As explored in part one and part two of this series of posts, the proliferation of YouTube videos of young children (and sometimes their parents) playing with Apple devices potentially offers a good empirical lens through which to view much broader trends around children and technology, but not without shortcomings. Certain themes seemed to recur within the aforementioned sample – themes of parents highlighting children as “acting their age,” children as being “exceptional” for their age, or locating the power of transformation within the affordances of the technology itself. Going forward, a triangulation of research techniques (e.g. interviews with the creators of these videos, home observations, case studies) and a richer analysis is needed to know more about both the role these technologies play in shaping parent-child interactions, and also the role that consuming, creating, and distributing these artifacts play in shaping conceptions of parents/caregivers, children, and their relationships.
As a site of cultural and material exchange, YouTube is a system that both self-organizes hierarchies (e.g. user likes and sharing), but also confers power and status (e.g. recommended videos, featured playlists). French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1986) expands upon the notion of “capital” as purely monetary or economic, to include social and cultural capital as types of resources well. Historically, Bourdieu conceptualized a direct relationship between available capital resources and children’s outcomes and achievement in school and out-of-school contexts. One way to examine the evolving relationship between consumerism, technology, and parenting is to understand these videos as the performance of different types of capital, under Bourdieu’s typology. The public presentation of the digital YouTube asset speaks to children’s current and future value, visibility, agency, and identity within their families and to a commoditized society as a whole. Though organized here independently, these forms of capital are deeply intertwined.
The Economics of Nascent Technology and Nascent Beings
As a form of economic capital, these videos were not commercials per say, but they inherently promoted a commercial product. Some even directly appropriated the genre, form, and camera angles of the Apple television and print ads. The videos put a face to the oft-disembodied (though primarily identifiably light-skinned) figures in Apple’s U.S. commercials and billboards. As such, they blended the commercial and the amateur, taking a part in the new Internet “hybrid economies” of the social-network market (Lessig, 2008).
In the spirit of YouTube’s slogan “Broadcast Yourself,” the site allowed for a parent to portray their progeny and their technology as extensions of themselves. The videos suggest parallel, linear developments in the upgrading of hardware and software with the often staggered development of children. Phrases to describe this population of children, such as “iGeneration” or “Generation 2.0” employ this rhetoric of nascent technology and nascent beings.
As children outgrow their clothes and toys, a certain demographic of parents in these videos displayed a need to “keep pace,” introducing their children to the newest digital technologies as soon as they came to market. In The Second Self, Turkle describes how the first generation of personal computers in the 1980s also flourished in part to this generational ambiguity: “Onto such complex and ambivalent images manufacturers project more concrete promises as well: the machine will help Father with his finances, mother with her writing, the children with their schoolwork. The machine is presented as a way of asserting status, a way of saying that this is someone who has not been left behind” (Turkle, 1984, p. 184). These videos help us understand the role communications technologies play as both physical and symbolic objects among generations of children and adults.
Social Media and the Home Learning Environment
When we talk about the social impact of these devices and the ways these YouTube videos portray them, it makes sense to talk about the culture that develops around them rather than solely talking about the isolated usefulness of the devises. The ritualized behavior of children’s play with toys and tools is not just expressive of their problems and conflicts, but also an attempt to work through symbolic solutions (Erikson, 1963). Solutions can be developed through children’s independent, dependent, and co-configured use (Vygotsky, 1978). The child’s play as represented in these videos introduces another layer to this independent/dependent dynamic, as other people can only be made aware of the parent-child experience with these devices through the adult’s capturing and dissemination of these moments. Technology forges a link between the home learning environment and the social media environment.
In terms of intergenerational relationships, educational children’s apps have the potential to transform the device into a tool for practicing pre-literacy skills and hand-eye coordination, as well as provide an opportunity for practicing a conversation about consciousness, feelings, and intentions between parents and children. Technology use can spur mediated but also interpersonal communication (Fisch, Shulman, Akerman, & Levin, 2002). Most of the parents in these YouTube videos engaged their children in conversation, and provided praise for their children’s efforts. There is little evidence that these devices – independent of environmental and contextual factors in childrens’ learning ecologies – are actually improving children’s academic outcomes, social and emotional development, or physical activity.
There was also much in these videos to analyze through the lenses of social and developmental psychology. Freud, Piaget, and Bandura provide a great deal of insight into the way the children interacted with their parents and the Apple devices in these videos. To touch briefly and all too shallowly on one such analysis, Jacques Lacan’s Wallon- and Freudian-inspired psychoanalytic mirror stage theory focuses not just on the child’s relation to his or her image or behavior in a mirror, but also the child’s relation to other children as a way of presenting physical mastery in the form of an image or set of behaviors (Lacan, 1977). In The Second Self, Turkle relates this self-referential mirroring to children and technology to creating “storm centers in the mind” (Turkle, 1984, p. 33). A baby laughing while watching a video on an iPad of a laughing baby watching another laughing baby on an iPad might create its own cognitive “storm center.”
Within these YouTube videos, children displayed the ability to practice the orientation of their bodies to the Apple devices and gain the class-based advantages of a home digital learning environment at an early age. The 2.5 year-old in “A 2.5 Year-Old Has A First Encounter with An iPad” already had practice with the touchscreen Apple interface, which was presented as “natural” and without effort in the context of the video. Bourdieu writes that this advantage of cultural capital via domestic access “has nothing ‘academic’, ‘scholastic’, ‘bookish’, ‘affected’ or ‘studied’ about it, but manifests by its ease and naturalness that true culture is nature – a new mystery of immaculate conception” (Bourdieu, 1984, p. 68).
