Children are not only born digital, they are fashioned toward a lifestyle that needs them to be digital all the time (Palfrey and Gasser). They click, tap, save, circulate, download, and upload the texts of their lives, their friends’ lives, and the anonymous lives of the people that surround them. They are socialised as Internet consumers ready to participate in digital services targeted to them as they age such as Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube. But they are also fashioned as producers, whereby their lives are sold as content on these same markets. As commodities, the minutiae of their lives become the fodder for online circulation.
Paradoxically, we also celebrate these digital behaviours as a means to express identity. Personal profile-building for adults is considered agency-building (Beer and Burrows), and as a consequence, we praise children for mimicking these acts of adult lifestyle. This article reflects on the Kids, Creative Storyworlds, and Wearables project, which involved an ethnographic study with five young children (ages 4-7), who were asked to share their autobiographical stories, creative self-narrations, and predictions about their future mediated lives (Atkins et al.). For this case study, we focus on commercialised forms of children’s automedia, and we compare discussions we had with 6-year old Cayden, a child we met in the study who expresses the desire to make himself famous online, with videos of Jacob, a child vlogger on YouTube’s Kinder Playtime, who clearly influences children like Cayden. We argue that child social influencers need consideration both as autobiographical agents and as child subjects requiring a sheltered approach to their online lives.
Automedia is an emergent genre of autobiography (Smith and Watson Reading 190; “Virtually Me” 78). Broadcasting one’s life online takes many forms (Kennedy “Vulnerability”). Ümit Kennedy argues “Vlogging on YouTube is a contemporary form of autobiography in which individuals engage in a process of documenting their life on a daily or weekly basis and, in doing so, construct[ing] their identity online” (“Exploring”). Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson write that “visual and digital modes are projecting and circulating not just new subjects but new notions of subjectivity through the effects of automediality” with the result that “the archive of the self in time, in space and in relation expands and is fundamentally reorganized” (Reading 190). Emma Maguire addresses what online texts “tell us about cultural understandings of selfhood and what it means to communicate ‘real’ life through media” naming one tool, “automedia”. Further, Julie Rak calls on scholars “to rethink ‘life’ and ‘writing’ as automedia” to further “characterize the enactment of a personal life story in a new media environment.”
We define automedia as a genre that involves the practices of creating, performing, sharing, circulating, and (at times) preserving one’s digital life narrative meant for multiple publics. Automedia revises identity formation, embodiment, or corporealities in acts of self-creation (Brophy and Hladki 4). Automedia also emphasizes circulation. As shared digital life texts now circulate through the behaviours of other human subjects, and automatically via algorithms in data assemblages, we contend that automediality currently involves a measure of relinquishing control over perpetually evolving mediatised environments. One cannot control how a shared life narrative will meet a public in the future, which is a revised way of thinking about autobiography. For the sake of this paper, we argue that children’s automedia ought to be considered a creative, autobiographical act, in order to afford child authors who create them the consideration they deserve as agents, now and in the future.
Automedial practices often begin when children receive access to a device. The need for a distraction activity is often the reason parents hand a young child a smartphone, iPad, or even a wearable camera (Nansen). Mirroring the lives of parents, children aspire to share representations of their own personal lives in pursuit of social capital. They are often encouraged to use technologies and apps as adults do–to track aspects of self, broadcast life stories and eventually “live share” them—effectively creating, performing, sharing, and at times, seeking to preserve a public life narrative. With this practice, society inculcates children into spheres of device ubiquity, “socializing them to a future digital lifestyle that will involve always carrying a computer in some form” (Atkins et al. 49). Consequently, their representations become inculcated in larger media assemblages.
Writing about toddlers, Nansen describes how the “archiving, circulation and reception of these images speaks to larger assemblages of media in which software protocols and algorithms are increasingly embedded in and help to configure everyday life (e.g. Chun; Gillespie), including young children’s media lives (Ito)” (Nansen). Children, like adult citizens, are increasingly faced with choices “not structured by their own preferences but by the economic imperatives of the private corporations that have recently come to dominate the internet” (Andrejevic). Recent studies have shown that for children and youth in the digital age, Internet fame, often characterized by brand endorsements, is a major aspiration (Uhls and Greenfield, 2). However, despite the ambition to participate as celebrity digital selves, children are also mired in the calls to shield them from exposure to screens through institutions that label these activities detrimental. In many countries, digital “protections” are outlined by privacy commissioners and federal or provincial/state statutes, (e.g. Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada). Consequently, children are often caught in a paradox that defines them either as literate digital agents able to compose or participate with their online selves, or as subjectified wards caught up in commercial practices that exploit their lives for commercial gain.
