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I’m Erin Reilly and my recent research has been exploring today the growing phenomenon of identity formation within Networked families, especially families with young children.
Pew Internet & American Life Project shared in their Networked Families report in 2008 that American families are using a wide range of communication media to keep in contact with each other. Married couples with minor children stand out because they have the highest rates of internet and cell phone usage, computer ownership and broadband adoption than other household configurations. In fact, in these type of households, both spouses use the internet in 76% of married-with-children households, as do 84% of their children aged 7-17.
And according to an AVG Digital Diaries: Digital Birth 2010 survey… 1) The average age children acquire an online presence is six months old. 2) With more than 70 percent of mothers posting baby pictures online and sharing them through social networking sites. Search “sonogram” on YouTube -- thousands of videos, posted by men and women eager to claim their new identity as parents-to-be. Click on one of the sonogram videos and you’ll notice that it has been viewed by thousands of people. It’s obvious from the comments that not all of the thousands who have viewed this one video are friends and family. Though we cannot identify who this child is, he or she has become part of a public mediated performance of how we shape childhood today. Posting a sonogram for all to see is the start of the screen becoming the child’s “shadow”, a representation of identity.
This representation of identity that we help shape childhood through is similar to the shadow of Peter Pan represented in J.M. Barrie&apos;s story. The Peter Pan story is representative of the trials and tribulations of being a child and coming of age into adulthood. At the beginning of Peter Pan, Peter&apos;s shadow somehow falls off and becomes free, detached from its original source …but not for long once Wendy captures it and sews it back on to Peter.
A perfect example of a freed shadow is looking at the meme, David after Dentist (Show Video) According to David’s father, videotaping the day was to help David calm his nerves and also to share with his wife who wanted to go but had to work, so as is the case in today’s tele-cocooning family. Videotaping life experience to share later has become the next best thing for families to “shadow” the experience. Within a week of posting, David’s YouTube video had over five million views that also has gone viral with many remixes of the original.
Although the content of the video is seemingly innocuous David’s family has received honorariums for coming on tv and speaking engagements …monetary rewards that will help to support David’s future such as his college education. The question of whether or not it was fair to David for his father to share this intimate moment with the world needs to be asked, and people did just that through comments on the YouTube video that pointed to David’s father being inattentive and the Bill O’Reilly show agreeing with these outlying comments. No matter if the choice is to post or not to post something about a child to the public, people will form pictures of who we are on the basis of the information they find. Information is interpreted and reconfigured through the eyes of the beholder and these interpretations are layered onto the representation of our identity that we share with the public.
An everyday life experience from an ordinary family has turned their child into a “star” of the Internet world where people want to take photographs with him and have David sign autographs. David is a new type of child star emerging through playlists on YouTube. But what if David ends up not liking the media attention, as he gets older. He might rephrase his original question that put him into the limelight to, “Is this real or just a shadow of who I am?” A majority of his child identity is made up of one incident that has been taken up, remixed and shaped by the masses. However, shadows that are hidden over time can persist and come out of the dark when light is shed upon them and therefore, we cannot see children as passive participants when constructing who they are before they have a voice in the process. When does the child have a right to control the flow of information about his or her identity, especially when it is already out there and cannot be deleted?
When our homes become a public space for others to peek into, what happens to privacy and how is our collective identity as a family shaped and represented by others? Parents need to be in the habit of reflecting on the potential consequences, for themselves and for their children, of such decisions because once it is shared via the screen, we can never fully extricate ourselves from history. This holds true for parents who include their children in the family’s public identity. If the child is at an early stage of development, he or she may not be aware of what it means to have a private moment and is trusting themselves completely to their caretaker. In a sense, parents view their children as extensions of themselves; therefore, sharing images and video of their children can be interpreted as a performance of their own identities as mothers or fathers.
ShayCarl from The Shaytards is a good example of the extension of his own performance onto his children. A vlog such as the Shaytards has put the power of creating the story into the hands of the family, or more specifically the parents who are making the choices as to what to shoot and what to keep private and held within the walls of their home. However, many ethical concerns arise through the Shaytards offering an unscripted, often unedited account of their lives and with little rules yet established on the type of content allowed.
One of the first questions people ask is “Why does ShayCarl, the father, name all his family with the suffix of –tard?” Many people assume that it is a shortened reference to the derogatory epithet “retard” and find the choice offensive. In actuality, however, the –tard suffix is given for other reasons including to safeguard the family by having each person go by a nickname to avoid revealing their real names but if you are new to the series and do not have this frame of reference, the naming can easily be misunderstood and taken out of context.
The other issue is when you are so prevalent throughout the web, though the thought was good, in reality fans have searched the video archive and due to unedited material, each person’s real name has been revealed – which brings into question the ethical dimensions of an outsider’s participation in forming one’s identity.
One video of ShayCarl states that he became a vlogger so that he wouldn’t have to get a real job, but his content that he receives money on often evolves around the exploitation of his children, such as having their one-year old “maintain” a twitter stream – @rocktardstweets. The choices made today by parents Katielette and ShayCarl shape their children’s public identities now and for the future.
Within a family, social power is implicit during the early stages of childhood with the parents maintaining control and responsibility. Often, the first place a child’s identity is formed is at home with the family; parents are the first teachers, the influencers of their children. However, with family being mediated by technology, parents need to better understand the power that they wield and what type of representation of the 21st century family is being projected and accepted as normative. For children like David or Rocktard who have parents who are early adopters -- they both have had their digital identities formed by their parents in public. As danah boyd has shared, we live in “a culture of public by default, private by effort.”
The promise of these scenarios is that identity play will come more naturally to them because their identity so far has always been in relation to the online world. They also will have parents who will be more understanding of their actions as they make mistakes online and learn from them.
However, at the same time, this could become a disadvantage since we’re living in a world of data … making it harder for either of them to manage and extricate the shadow that will follow them as they move into adolescence. As teens, they also might not see the point of using digital media as a space to try on new identities, which many adolescence view as part of a coming of age in today’s networked culture. One possibility for this potential lack of interest is that the child might have a stronger awareness of how identity online can easily be tied to exploitation and monetization from his growing up digital experience with his family.
So the importance of growing up digital in a networked family is to encourage dialogue in homes …starting at a very young age. And unlike this comic, families need to continue conversations in person and parents should not rely only on the Internet to share information about their children with others and keep abreast of what is going on in their children’s lives as they grow up.
Shaping Our Shadow
University of Southern California
Annenberg Innovation Lab
Shaping Our ShadowShaping Our Shadow