I can understand Pink’s recent decision not to share photos of her kids, ages two and seven, online because of privacy concerns… and negative comments. I was always careful about how my girls were photographed as kids, and I often wonder how I’d navigate today’s world of “sharenting,” the term for parents sharing their young kids’ lives online. Read below for my conversation with digital anthropologist Crystal Abidin who studies the effects of this trend.
Katie Couric: When were the first seeds of the current parenting Instagram phenomenon planted? How exactly did we get here?
Crystal Abidin: The earliest phenomenon of parenting Instagram influencers probably took root in mommy/parent blogging communities, online parenting forums, and ‘agony aunt’ style parenting advice columns in lifestyle magazines. As blogs gave way to a variety of social media platforms, many mommy/parent bloggers eventually shifted onto those spaces. At the same time, influencers of various genres who progress in their life course and start having children also gradually shifted into the parenting genre.
Katie: Do you feel that, in some instances at least, children have been reduced to the status of props?
Crystal: This is definitely the case with some parenting influencers, and is most evident in videos on YouTube where parent-child interactions are captured. For instance, many children are seen being aggressively coaxed into staying in the camera frame by being distracted with toys or food, some younger children tend to play with the sponsored products on screen only to have their arms batted away, and other young children are seen unhappily restrained in baby chairs or in their parents arms in order to complete an activity for the video. On Instagram posts and blogs, the visual and textual narrative of some child influencer childhoods has also gradually shifted from an everyday catalogue of their journey to blatant advertising on a consistent basis. Children have become used to endorsing products and services that are completely unrelated to childhood or parenting, with recent ‘out there’ examples being a child posing with a bucket of fried chicken to promote an eatery or a child photographed in a vehicle to promote a motor company – in these instances, the ‘cute’ factor of the child is being commodified to lure viewers’ attention to a product that does not generally support the original ethos of sharing (good) parenting resources.
Katie: You’ve said – “When the money came into play, the visual aesthetic, the vocabulary, and the processes of capturing parenthood on social media greatly changed.” How so?
Crystal: In the earliest days of mommy/parent blogging communities, everyday parents used to document a ‘slice of life’ style of narrations that featured ‘honest’ accounts of their parenting journey and domestic practices. At this time, the ‘honest’ content accurately captured the ups and downs of parenting and included the less glamorous aspects of the journey such as nursing difficulties, challenging children, unkempt households, etc., in part as a practice of catharsis and diary-keeping, in part to seek solidarity and foster a culture of encouragement among other similarly struggling parents, and in part to trade tips and resources about household practices, and products and services. As influencer parents ‘professionalized’ the photographic and textual documentation of their lifestyles – constantly redecorating the household to maximize photogenic value, acquiring matching apparel to dress their children in, using high end equipment to capture images, learning sophisticated software to enhance these images, etc. – much of the original grassroots ethic of sharing the gritty aspects of parenting, the grainy captures of spontaneous moments, and gleeful experience of the whole process became lost to a highly commodified form of domestic labor.
Katie: What is “calibrated amateurism?” And why is it so effective?
Crystal: The highly professionalized influencer industry of today greatly differs from its original grassroots ethic of sharing a day in the life of a person ‘as is’. As influencers became more picture perfect, international destinations and landscapes as the backdrop for generating content became more picturesque, and narrative foci on success/aspiration excluded failure/the mundane and became more pristine, the overall landscape of the influencer industry became professionalized but also homogeneous. Amid the noise of picture-perfect Barbies, many influencers believe that what followers now want is to see “real life,” unfiltered, unmediated, and un-curated. Whether to stand out from the crowd, to redeem themselves from the effortful burden of laboring over ‘picture perfect’ content, or to persuade followers of their relatability despite their wealth of accolades and income, many influencers began to stage intentional slippages into the ‘behind the scenes’ process of their content production, to curate secondary social media accounts which they claimed were less ‘filtered’ and more accurately depicted their imperfect lives, and disclose more faults and failures as a way to convey a sense of vulnerability, sincerity, and thus authenticity that resembled the early days of online blogging or life casting. This practice is “calibrated amateurism”, or a practice and aesthetic in which actors in an attention economy labor specifically over crafting contrived authenticity that portrays the raw aesthetic of an amateur, whether or not they really are amateurs by status or practice, by relying on the performance ecology of appropriate platforms, affordances, tools, cultural vernacular, and social capital.
