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Emotionless, malleable little ornaments: Is this our image of children?

Dr Madeleine Dobson & Associate Professor Jenny Jay, School of Education, Curtin University

The representation of children matters. When children are represented – whether, for example, in film and television, or on social media – this is not without consequence. These representations hold significance, are steeped in context, and contribute to how we perceive children and childhood. Perceptions of children and childhood inform and influence our relationships with children, across important contexts including parenting, education and care, and research.

In Early Childhood Education and Care, educators and leaders hold and advocate for a strong ‘image of the child’ where children are recognised as unique individuals with capability, agency, and a right to choice and voice. There are many other ways of conceptualising children – we feel this is worthy of exploration, and are curious as to how different conceptualisations may intersect or conflict.

Edi Libedinsky on Unsplash

Our current research focuses on the representation of children on Instagram and what image of children and childhood exist in this context. Through a multi-phase approach that includes analysing representations of children by influencer parents and high-profile children’s brands, we are seeking a rich understanding of how the image of the child might be evolving and what this might mean. We are curious about the influences and impacts upon children, families, educators, and communities.

This project stems from curiosities about Instagram as a platform where children are highly visible in a visual and narrative sense. As photos and videos of children are shared, along with stories and commentary, certain ideas emerge regarding who children are and what childhood means. Social communities shape conceptions of children and childhood – we view Instagram as one such social community which has the potential to influence its audience and shape/re-shape ideas about children and childhood.

We also approached this research with mindfulness towards the importance and impact of visual representations. Contemporary culture is described as ‘occularcentric’ where visual imagery is pervasive. Visual representations are imbued with complexities and are
situated within histories and hierarchies.

Our research seeks to explore these complexities and ideas around power, choice, and voice in the context of how children are visually represented on Instagram in photos and videos. We have taken a holistic approach which involves examining posts in their entirety – the image/video, tags, caption, and comments – with mindfulness towards the child depicted, the narrative presented, and what conversation stems from this. Key questions we have asked include:

- How is the child presented? Are they clothed and styled in a childlike way or an adultified way?

- Is the child engaged in an activity or are they still?

- Do we see the child’s face? If so, what emotion is conveyed?

- Where is focus placed in the caption and comments – on the child’s point of view and experience, or somewhere else?

Bekah Russom on Unsplash

As we have explored Instagram and the many images of children and childhood shared there, we have identified certain tropes that demand examination. These tropes rarely exist in isolation from each other – they are often entangled in the image and its connected components. The tropes include:

Children as emotionless: This was most apparent across the brands we examined. Children are frequently represented as emotionless and disengaged. For example, they are often depicted with a blank expression, and also may be staring out of frame. Were we to observe this behaviour from a child in our care, it would be cause for concern. In the context of brand posts, it seems to be glamourised, and we feel this type of representation lends itself to the adultification of children.

Children as malleable: The malleability of children emerged as a key theme after analysing many posts from parents and brands. Children are often depicted and/or described in ways that imply they are not their own person, and that who they are is subject to the choices of another. For example, children are sometimes depicted alongside their siblings or other family members, styled and posed in precisely the same way. While this makes for an aesthetically engaging image, to see this type of image shared repeatedly raises questions for us around child identity and agency.

Children as objects and ornaments: Objectifying practices have been prevalent in the posts we have examined. Children’s faces may be cropped out with only sections of their body shown – when this is the case, it is often done in the interest of focusing on a product being promoted. In addition to these objectifying practices, children are often depicted as though they are ornamental – they appear like dolls or figurines in their idyllic stillness.

We wonder – what does it mean to be a child represented by others on social media? To what extent do children understand the context of social media and the nature of their own representation? How do children relate to their representation by others, be they family members or brands? What place do these representations hold in their minds and hearts, and what does it mean for their emerging sense of identity and self-image? If children were afforded greater agency to represent themselves from an early age, what shape might this take? And beyond the lived experience for and impact on the children themselves, how does this influence the wider community’s view of and attitude towards children? These questions hold significance for future research, and guide our continuing exploration of the image of the child and its place in social media contexts.

Educators are in a position to make a difference here as they have the opportunity to engage in productive dialogue with children and families. By sharing in dialogue with children and families about our use of social media and how we engage in the representation of self and others, we can arrive at a deeper understanding of these contexts, our engagement with them, and the rights and needs of those we represent.

References

Dobson, M. & Jay, J. (2019). The image of the child re-imagined on Instagram: Provocations and recommendations for educators and families. The Spoke: http://thespoke.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/image-child-re-imagined-instagram/

Feighery, W.G. (2012). Editorial. Visual Methodologies, 1(1), 1-2. https://doi.org/10.7331/vm.v1i1.32

Fredrickson, B.L. & Roberts, T.A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21(2), 173-206. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-6402.1997.tb00108.

Mannay, D. (2015). Making the visual invisible: exploring creative forms of dissemination that respect anonymity but retain impact. Visual Methodologies, 3(2). https://doi.org/10.7331/vm.v3i2.47

Pauwels, L. (2015). Reframing visual social science: Towards a more visual sociology and anthropology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Vänskä, A. (2017). Fashionable childhood: Children in advertising. Bloomsbury Publishing.