The videos shape a narrative that children with this enhanced pedigree and privileged cultural capital are natural. By being introduced at an early age to a “noble” instrument of cultural capital, be it a piano or an iPhone, the bourgeois child bears the least visible marks of inculturation to an industrialized, networked society. Ellen Seiter traces the legacy of home technology in the middle-class home from computers back to pianos in living rooms. She writes that such children experience “the privileged role of early domestic learning in gaining the ‘right’ skills, the kind of competence that seems to come naturally and is therefore of higher status than what is learned at an institution such as a public school” (Seiter, 2007, p. 29). This early exposure to digital technologies at home might have implications for the ability for children to benefit from technology use as adults, be it in the “workforce” (if there any jobs to be had) and/or as lifelong scholars. These videos, in contrast to the opportunities that most children globally will never have, are evidence of a widening “participation gap” (Jenkins et al, 2006).
My analysis is limited by significant methodological shortcomings and theoretical underdevelopment. Methodologically, my analysis was limited to YouTube videos featuring Apple products. Other operating systems, such as Android, offer products with similar touch capabilities. However, Android systems have much greater security flaws and hacking vulnerabilities than iOS, leading to more cautious adoption by developers creating content for young children. Generally, parents have greater control over the content on their devices using native apps (versus mobile apps or the Internet), of which Apple has the largest share of the market. My sample was limited to 85 brief videos, thus my findings are not generalizable to the entire population of parents and children using Apple devices, nor even completely representative of this entire somewhat random group of videos. Each caregiver and child presented in these videos can certainly not be fully personally represented by a single short clip. The research could also have benefited from a more in depth look at the content of the apps the children used.
Theoretically, the lack of contextual information regarding the parents and children also confounds a thorough understanding of the intended audience of these videos (e.g. known others, family, peers, talent scouts, Apple executives). I am not privy to the multiple layers of these exchanges, so an analysis of these videos as a form of economic, social, and cultural currency is incomplete. A sustained class analysis would benefit from a more thorough probing of race and gender, but it would be quite speculative considering the limited information available about the children and parents in the videos via YouTube. If I were to expand my sample, I would also have to reframe the “children acting their age” section by subcategories to account for developmental stages and milestones over a range of ages (infant to potty training). There are also richer ways to engage with existing research in the area of parent-child relationships and the mediation of technology, as well literature more broadly on social/technological interfaces and technology consumption, creation, and distribution.
In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins addresses the social protocols that develop around media delivery systems, encompassing “the economic, legal, social and cultural practices that emerge surrounding a new communication medium” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 331). The role of YouTube and other forms of social media in the home learning environment may shape the protocols around how home videos as a genre are watched, made, and shared.
For children and families, these YouTube videos can provide the ability to remember loved ones and serve as heuristics for childhood memories. However, as Robert Heverly writes, “Where children are entangled in and become a part of digital media artifacts, we must consider the nature, importance, and future potential of that entanglement when thinking about the creation of and control over those artifacts” (Heverly, 2007, p. 201). The positive and negative are likely to coexist in what technology does to and with children and, perhaps most importantly, what children do to and with technology, particularly in terms of the creation, distribution, and persistence of digital artifacts.
Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. (R. Nice, Tran.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.) Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241-258). New York: Greenwood. http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/fr/bourdieu-forms-capital.htm
Erikson, E. H. (1963). Toys and reasons. In Childhood and society (pp. 21-108). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Fisch, S. M., Shulman, J. S., Akerman, A., & Levin, G. A. (2002). Reading between the pixels: Parent-child interaction while reading online storybooks. Early Education & Development, 13(4), 435-451.
Foucault, M. (1988). Technologies of the self. In L. H. Martin, H. Gutman, & P. H. Hutton (Eds.), Technologies of the self (pp. 16-49). Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
Heverly, R. A. (2007). Growing up digital: Control and the pieces of a digital life. In T. McPherson (Ed.), Digital youth, innovation, and the unexpected. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning (pp. 199-218). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Lacan, J. (1977). Écrits: A selection. (A. Sheridan & B. Fink, Trans.). New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Lessig, L. (2008). Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy. New York: Penguin.
Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press.
Jenkins, H., Clinton, K., Purushotma, R., Robison, A. J., & Weigel, M. (2006). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the Twenty-first Century. MacArthur Foundation.
Seiter, E. (2007). Practicing at home: Computers, pianos, and cultural capital. In T. McPherson (Ed.), Digital youth, innovation, and the unexpected, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning (pp. 27-52). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Smith, J. R. (2010, October 6). Would you want a digital footprint from birth? AVG Blogs. Retrieved December 2, 2010, from http://jrsmith.blog.avg.com/2010/10/would-you-want-a-digital-footprint-from-birth.html
Turkle, S. (1984). The second self: Computers and the human spirit. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Other Relevant Resources
Alanen, L. (2001). Childhood as a generational condition. In L. Alanen & B. Mayall (Eds.), Conceptualising child–adult relationships (pp. 129-143). London: Falmer.
Alexander, V. A. (1994). The image of children in magazine advertisements from 1905-1990. Communication Research, 21, 742-765.
Banet-Weiser, S. (2004). Surfin’ the net: Children, parental obsolescence, and citizenship. In M. Sturken, D. Thomas, & S. J. Ball-Rokeach (Eds.), Technological visions: The hopes and fears that shape new technologies (pp. 270-292). Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
Chalfen, R. (1987). Snapshot versions of life. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press.
Longhurst, R. (2009). YouTube: a new space for birth? Feminist Review, 93(1), 46-63. doi:10.1057/fr.2009.22
Wartella, E. A., & Jennings, N. (2000). Children and computers: New technology. old concerns. The Future of Children, 10(2), 31-43.