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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Researching the Long-Term Damage of Romanian Orphanages

Read this excellent article that looks into the ethics of researching cognitive and neural development in Romanian children who live in orphanages. Even when adequate food, shelter, and medical care are provided, the children suffer from neglect; from a young age, they don’t interact much with caretakers, which stunts their development.

What practical benefit will this research have for the kids? Will the research itself be enough to change state policies? What is the research telling us that’s new? We already understand that growing up in these orphanages increase the chances of hurting cognition, emotional development, and other aspects of psychological health. What benefit will it bring to science, and to the kids, to investigate the effects on their brain, which includes decreased white matter?

Review of “Red Flags or Red Herrings? Predicting Who Your Child Will Become”

In her book Red Flags or Red Herrings? Predicting Who Your Child Will Become, Susan Engel raises three main points:

1) Parents can’t redesign their children’s basic personality and intelligence.

2) A number of behaviors that parents are quick to label as ‘red flags’ in young kids are usually normal; instead of ‘red flags’ they’re ‘red herrings,’ leading parents to make incorrect predictions about their child’s future or worry about minor or nonexistent problems.

3) The means to distinguish between red flags and red herrings can be derived from research. We’ve accumulated a body of research to-date that can help us distinguish between normal or less damaging circumstances and patterns of behavior, and those that are actually worrisome.

Regarding points 1 and 2, Engel presents some convincing arguments throughout the book. For instance, intelligence is a fairly stable trait; a child of average intelligence isn’t going to become a genius. However, this doesn’t mean that environmental influence doesn’t have an impact. A child’s intelligence can be enhanced or dampened. For instance, parents who give their children opportunities to learn, give them books, talk to them, help them discover things they love doing, and show their kids the importance of perseverance increase the chances of the kid succeeding later in life, more than if they fuss over IQ numbers and whether their kid is the most gifted one in the class. They give their kids the opportunity to behave intelligently, expand their knowledge and skills, and live to their fullest potential. This is in contrast to kids who, regardless of what their intellectual potential is, don’t get very many opportunities to grow and may start to behave unintelligently, suppressing their natural potential.

In regards to the third point, the books is less convincing. Engel covers a lot of research, much of it interesting, showing how what we consider ‘red flags’ may not necessarily hobble a child for life; for instance, children who grow up in unstable homes but have certain protective factors in their life may still become well-functioning adults. The tricky part comes in when Engel tries to show how you can make predictions about an individual child’s life based on the research. What are the problems with how she lays out her approach?

a. There are individual differences, and noise in the data, when it comes to any study, especially when you’re looking at complex traits such as shyness and intelligence, or studying various factors that influence development. Granted, I don’t think Engel ever says that you can predict 100% how your child will turn out, but I think the case is overstated in the book.

b. She doesn’t devote enough time to discuss the research methodology or study limitations, including possible flaws in study design. In a couple of places she does point out the issue of individual differences, but I think that for a book that is so heavily based on research, she should have spent more time discussing and explaining the research. Readers who don’t have familiarity with research methodology in this area are particularly in need of understanding the limitations of the work to help them make sense of the data and understand what it can and can’t tell us.

c. In each chapter, Engel mixes research results with individual ‘case studies’ of kids who seemed to have red flags but turned out ok (or children whose red flags went undetected). Though she talks a lot about how you can use the existing research to help you decipher the clues in your child’s life, her case studies rely on hindsight; she knows how the kid turns out, so it’s simpler for her to trace the course of his or her life to see what might have gone right or wrong, and what were possible influences. Even then, with the benefit of hindsight, she doesn’t always make the developmental trajectory clear; I didn’t always understand why it was a given that a particular child would turn out ok, while another child wouldn’t. For people who don’t have the benefit of hindsight, it’s not easy to “decipher the clues,” given that a kid’s developmental trajectory is influenced by a complex combination of factors; I don’t know how you can always tell, in the present moment, whether something is a red flag or a red herring.

The bottom line is, I wish she’d gone more into explaining the research, which is interesting, and developing her discussions of it; her chapters were sometimes a hodgepodge of research examples and personal examples that didn’t mesh well or develop into a clear argument (the chapter on adult romantic relationships comes to mind).

But ultimately, the message that parents can’t completely remake their kids’ personalities, but instead can help enhance strengths and give their kids tools to cope with potential weaknesses, is a reasonable one, as it encourages parents to see their kids as they are, and not constantly measure them against other kids or against some parental ideal that may be narcissistic at heart.

Studying musical training and brain development

Child playing in the YOLA program

A new study is underway to investigate the effects of 5 years of musical training on the brain, starting from when children are 6 or 7 years old. The children are participating in a program that gives kids a free education in music and free instruments; they’ll be compared to kids who are matched on age, socioeconomic background, and different cognitive measures but who don’t have a musical education.

This is an interesting study, but how will researchers interpret some of the findings? Let’s say the study shows improvements in various aspects of cognitive ability and social and emotional development throughout the five years of musical education. To what would we attribute this outcome? Is it something specific to music education, or would you see it in any long-term intensive extracurricular program that teaches kids something? Maybe you’d need to add a third group of kids to the study who are enrolled in a free non-musical education program that has a similar social/communal aspect to it.

(The image above links to the webpage of the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles at Heart of Los Angeles – the group who’ll be collaborating with the researchers on this study.)