Kids, Creative Storyworlds and Wearables Project
Both academic and popular cultural critics continually discuss the future but rarely directly engage the people who will be empowered (or subjugated) by it as young adults in twenty years. To address children’s lack of agency in these discussions, we launched the Kids, Creative Storyworlds and Wearables project to bring children into a dialogue about their own digital futures. Much has been written on childhood agency and participation in culture and mediated culture from the discipline of sociology (James and James; Jenks; Jenkins). In previous work, we addressed the perspective of child autobiographical feature filmmakers to explore issues of creative agency and consent when adult gatekeepers facilitate children in film production (Pedersen and Aspevig “My Eyes”; Pedersen and Aspevig “Swept”). Drawing on that previous work, this project concentrates on children’s automediated lives and the many unique concerns that materialize with digital identity-building. Children are categorised as a vulnerable demographic group necessitating special policy and legislation, but the lives they project as children will eventually become subsumed in their own adult lives, which will almost certainly be treated and mediated in a much different manner in the future. We focused on this landscape, and sought to query the children on their futures, also considering the issues that arise when adult gatekeepers get involved with child social media influencers.
In the Storyworlds ethnographic study, children were given a wearable toy, a Vtech smartwatch called Kidizoom, to use over a month’s timeframe to serve as a focal point for ethnographic conversations. The Kidizoom watch enables children to take photos and videos, which are uploaded to a web interface. Before we gave them the tech, we asked them questions about their lives, including What are machines going to be like in the future? Can you imagine yourself wearing a certain kind of computer? Can you tell/draw a story about that? If you could wear a computer that gave you a super power, what would it be? Can you use your imagination to think of a person in a story who would use technology? In answering, many of them drew autobiographical drawings of technical inventions, and cast themselves in the images. We were particularly struck by the comments made by one participant, Cayden (pseudonym), a 6-year-old boy, and the stories he told us about himself and his aspirations. He expressed the desire to host a YouTube channel about his life, his activities, and the wearable technologies his family already owned (e.g. a GroPro camera) and the one we gave him, the Kidizoom smartwatch. He talked about how he would be proud to publically broadcast his own videos on YouTube, and about the role he had been allowed to play in the making of videos about his life (that were not broadcast).
To contextualize Cayden’s commentary and his automedial aspirations, we extended our study to explore child social media influencers who broadcast components of their personal lives for the deliberate purpose of popularity and the financial gain of their parents.
We selected the videos of Jacob, a child vlogger because we judged them to be representative of the kinds that Cayden watched. Jacob reviews toys through “unboxing videos,” a genre in which a child tells an online audience her or his personal experiences using new toys in regular, short videos on a social media site. Jacob appears on a YouTube channel called Kinder Playtime, which appears to be a parent-run channel that states that, “We enjoy doing these things while playing with our kids: Jacob, Emily, and Chloe” (see Figure 1). In one particular video, Jacob reviews the Kidizoom watch, serving as a child influencer for the product. By understanding Jacob’s performance as agent-driven automedia, as well as being a commercialised, mediatised form of advertising, we get a clearer picture of how the children in the study are coming to terms with their own digital selfhood and the realisation that circulated, life-exposing videos are the expectation in this context.
