Wooden toys have been a staple in many family homes. Even LEGO's iconic plastic building blocks had humble beginnings as wooden toys (Lauwaert). Arguably, the materiality of wooden toys evokes normative feelings of nostalgia for a simpler past, where the uncomplicated nature of the wooden product provided the space for all sorts of imaginative play. It is through this lens that we find the adaptation of wooden toys into playsets that emulate particular vocations, like a doctor's kit and a carpenter's toolbox, an interesting entry point to consider the boundary of what is an acceptable toy within the contemporary wooden toy genre. And it is the blurry nature of this boundary, as exemplified by public outcry regarding a wooden vlogger set that had a ringlight, which is the subject of this article.
In Australia in May 2022, global supermarket chain Aldi released a set of wooden toys for children aged 3+ based on various technologies used in contemporary jobs in the creative industries (Wannis). These ‘futuristic’ role-play toy sets (Kanna)—which sat alongside more ‘traditional’ vocation sets about transport, cooking, and manufacturing—included a wooden laptop set, a DJ set, and a vlogger set. The vlogger set came with a rope-like ringlight on a tripod, a wooden point-and-shoot camera, mobile phone device, and remote microphone with a receiver (see fig. 1 & 2). The wooden vlogger set replicates the real-life experience of using a ringlight, a round, donut-like light that often attaches to a recording device or a tripod to create an even lighting effect. The ringlight has become a symbol of content creation on social media and the Influencer industry—a cultural practice and line of work that often evokes negative connotations (Abidin, "Aren’t These"). And we see these negative connotations evidenced through an instance of public criticism on social media about the wooden vlogger set, which stands as a proxy for more significant concerns about children and digital media.
Fig. 1 & 2: Outer box of wooden vlogger set, sold at Aldi in May 2022. (Photo by authors.)
First shared as a story on Instagram by a private account, a follower and journalist then re-shared an image of the box for the wooden vlogger set to Twitter with the caption ‘it’s a no for me’. Many public comments under this tweet agreed with the original poster’s sentiment, calling the toy ‘exploitative’ and ‘dire’, exclaiming ‘wtf [what the fuck]’ and ‘absolutely not’. Other comments mocked the toy by joking ‘like and subscribe’ and rebranded it as ‘my little influencer’; a take on the popular 1980s toy series My Little Pony. This public opposition to the wooden vlogger set stands out as an interesting case study to interrogate how the convergence of wooden toys with contemporary technologies (re)surfaces moral panic regarding children and digital media.
The wooden vlogger set, and specifically the symbolism of the toy ringlight, forms the basis of a case study into how digital technologies provoke moral panic about children’s (future) media practices. We highlight in this article that while moral panic about young people and their relationship with new media is a longstanding practice, the development of new media technologies—including the ringlight which is used to aid digital media production—evokes what Marwick calls technopanic, that is, exaggerated fears about young people's online practices which result in the denial or removal of access to said technologies. While we take the stance that content creation on social media is a valid and valuable practice, in this article we highlight how toys like the wooden vlogger set continue to be met with trepidation from some adults due to their connections with taking selfies and the Influencer industry on social media—as evidenced by the social media comments mentioned above. Furthermore, we argue in this article that these technopanics, evidenced by the public outcry on social media to the wooden vlogger set, obscure the opportunity that toys that replicate digital media technologies can afford, such as developing media literacy through playful, offline, and analogue ways.
In the first section of the article, we argue that the toy ringlight acts as a proxy for media practices that endorses young children spending time online in ways that some consider problematic. We argue that these fears are an illustration of technopanic. In the second section of the article, we argue how the toy ringlight offers children a way to connect with imagined futures (and the present) by mimicking the everyday media practices they see elsewhere—through their families, media consumption, and popular culture. Studies have shown how children’s play can sometimes be based on popular culture, including television programs (Marsh and Bishop). We argue that as children today watch content creators on YouTube Kids and their parents use technology, they are learning about everyday media practices. The wooden vlogger set offers a way for children to explore those practices. We conclude the article by advocating that opposition to the wooden vlogger set is misdirected energy, as the critical skills of media literacy can be nurtured precisely through play with toys like the ringlight and wooden vlogger set.
Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Children!
The public outcry over this wooden vlogger set is another example of moral panic regarding children and their participation with the media. Moral panic is defined as an overreaction to a perceived social problem; they are often temporal, in the sense of being short-lived, and the media are known as a driving factor that reproduces and compounds the supposed concerns (Critcher; Hall). Historical illustrations of moral panics are known to involve youths and youth culture with the example of ‘mod and rockers’ in the 1960s (Cohen), ‘youth gangs’ in the 1980s (Zatz), and more recently, the ‘Tide-Pod Challenge’ that conjured panic about youths eating dishwashing pods for clout on social media (Sleight-Price et al.). By framing public opposition to the wooden vlogger set as an example of moral panic, we aim to draw attention to the media ecology which this toy signifies, and critically unpack the ways in which it plays into longstanding concerns about children and new media.
To critically examine the moral panic about the vlogger set, we first draw attention to the vocation imitated through the wooden toy: a vlogger. The term ‘vlogger’ stands for ‘video-blogger’, a dominant form of user-created content shared on social media platforms like YouTube, that centres on recording the ‘ordinary’ aspects of one's life (Burgess and Green). It is important to underscore that engaging in practices of vlogging does not inherently mean that this is one's vocation, as a person can vlog as a hobby or creative outlet. But the more contemporary term associated with being a vlogger, that is, an ‘Influencer’, muddles the conception of what it means to vlog due to the increasing platformisation of cultural production (Duffy et al.). An Influencer is an ordinary Internet user who has accumulated “a relatively large following on blogs and social media through the textual and visual narration of their personal lives and lifestyles” who then “monetise their following by integrating advertorials into their blog or social media posts” (Abidin, "Aren’t These" 3). Advertorials—a term that combines ‘advertising’ and ‘editorial’—are the “highly personalised, opinion-laden promotions of products/services that Influencers personally experience and endorse for a fee” (Abidin, "Micromicrocelebrity" par. 3). The increasing commercialisation of content creation on digital media platforms has been met with criticism regarding the erosion of authenticity (Arriagada and Bishop). This is because Influencers are seen to adapt their media practices, and arguably part of themselves, to fit the logics of the platform, such as producing particular types of content to increase views, like taking ‘selfies’.
One of the key signifiers of vlogging or being an Influencer on social media is ‘the selfie’, a self-made image of oneself, for which the ringlight plays a central role. Ringlights are used “to take brighter, clearer, high-resolution photographs” or videos, wherein the “even” lighting avoids casting “unsightly shadows” on faces and bodies (Abidin, "Aren’t These" 12). It is this utility of the ringlight that evokes conceptions that dismiss posting selfies as “frivolous and self-absorbed” (Tiidenberg and Gómez Cruz 78). Selfies have been argued as promoting “negative feminine stereotypes” such as “feminine vanity and triviality” as they are seen to be performative of particular conceptions around beauty (Burns 1716-1718). As such, Abidin argues in “‘Aren’t These Just Young, Rich Women Doing Vain Things Online?’: Influencer Selfies as Subversive Frivolity”, drawing on the work of Dobson and Coffey, that selfies anchor moral panics over the safety and wellbeing, particularly of women, online. Again, while we take the stance that no value judgement ought to be cast towards the use of ringlights in touching up appearances, as lighting is often used as a tool in both everyday and commercial media production, we argue that the toy ringlight brings forth these anxieties around vanity for some adults.
The toy ringlight manifests these grievances about Influencers and, specifically, child influencers. Controversy about child influencers or ‘kidfluencers’ continues to fuel debate about the presence and exploitation of children in online media entertainment. A media practice known as “sharenting”, where parents share footage of their children as they grow up online (Blum-Rose), means that children can amass large followings on social media and become “micro-microcelebrities” (Abidin, "Micromicrocelebrity"). Notably, one of the public comments in opposition to the wooden vlogger set situated their grievance in the fact that the toy is designed for children aged 3+; as though the toy advocates for the notion of kidinfluencers—a prospect framed in the comment as inherently problematic. While the existence of kidfluencers is complex in nature—as both rewarding and challenging outcomes surmount from the practice—concerns about children’s privacy and online exploitation experiences dominate the issue. The problematic nature of child influencers is exemplified through notorious cases such as YouTube channel DaddyOFive, where the children’s reactions to ‘pranks’ were exploited for views (Leaver and Abidin). And issues regarding children promoting products or services online are raised through examples such as child unboxing videos on YouTube (Craig and Cunningham).
