Representations of children in social media

Representations of children in social media

Dr Madeleine Dobson (Curtin University, Australia) discussed her research into the representation of children on social media in a webinar with Dr Vicki Hargraves. The webinar explored the ethical, legal, parental, and educational implications of representations of children on social media, and encouraged teachers to apply a lens of social justice and children’s rights to the issues involved.

Representations of children on social media are varied, but there are some overarching narratives. Firstly, children’s accounts of their experience are often missing, and instead the adult’s view is prevalent. For example, children may be shown as playful, but the child’s play experience is used as a framing device to tell the story of the adult, such as how the adult perceived the play. Children might be shown in beautiful settings, such as beaches and forests, but are rarely shown to be engaged in a meaningful sense with that context, in some instances showing no movement or emotion. Children are also often depicted as highly static and staring off camera in a detached way. In these types of representations, there is a limited sense of the child’s individuality or humanity.  At times, children’s personal or vulnerable moments, such as when they are sleeping, bathing, or crying, are captured and shared, which raises further questions about privacy and dignity.

Photographic conventions for representations of children on social media commonly idealise and objectify children. Some images portray the child as a perfect, pretty object in a beautiful setting, rather than a human being with an identity. Other images objectify the child by segmenting the child’s body, such as showing just the torso displaying a product, rendering the child anonymised and faceless. Photographs are often taken literally looking down at the child, or in some way indicating that the child is inferior to or less important than the adult. These representations of children are likely to impact people’s understanding about what it means to be a child in the world, and how we should perceive, interact with, or relate to them. In general, representations of children in social media are at odds with those promoted in early childhood education, where children are conceptualised as capable, agentic, unique individuals and citizens in their own right.

Representations of children on social media that idealise children and childhood can also lead to increased pressure and anxiety for other parents viewing the images, who feel their family should wear certain clothing or own certain products, and their home should look a certain way. Scrolling through perfect images of seemingly perfect children can make others feel that they are inadequate and pressure them to adjust in some way.

The representation of children on social media is an important social justice issue, and should be viewed in terms of children’s rights. Being photographed, videoed, and having these images and videos put on social media is becoming a norm of childhood experience for many children, but representations of children on social media are predominantly selected by adults, such as the child’s parents, obscuring the children’s views and perspectives. Children are individuals with their own rights and needs, including the right to represent themselves and their own perspectives about how they live in the world, as well as a right to have a say in matters which affect them. Issues of representation are greatest for very young children, as family members often see themselves as entitled to choose how to depict that child’s identity. Children may be accorded more agency as they grow older, although young people who have grown up in families where many of their childhood experiences were published on social media have reported feeling no right to privacy and pressured to go along with families’ desire to share things online. Children may be highly aware that social media is important to their family, whether in an emotional sense or a financial sense, and feel they do not have the choice not to agree to their images being published.

There are different ways in which family members can offer children choice and agency. They might choose which image to post on social media, opt out of sharing photos depicting children’s facial features on social media (choosing photos where children’s faces are naturally or digitally obscured), or opt out entirely, using private platforms share images and videos with others. Other key steps include making sure there is no other identifiable or trackable information in the photo, such as location information or school uniforms. As children grow older, it is important to teach them about what posting their images on social media means, who can access them, and their digital footprint, including how long images remain available and how they might be trackable. Take care to ensure that children have an active role in the discussion and do not feel pressured to conform. Empowering children to make an informed choice about their self-representation is an important part of how families can support children and offer them choice.

Early childhood teachers can play an important role in making their photographic conventions and practices more visible to parents. Social media offers families important opportunities to connect and to journal about family experiences, so finding ways in which children can have a sense of voice and choice in the process, and showing children as unique individuals making their own contribution to the world, is important. Positive representations may include children showing things they have created, with insights as to how they engaged in the creative process and how they feel about their creation. Early childhood teachers have many skills in documenting children’s lives and learning in very process-focused ways, capturing how children engage, think, and experience their world. They can be very reflective about how to use cameras with children, including the use of child-centred practices such as allowing children to pick up the camera and document themselves, or using Go-Pro cameras with children to gain their perspectives. Allowing children the space and the safety to choose if or when they engage with these practices is key. Teachers can also engage in discussion with families and explain the ways in which they might give children choices about the representations used in their portfolios, and whether they want to be photographed or find another way to record and represent their learning.

Maddie has kindly shared some of the articles and research that informed the content of the discussion. 

Dobson, M., & Jay, J. (2019). The image of the child re-imagined on Instagram.

Dobson, M., & Jay, J. (2019). Emotionless, malleable little ornaments: Is this our image of children?

Dobson, M., & Jay, J. (2020). “Instagram has well and truly got a hold of me”: Exploring a parent’s representation of her children. Issues in Educational Research 30(1):58-78.

These pieces about children’s representations on social media take or include the child’s point of view:

Latifi, F. (2023, March 10). Influencer parents and the kids who had their childhood made into content. Teen Vogue.

Maddox, J. (2023, January 19). Why aren’t there any legal protections for the children of influencers? The Conversation.

Kuss, D. (2022, April 2). How social media affects children at different ages – and how to protect them. The Conversation.

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