Children are implicated in a range of ways through “family” influencer and toy unboxing videos, which are emergent entertainment industries (Abidin 1; Nansen and Nicoll; Craig and Cunningham 77). In particular, unboxing videos do impact child viewers, especially when children host them. Jackie Marsh emphasizes the digital literacy practices at play here that co-construct viewers as “cyberflâneur[s]” and she states that “this mode of cultural transmission is a growing feature of online practices for this age group” (369). Her stress, however, is on how the child viewer enjoys “the vicarious pleasure he or she may get from viewing the playing of another child with the toy” (376). Marsh writes that her study subject, a child called “Gareth”, “was not interested in being made visible to EvanHD [a child celebrity social media influencer] or other online peers, but was content to consume” the unboxing videos. The concept of the cyberflâneur, then, is fitting as a mediatising co-constituting process of identity-building within discourses of consumerism. However, in our study, the children, and especially Cayden, also expressed the desire to create, host, and circulate their own videos that broadcast their lives, also demonstrating awareness that videos are valorised in their social circles. Child viewers watch famous children perform consumer-identities to create an aura of influence, but viewers simultaneously aspire to become influencers using automedial performances, in essence, becoming products, themselves.
Jacob, Automedial Subjects and Social Media Influencers
Jacob is a vlogger on YouTube whose videos can garner millions of views, suggesting that he is also an influencer. In one video, he appears to be around the age of six as he proudly sits with folded hands, bright eyes, and a beaming, but partly toothless smile (see Figure 2). He says, “Welcome to Kinder Playtime! Today we have the Kidi Zoom Smartwatch DX. It’s from VTech” (Kinder Playtime). We see the Kidi Zoom unboxed and then depicted in stylized animations amid snippets of Jacob’s smiling face. The voice and hands of a faceless parent guide Jacob as he uses his new wearable toy. We listen to both parent and child describe numerous features for recording and enhancing the wearer’s daily habits (e.g. calculator, calendar, fitness games), and his dad tells him it has a pedometer “which tracks your steps” (Kinder Playtime). But the watch is also used by Jacob to mediate himself and his world. We see that Jacob takes pictures of himself on the tiny watch screen as he acts silly for the camera. He also uses the watch to take personal videos of his mother and sister in his home. The video ends with his father mentioning bedtime, which prompts a “thank you” to VTech for giving him the watch, and a cheerful “Bye!” from Jacob (Kinder Playtime).
Figure 1: Screenshot of Kinder Playtime YouTube channel, About page
Figure 2: Screenshot of “Jacob,” a child vlogger at Kinder Playtime
We chose Jacob for three reasons. First, he is the same age as the children in the Storyworlds study. Second, he reviews the smart watch artifact that we gave to the study children, so there was a common use of automedia technology. Third, Jacob’s parents were involved with his broadcasts, and we wanted to work within the boundaries of parent-sanctioned practices. However, we also felt that his playful approach was a good example of how social media influence overlaps with automediality.
Jacob is a labourer trading his public self-representations in exchange for free products and revenue earned through the monetisation of his content on YouTube. It appears that much of what Jacob says is scripted, particularly the promotional statements, like, “Today we have the Kidizoom Smartwatch DX. It’s from VTech. It’s the smartest watch for kids” (Kinder Playtime). Importantly, as an automedial subject Jacob reveals aspects of his self and his identity, in the manner of many child vloggers on public social media sites. His product reviews are contextualised within a commoditised space that provides him a means for the public performance of his self, which, via YouTube, has the potential to reach an enormous audience. YouTube claims to have “over a billion users—almost one-third of all people on the Internet—and every day people watch hundreds of millions of hours on YouTube and generate billions of views” (YouTube).
Significantly, he is not only filmed by others, Jacob is also a creative practitioner, as Cayden aspired to become. Jacob uses high-tech toys, in this case, a new wearable technology for self-compositions (the smart watch), to record himself, friends, family or simply the goings-on around him. Strapped to his wrist, the watch toy lets him play at being watched, at being quantified and at recording the life stories of others, or constructing automediated creations for himself, which he may upload to numerous social media sites.
This is the start of his online automediated life, which will be increasingly under his ownership as he ages. To greater or lesser degrees, he will later be able to curate, add to, and remediate his body of automedia, including his digital past. Kennedy points out that “people are using YouTube as a transformative tool, and mirror, to document, construct, and present their identity online” (“Exploring”). Her focus is on adult vloggers who consent to their activities. Jacob’s automedia is constructed collaboratively with his parents, and it is unclear how much awareness he has of himself as an automedia creator. However, if we don’t afford Jacob the same consideration as we afford adult autobiographers, that the depiction of his life is his own, we will reduce his identity performance to pure artifice or advertisement.
