When Children Become Branding Tools

A few months ago I came across an article about a young Instagram star, only 9 years old, whose posts were suddenly deleted after evidence came out that her older brother might be feeding her lines in a video.

At the article, you can find a quote from a family spokesperson about how the child is currently undergoing “rebranding.”

Her old brand had her swearing and getting into feuds with other social media celebrities for the amusement of millions of people who don’t know her or care about her.

What does the new brand of 9-year-old look like? I didn’t check, because kids shouldn’t be undergoing “rebranding.”

Recently, an Instagram “mommy blogger” posted a picture of one of her children and lamented how he doesn’t get as many likes or comments as her other children. It was his birthday, so she urged her followers to send him “alllllll the likes,” and she sadly wondered if, when he’s older, his self-worth will suffer once he lays eyes on his Instagram stats. (Why would he be looking at these stats, though? Why should a child have to worry about this…? Why?)

On the Internet, every part of a child’s life can become part of their public persona. The camera follows these kids into all corners of their lives – as much as their parents permit, and some parents don’t seem to care at all how much gets revealed.

It’s not that child exploitation is a new thing, only that the Internet allows it to become even more pervasive and invasive. Imagine you’re a kid sitting down to eat a bowl of cereal in the morning. Without your understanding and consent, your cereal eating becomes public fodder. Strangers stare at the images and judge you, liking or withholding likes, and commenting of course (Cute hair! Aww, looks sleepy! Don’t mean to be rude, but that haircut is not flattering! Why isn’t he eating something more nutritious? Why does this kid look so grumpy?! Smile a little, come on! Awww, cute smile!)

And it doesn’t stop with cereal eating. It can be anything at any time – brushing teeth, playing on a swing set, picking clothes to wear to school, having a meltdown at a supermarket (with the right branding, the meltdown can be spun as funny).

Parents who subject their kids to this onslaught of attention may argue that they don’t actually value their kids based on likes and other social media stats. However, they’re still focused on making their family brand look as good as possible, at all times, to as many strangers as possible. The kid picks up on this, even before they understand Instagram algorithms. The mom whose son needs more birthday love (from strangers?) is troubled by her kid’s Instagram performance, even if she publicly blames herself rather than him. “My insufficiency caused this statistical deficit,” she wrote.

What she meant by ‘insufficiency’ is unclear. Did she use the wrong filters for her son’s photos? Did she fail to capture him at the best angles? Is her son going to wind up feeling guilty and inadequate as his mother sighs about social media insufficiencies?

(Oh, that dear boy. It can’t be him. It’s me! And yet… my other children perform well, so… but no, he’s a dear boy, even if he can’t keep up with the others. But what makes him less likeable?)

Moving right along… how about this dad and stepmom who received five years of probation for child neglect after posting YouTube videos of their “pranks” on their kids. Anything for likes, clicks, and subscribes, right?

A while ago I read reports of a “social credit system” China is developing to rank citizens publicly by the value they have, as measured across dimensions that include wealth and social connections. Much as we shake our heads about how dystopian it all is, hopefully something we’ll never see in the US, we’re already priming ourselves and our kids psychologically to more easily accept a society where: a) you’re monitored a lot, maybe round-the-clock b) any behavior is up for scrutiny and judgment c) records of your images, words, thoughts, and deeds, are archived and can be dug up at any time, even decades later, and d) your value is indeed measured by ‘likes.’ Here we might think of it as personal branding rather than good citizenship, but it’s a mindset where you can find no worth outside of being seen and judged favorably by other people. And it’s a mindset inculcated in people from a young age. Even when parents don’t actively push it, the culture is still steeped in these values.

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