Katie: How does the preferred visual aesthetic of child influencers differ from adults?
Crystal: There is no general rule, but one visual practice that I have been studying for the past few months among (mostly White, blonde, young) American, Australian, and European mommy influencers on Instagram is the aesthetic of ‘neutral nostalgia’. These parents very consistently dress themselves and their children in a neutral coloured apparel (i.e. white, beige, brown, mustard, dark orange), regularly redecorate their homes with furniture and props made from natural products (i.e. rattan, oak, cotton, linen, rope), and edit/enhance their images to look retro or vintage as if they were captured by analogue cameras (i.e. grainy texture, light leaks, date stamps). Their narrations also point to a longing for ‘a simpler time in the past’, situating the woman’s place in the home as the primary caregiver to a few children, encouraging their children to ‘discover themselves in their own time’ with outdoor play and stimulants as opposed to the use of technological devices. I am still analysing this visual practice for a project in progress but found this superimposed ‘neutral nostalgia’ very curious in a climate where influencers are racing to keep up with cutting edge and emergent products and services, and in a time where parenting influencers are working to diffuse accusations of commercialism or exploitation.
Katie: We’re now seeing the first generation of kids who have had their lives exposed to the world before they could offer consent come of age – how do you think that shapes their view of the world and their parents?
Crystal: The hyper-publicized and over-documented childhoods of these influencer children could mean that they feel less autonomy and independence to form their own sense of self given that a ‘lifestyle brand’ has already been crafted for them. They would have lost a significant sense of privacy and ownership over how they want to develop their own personalities, and may also struggle with separating their own identities from that of their influencer parent as they grow older.
Katie: Have you come across parents who regret showcasing their children? What was their experience?
Crystal: I have met with a few such parents in my anthropological fieldwork and studied several more through my digital ethnography. Such influencer parents experience various ‘turning points’ – one of them decided to refocus her content on her own lifestyle after a few years of putting her toddler front and center because she experienced a scare where she thought she and her child were being stalked on their way home; another influencer decided to retire from the industry and start an online cosmetics business after feeling that her kindergartener was treated differently by his teachers and classmates’ parents because of his internet-famous mother, as she didn’t want him to be surrounded by gossip or ‘feel short-changed’ later on in life
Katie: How do you imagine this world evolving? What’s next?
Crystal: The first ‘generation’ of child influencers that I started observing are just about to enter primary school. I am keen to understand how their early childhood experiences of being ‘always online’ carry into their formative years, and to study if their life course will resemble that of young child stars from the traditional entertainment industry. For the moment, my primary concerns are that there is an absence of safeguards or regulation around ‘internet famous’ children – many of the laws that protect child stars in the traditional entertainment industry (i.e. minimal hours of education per week, maximum hours of work per week, safety and welfare regulation, management of salary and income, etc.) do not apply to child influencers who work informally within the confines of their home, and influencer agencies and clients tend to place the onus of influencer child wellbeing onto their parent. This is important to address because even the most well-meaning parents do not automatically make for the most equipped child influencer ‘managers,’ and there are skill sets and knowledges that need to be properly acquired. It is not all pessimistic – there are initiatives like UNICEF Innocenti that focus on children’s rights in the digital age, and coalitions like Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood that strive to limit advertising that targets children – but there is a pressing need for social media platforms to take responsibility and anchor safeguards for child influencers given that they control the avenue for hosting, distributing, and monetizing social media content build on the labour of child influencers.