The questions Jacob’s videos raise around agency, consent, and creativity are important here. Sidonie Smith asks “Can there be a free, agentic space; and if so, where in the world can it be found?” (Manifesto 188). How much agency does Jacob have? Is there a liberating aspect in the act of putting personal technology into the hands of a child who can record his life, himself? And finally, how would an adult Jacob feel about his childhood self advertising these products online? Is this really automediality if Jacob does not fully understand what it means to publicly tell a mediated life story?
These queries lead to concerns over child social media influence with regard to legal protection, marketing ethics, and user consent. The rise of “fan marketing” presents a nexus of stealth marketing to children by other children. Stealth marketing involves participants, in this case, fans, who do not know they are involved in an advertising scheme. For instance, the popular Minecon Minecraft conference event sessions have pushed their audience to develop the skills to become advocates and advertisers of their products, for example by showing audiences how to build a YouTube channel and sharing tips for growing a community. Targeting children in marketing ploys seems insidious. Marketing analyst Sandy Fleisher describes the value of outsourcing marketing to fan labourers:
while Grand Theft Auto spent $120 million on marketing its latest release, Minecraft fans are being taught how to create and market promotional content themselves. One [example] is Minecraft YouTuber, SkydoesMinecraft. His nearly 7 million strong YouTube army, almost as big as Justin Bieber’s, means his daily videos enjoy a lot of views; 1,419,734,267 to be precise.
While concerns about meaningful consent that practices like this raise have led some government bodies, and consumer and child protection groups to advocate restrictions for children, other critics have questioned the limits placed on children’s free expression by such restrictions. Tech commentator Larry Magid has written that, “In the interest of protecting children, we sometimes deny them the right to access material and express themselves.” Meghan M. Sweeney notes that “the surge in collaborative web models and the emphasis on interactivity—frequently termed Web 2.0—has meant that children are not merely targets of global media organizations” but have “multiple opportunities to be active, critical, and resistant producers”...and ”may be active agents in the production and dissemination of information” (68). Nevertheless, writes Sweeney, “corporate entities can have restrictive effects on consumers” (68), by for example, limiting imaginative play to the choices offered on a Disney website, or limiting imaginative topics to commercial products (toys, video games etc), as in YouTube review videos.
Automedia is an important site from which to consider young children’s online practices in public spheres. Jacob’s performance is indeed meant to influence the choice to buy a toy, but it is also meant to influence others in knowing Jacob as an identity. He means to share and circulate his self. Julie Rak recalls Paul John Eakin’s claims about life-writing that the “process does not even occur at the level of writing, but at the level of living, so that identity formation is the result of narrative-building.” We view Jacob’s performance along these lines. Kinder Playtime offers him a constrained, parent-sanctioned (albeit commercialised) space for role-playing, a practice bound up with identity-formation in the life of most children. To think through the legality of recognising Jacob’s automedial content as his life, Rak is also useful: “In Eakin’s work in particular, we can see evidence of John Locke’s contention that identity is the expression of consciousness which is continuous over time, but that identity is also a product, one’s own property which is a legal entity”. We have argued that children are often caught in the paradox that defines them either as literate digital creators composing and circulating their online selves or as subjectified personas caught up in commercial advertising practices that use their lives for commercial gain. However, through close observation of individual children, one who we met and questioned in our study, Cayden, the other who we met through his mediated, commercialized, and circulated online persona, Jacob, we argue that child social influencers need consideration as autobiographical agents expressing themselves through automediality. As children create, edit, and grow digital traces of their lives and selves, how these texts are framed becomes increasingly important, in part because their future adult selves have such a stake in the matter: they are being formed through automedia. Moreover, these children’s coming of age may bring legal questions about the ownership of their automedial products such as YouTube videos, an enduring legacy they are leaving behind for their adult selves. Crucially, if we reduce identity performances such as unboxing, toy review videos, and other forms of children’s fan marketing to pure advertisement, we cannot afford Jacob and other child influencers the agency that their self representation is legally and artistically their own.
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