The image of the child re-imagined on Instagram

Many children around the world now have a digital footprint before they can even walk! Their pictures and videos are featured on their families’ social media channels or even their own dedicated pages managed by their families. But what are the risks involved? At what point does it become ‘sharenting’? And do educators have a perspective on this? Dr Madeleine Dobson and Associate Professor Jenny Jay explore this and provide research and recommendations for educators and families regarding representation of children on Instagram. Whilst this piece is focused on Instagram specifically, the research and provocations apply to all social media channels.

What is your image of the child? If you ask an early childhood educator this question, you will likely receive an answer steeped in respect and appreciation. Through the eyes of early childhood educators, children are individuals and citizens with agency, capability and potential. This strong image of the child is a ‘guiding light’ of sorts—it informs and inspires our work with and for young children.

On Instagram, however, a different image of the child is apparent. Throughout the photographs and videos shared by families, a curated depiction of childhood comes to light. In these posts, children may appear ornamental, idealised, static or adultified. They may be represented in stereotypical ways, or their image may be associated with a brand. It may take the form of an explicitly identified paid-partnership opportunity, or their parents may just tag the relevant brand for engagement or exposure.

Existing research explores children’s rights regarding online data and privacy (Livingstone & Third, 2017; Molina, Oltra-Gutierrez & Sarabdeen, 2010; Swist & Collin, 2017), and the phenomena of influencer parents and micro-celebrities using their children as ‘digital labour’ to generate income (Abidin, 2017), the perpetuation of gender and race stereotypes (Choi & Lewallen, 2017), and the ethics of parents sharing information about their children on social media—known as ‘sharenting’ (Blum-Ross & Livingstone, 2017). Our research interests were of a similar ilk—from our questions about the image of the child stemmed many other questions about ethics, privacy, protection and children’s rights. This led to the development of our emerging project, which explores the visual and conceptual representation of children on Instagram.

As we scrolled through Instagram, observing particular trends and tropes, a question emerged: What is the image of the child on Instagram? Are parents representing their children as individuals who have their own interests, skills and pastimes? Or is a different kind of image taking shape?

As we continued to collect and analyse data sourced from influencer parents, major children’s brands and high-profile celebrity parents, we discovered an image of the child that differs to our own. Of course, there are many different ways of conceptualising children and childhood, but it can be challenging for educators working with families that may hold a very different image of the child. This challenge deserves careful and compassionate navigation. With this in mind, we have a number of provocations and recommendations to share that may support educators and families in exploring this important issue.

Provocations regarding the representation of children on Instagram

  • Are the children aware of what Instagram is? Do they understand that their images may be publicly available?
  • How involved are the children in their own representation? Are they given the opportunity to contribute feedback, veto unwanted photos/videos, or help write the caption? Is their personality and voice present in their own representation?
  • How can children contribute to their own representation? How can we support them in having a voice and choice in this context?
  • Are the children’s images captured during private moments (e.g. while they bathe or sleep)? How would we, as adults, feel if the same happened to us? Do the children have a say in whether these photos/videos are shared?
  • Are the children represented in a way that may seem stereotypical, idealised or objectifying? What might this communicate to followers?

Recommendations for educators communicating with families about the image of the child

  • Hold in mind an appreciation of what social media may mean to families. For example, many parents treasure their Instagram accounts, and cherish the opportunity for self-expression and connection to others. You may like to begin a dialogue with families around what social media means to them, and its presence and significance in their lives.
  • Engage in gentle, respectful discussions around their children and their connectedness to social media. Are the children aware of what Instagram is, what purpose it serves, and what its features are? For example, are they aware that their image may be shared with an audience of hundreds, thousands or more?
  • Invite families to consider sharing the experience with their children. Ask them to seek their children’s input on the creation of photos/videos and whether they will be shared and, if so, how.
  • Download Early Childhood Australia’s summary of the Statement on young children and digital technologies This resource is helpful in understanding and navigating digital technology use with young children around the areas of relationships, health and wellbeing, citizenship, play and pedagogy. You can also download a copy of the full Statement on young children and digital technologies here.

By embracing these provocations and recommendations, educators and families can work together to engage children in their own representation, and hopefully reach a shared and nuanced appreciation of the image of the child.

References

  • Abidin, C. (2017). #familygoals: Family influencers, calibrated amateurism, and justifying young digital labor. Social Media + Society, 3(2). www.doi.org/10.1177/2056305117707191
  • Blum-Ross, A., & Livingstone, S. (2017). ‘Sharenting,’ parent blogging, and the boundaries of the digital self. Popular Communication, 15(2), 110–125. www.doi.org/10.1080/15405702.2016.1223300
  • Choi, G.Y., & Lewallen, J.  (2018). ‘Say Instagram, kids!’: Examining sharenting and children’s digital representations on Instagram. Howard Journal of Communications, 29(2), 144–164.  www.doi.org/10.1080/10646175.2017.1327380
  • De-Miguel-Molina, M., Oltra-Gutierrez, J.V., & Sarabdeen, J. (2010). An exploratory study on the privacy of children’s images in Spain’s most widely used social network sites (Tuenti and Facebook). International Review of Law, Computers and Technology, 24(3), 277–285.  www.doi.org/10.1080/13600869.2010.523953
  • Livingstone, S., & Third, A. (2017). Children and young people’s rights in the digital age: An emerging agenda. New Media & Society, 19(5), 657–670.  www.doi.org/10.1177/1461444816686318
  • Swist, T., & Collin, P. (2017). Platforms, data and children’s rights: Introducing a ‘networked capability approach’. New Media and Society, 19(5), 671–685. www.doi.org/10.1177/1461444816686319

Co-author

Associate Professor Jenny Jay worked as an early childhood teacher for 23 years and as a teacher-educator for 17 years. Her passion lies in ensuring high-quality, play-based education for young children, and supporting pre-service teachers in becoming strong advocates and leaders. Her research interests include play-based curriculum, respect and agency of children in the online environment, teacher resilience, and mathematics in the early years.


ECA Recommends 

Box of Provocations 

A resource for early childhood services—the ECA Box of provocations. The provocations contained in the box will provoke deeper thinking and reflection that drives improved quality, particularly in pedagogy and practice.

  • Written by early childhood thought leader and provocateur Anne Stonehouse AM
  • The provocations can be used with educators with all levels of formal qualifications and experience. There are many ways to use the provocations in a variety of settings.
  • Beautifully presented and made to last, these will be a popular resource in your service for many years to come.
    You can see a card example and order your Box of Provocations here.
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Madeleine Dobson

Dr. Madeleine Dobson is a Lecturer and Course Coordinator of Early Childhood Education School of Education at Curtin University. Her research interests include media, digital technologies, social justice, children’s rights, and resilience and wellbeing within educational contexts. You can follow Madeleine on Instagram and Twitter: @drm_mrd. You can also find out more about her work at: www.madeleinedobson.com.

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