misused term.
The Mashable article suggests that Apple devices might increasingly benefit the young (the future consumer and learner) more than the old. Currently though, relatively few children possess their own Apple devices, as the gadgets primarily belong to adults or are shared among the family. Since a device such as an iPad is a costly investment, upper-middle class families may feel the need to justify the purchase, and so insure that even the youngest and oldest family members can benefit from the device.
With the production and circulation of these YouTube videos featuring very young children using iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touch devices, children (with the aid of their parents) are producing Apple as we come to know it. Videos like “A 2.5 Year-Old Has A First Encounter with An iPad” and “A Magazine Is an iPad That Does Not Work” present a window into the generational ownership dynamic surrounding Apple gadgets, a form of what Foucault termed “technologies of the self.”
The videos demonstrate how both the technological device and the child are both a form of the parent’s progeny. Both are deeply personal replications and extensions of the parent, though the child has more individual autonomy than the device. The parent determines his or her device applications, settings, and preferences, and also separately for the child. Thus these videos may serve as evidence of a sort of “double second self” for the parent and child, to borrow Sherry Turkle’s conceptualization of the relationship between children and technology. The child is a reflective of the parent, and parents are also shaped by their experiences with their children. As the child is interacting with technology (that is itself reflective of the parent), the technology is responsive to the child’s tactile and emotional feedback. These devices are both the adult and the child’s toy. For instead of children being told to share his or her toys, some parents in the aforementioned YouTube videos symbolically model sharing their toy with their child.
These YouTube videos are artifacts of the domestic use of one technology (video cameras) to capture and curate the domestic use of another (touchscreen handheld Apple devices). Not all children and parents are taking part in this (re)production. While YouTube may be a relatively accessible platform for those with the Internet bandwidth and recording technology, the ownership of the specific Apple devices featured in these videos is tied to demographics. There is a large price differential between a newly released iteration of an iPad and a hand-me-down first generation iPod Touch. Children have historically served as statements of class status, from the school one’s child attends to the social networks thus created. Publicly posting one’s child playing with an expensive device makes that wealth visible to a technological community.
These YouTube videos are but one way for both parent and child to perform their technical affiliations and mediated experiences. There is much to be written by cognitive and developmental psychologists about the usefulness of touchscreen technology in education, and about how much or how little time children should spend in front of and engaging with screens, or the content on those screens. However, there is a scarcity of literature on how parents may be constructing the image of their child as technologically proficient, via the YouTube network.
These videos allow caregivers to construct versions of a parent-child dynamic in relation to technological innovation. They invent the child as expert, using technological literacy as form of social currency. While there are a variety of toys on the market that are child-friendly toy versions of Blackberry phones and e-readers, such objects are distinctly for the child and not the adult primarily. The parents posting these videos have chosen instead to focus on their children playing with the grown-up toy, showing how the adult makes space in their life and on their device for their child. These videos offer an interesting commentary on the “pass-back” effect phenomenon, which implies that once a parent gives their device to a child, the parent has no contact with either the child or the device until the child “passes-forward” the device. In order for the YouTube video to be taken though, there must be an adult present, some who are actively using the device with the child, and others who are unseen behind the camera. The degree of active participation on the part of the parent who has passed-back the device also varies during the entire course of time in which the child is engaged with the device.
Considering the critical discourse on modern parenting in relation to technology, last semester, I undertook an exploratory analysis of YouTube videos of babies and toddlers using the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. Many parents posting these videos are “early adopters” in a dual sense – early in terms of buying the device close to its release date, and also adopting the device in the early stages of their child’s development.
How might these videos help us understand the role communication technologies play, as both physical and symbolic objects, in the interactions between parents and very young children? In my next post, I will describe the themes that emerged from the approximately 80 YouTube videos I analyzed, and the implications for parent-child relations.