Concerns regarding child influencers understandably call for greater consideration of how children participate with online media practices. It is essential to critically examine exploitative commercialisation practices and champion children’s right to privacy (Livingstone et al.; Verdoodt et al.). At the same time, it is important to remember that not all media produced by children, or by parents with children, are inherently harmful. The notion that children have this innate innocence that needs protection from the media is an established trope known to spur moral panic.
Panic around mass media and their ‘bad’ influence on youth and youth culture, including children, is not a new phenomenon (Springhall). For example, media theorist Neil Postman famously argued in the 1980s that the “new media environment, with television at its centre, is leading to the rapid disappearance of childhood” (286). It is an argument that suggests that children’s increasingly mediated lives through communication technologies ‘force’ them to live in an ‘adult’s world’; thus eroding their childhood. We argue that the toy ringlight in the wooden vlogger set stimulates this same type of thinking, as though playing with the toy will ‘force’ children into the ‘adult world’ of social media production—which is not exclusively true. Through this lens, we also extend our argument that the opposition to the toy is not only a moral panic but, specifically, a technopanic.
Panics occur when adults begin to be excluded from the ways young people engage with the media (Leick). The toy ringlight—as a proxy to ‘unsavoury’ new media practices—thus taps into a generational concern. A concept that helps explain this phenomenon is what Marwick calls a technopanic. Technopanics relies on the idea that harm will come to children through the use of new media technologies, and thus a justification is made to restrict access. In this way, the potential benefits of engaging with new media technologies, like the toy ringlight, are ignored in favour of focussing on the negative and exaggerated harms the media cause (Buckingham). This opposition fails to recognise that as technologies and media practices emerge, there are new risks but also new opportunities for children (Livingstone).
Developing Media Literacy through the Toy Ringlight
Ringlights are now prolific, not only among Influencers or those involved in social media production. Interest in ringlights has grown considerably since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with searches for the term rising dramatically in March 2020 (Google Trend for ‘Ring Light’). Although the toy ringlight in the wooden vlogger set is not digital, in that there are no electronic components and it does not connect to any networks, there are opportunities for the toy to help children develop digital media literacy understandings from an early age through playful exploration. Above, we have discussed how adults perceive the toy ringlight and how it mirrors the everyday and commercial media practices of adults, which can be confronting for some. Here, we examine how children could explore the toy ringlight through play. Children learn about technology through everyday familial practices (Plowman and Stevenson). Those children without access to a ringlight in their everyday life will likely treat the toy differently from what the toy creators anticipated. However, children who share technology practices with their families (e.g. seeing parents use a ringlight for Zoom meetings) or learn these through popular culture (e.g. seeing ringlights used by their favourite content creators on YouTube Kids) will have a different set of practices more closely aligned to the intended use of a toy ringlight to play and experiment with.
Ringlights are part of the fabric of everyday life for many people and their use is not inherently positive or negative. Instead, they contribute to our increasingly complex media practices. Toys and everyday tools provided across different aspects of children’s lives offer ways to engage with and transfer knowledge of cultural and everyday experiences (Sheina et al.). The ringlight as an object can provide opportunities for children to play with the material practices of media production in ways that reflect the cultural experiences and practices they are part of. Bird contends that technologies, including non-working technologies such as old keyboards and phones, provide children with opportunities to engage with concepts related to the digital, as they bring to life experiences they have observed through imaginative play. We argue that the toy ringlight is situated within the concept of converged play, where the boundary between digital and non-digital play has blurred significantly (Marsh; Wood et al.). The material and the digital can be attended to when we consider how young children engage in play (Marsh et al.).
Through play with material objects, like the wooden vlogger set and the toy ringlight, children engage with their worlds and learn the processes, practices, and concepts of media production. Pretend play can support children’s exploration of digital ideas (Vogt and Hollenstein) as they learn to communicate and tell stories. In a media production sense, Buckingham says that children and young people can deepen their understanding of the media by imitating media forms and styles. Playing with technology can serve similar purposes to playing with traditional toys (Robb and Lauricella). Similarly, we argue that children playing with toys that replicate social media production, such as the wooden vlogger set, are also developing early understandings of media literacy.
As young children tell stories, play, and communicate with friends through new digital technologies, they develop an understanding of the media. Media literacy, the ability to critically engage with the media in our everyday lives (Australia Media Literacy Alliance), develops over time (Potter). The toy ringlight does not have to be positioned as problematic as per the technopanic we described earlier. Instead, it offers opportunities for children to explore and reflect on the key concepts of media literacy: technologies, institutions, representations, languages, audiences, and relationships.
There are two scenarios where the concept of technologies could be central to children's play using the wooden vlogger set and toy ringlight. Firstly, the toy has multiple components that work together. Children can explore how the camera, light and lapel microphone connect to the device. They can consider if they need all these components and play the different roles required to operate the technology. Secondly, by incorporating the toy into their play, children can develop understandings of the role of digital technology in their lives and how it impacts or shapes media practices. Technologies allow or prevent certain choices from being made (Lüders; Williamson). The wooden vlogger set operates similarly, although children can use the toy outside of these constraints, resulting in forms of disruption. The practices of engaging with media technologies can be bound socially and culturally (du Gay et al.), and through materials (Burnett and Merchant); as children, the wooden vlogger set, and their context come into relation with each other.
While the technology is visible to children and adults in this case, working in conjunction with the notion of using technology is the idea of how we use technology to distribute or share our media productions. This refers to the concept of institutions, which offers a lens for how to examine the business of the media and who benefits from media production and distribution—including media platforms—politically, socially, and economically (Alvarado). The inclusion of the small device that looks like a mobile phone in the wooden vlogger set hints at the toy privileging sharing and distribution practices. The various app icons painted on the wooden toy phone provide an opportunity for children to play with the idea of sharing their productions with others. Some children might play with ideas of uploading their productions to YouTube or other social media platforms if that is something they have been exposed to, integrating the digital and non-digital.
Media productions do not exist in a technological vacuum. We use media technologies to communicate meaning and tell stories—we (re)present people, places, events, and ideas for a range of purposes (Masterman) through the construction of codes and conventions (Buckingham). Through incorporating the wooden vlogger set into their play, children can experiment with different media forms and representations, where they might, for instance, depict characters (e.g. heroes or villains), locations (e.g. school, the supermarket or space), events (e.g. going to the hairdresser or making food), and simple ideas (e.g. it is cold in winter). While some children may create imaginative worlds where the toy ringlight is part of a wider dramatic story, as per the examples just provided, there are also opportunities for children to act out and produce different forms of media, for example a television show. Children often draw on popular culture understandings to practise and re-enact scenarios (Gillen et al.; Merchant). In doing this, children play with the part of a narrative and consider how media texts are constructed, an important aspect of media languages.
As they play with media production ideas, children can decide who might view their content and how they can ensure their audience understands their message—essentially playing with how to encode and decode texts (Morley). As they engage in dramatic play, children might also show different understandings of popular culture texts they enjoy, offering insights into how children understand media productions aimed at their age group, including those produced by child influencers. The wooden vlogger set, most importantly, is a material through which children can consider the relationships between media producers and their audiences (Dezuanni).
This brings us to the crux of where we believe the outrage about the wooden vlogger set and toy ringlight lies. The toy ringlight normalises ideas around children developing relationships through and with the media—perhaps as an Influencer or perhaps as a casual vlogger. But the toys of today may not even prepare children for the cultural practices of tomorrow. Thus, while the outcry towards the wooden vlogger set and toy ringlight is just another cycle of moral panic about youth and emerging technologies, we hope that by positioning the toy as an opportunity for media literacy education, the discussion can move forward.
This research was supported by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child through project number CE200100022.
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