Digitised children’s bodies

This is an excerpt from the pre-print version of a chapter I have written on the topic of ‘digital bodies’. The full pre-print can be accessed here.

The sociomaterialist perspective has been taken up by several scholars writing about children’s bodies, particularly within cultural geography, but also by some sociologists and anthropologists (Prout, 1996; Horton and Kraftl, 2006a, 2006b; Lee, 2008; Woodyer, 2008). Researchers using a sociomaterialist approach have conducted studies on, for example, children’s use of asthma medication (Prout, 1996), the surveillant technologies that have developed around controlling children’s body weight in schools (Rich et al., 2011), children’s sleep and the objects with which they interact (Lee, 2008), the interrelationship of objects with pedagogy and classroom management of students’ bodies (Mulcahy, 2012) and sociomaterial practices in classrooms that lead to the inclusion or exclusion of children with disabilities (Söderström, 2014). Outside sociomaterialist studies, young children’s interactions with digital technologies have attracted extensive attention from social researchers, particularly in relation to topics such as the potential for cyber-bullying, online paedophilia and for children to become unfit and overweight due to spending too much time in front of screens (Holloway et al., 2013). However few researchers thus far have directed their attention to the types of digital technologies that visually represent children’s bodies or render their body functions, activities and behaviours into digital data; or, in other words, how children’s bodies become digital data assemblages.

From the embryonic stage of development onwards, children’s bodies are now routinely monitored and portrayed using digital technologies. A plethora of websites provide images of every stage of embryonic and foetal development, from fertilisation to birth, using a combination of digital images taken from embryo and foetus specimens and digital imaging software  (Lupton, 2013). 3/4D ultrasounds have become commodified, used for ‘social’ or ‘bonding’ purposes. Many companies offering 3/D ultrasounds now come to people’s homes, allowing expectant parents to invite family and friends and turn a viewing of the foetus into a party event. This sometimes involves a ‘gender reveal’ moment, in which the sonographer demonstrates to all participants, including the parents, the sex of the foetus . Some companies offer the service of using 3D ultrasound scan files to create life-sized printed foetus replica models for parents.

The posting to social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube of the foetus ultrasound image has become a rite of passage for many new parents and often a way of announcing the pregnancy. Using widgets such as ‘Baby Gaga’, expectant parents can upload regular status updates to their social media feeds automatically that provide news on the foetus’s development. While a woman is pregnant, she can use a range of digital devices to monitor her foetus. Hundreds of pregnancy apps are currently on the market, including not only those that provide information but others that invite users to upload personal information about their bodies and the development of their foetus. Some apps offer a personalised foetal development overview or provide the opportunity for the woman to record the size of her pregnant abdomen week by week, eventually creating a time-lapse video. Other apps involve women tracking foetal movements or heart beat. Bella Beat, for example, is a smartphone attachment and app that allows the pregnant women to hear and record the foetal heart beat whenever she likes and to upload the audio file to her social media accounts.

YouTube has become a predominant medium for the representation of the unborn entity in the form of ultrasound images and of the moment of birth. Almost 100,000 videos showing live childbirth, including both vaginal and Caesarean births, are available for viewing on that site, allowing the entry into the world of these infants to be viewed by thousands and, in the case of some popular videos, even millions of viewers. Some women even choose to live-stream the birth so that audiences can watch the delivery in real time. Following the birth, there are similar opportunities for proud parents to share images of their infant online on social media platforms. In addition to these are the growing number of devices on the market for parents to monitor the health, development and wellbeing of their infants and young children. Apps are available to monitor such aspects as infants’ feeding and sleeping patterns, their weight and height and their development and achievements towards milestones. Sensor-embedded baby clothing, wrist or ankle bands and toys can be purchased that monitor infants’ heart rate, body temperature and breathing, producing data that are transmitted to the parents’ devices. Smartphones can be turned into baby monitors with the use of apps that record the sound levels of the infant.

As children grow, their geolocation, educational progress and physical fitness can be tracked by their parents using apps, other software and wearable devices. As children themselves begin to use digital technologies for their own purposes, they start to configure their own digital assemblages that represent and track their bodies. With the advent of touchscreen mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet computers, even very young children are now able to use social media sites and the thousands of apps that have been designed especially for their use (Holloway et al., 2013). Some such technologies encourage young children to learn about the anatomy of human bodies or about nutrition, exercise and physical fitness, calculate their body mass index, collect information about their bodies or represent their bodies in certain ways (such as manipulating photographic images of themselves). These technologies typically employ gamification strategies to provide interest and motivation for use. Some involve combining competition or games with self-tracking using wearable devices. One example is the Leapfrog Leapband, a digital wristband connected to an app which encourages children to be physically active in return for providing them with the opportunity to care for virtual pets. Another is the Sqord interactive online platform with associated digital wristband and app. Children who sign up can make an avatar of themselves and use the wristband to track their physical activity. Users compete with other users by gaining points for moving their bodies as often and as fast as possible.

In the formal educational system there are still more opportunities for children’s bodies to be monitored measured and evaluated and rendered into digitised assemblages. Programmable ‘smart schools’ are becoming viewed as part of the ‘smart city’, an urban environment in which sensors that can watch and collect digital data on citizens are ubiquitous (Williamson, 2014). The monitoring of children’s educational progress and outcomes using software is now routinely undertaken in many schools, as are their movements around the school. In countries such as the USA and the UK, the majority of schools have CCTV cameras that track students, and many use biometric tracking technologies such as RFID chips in badges or school uniforms and fingerprints to identify children and monitor their movements and their purchases at school canteens (Taylor, 2013; Selwyn, 2014). A growing number of schools are beginning to use wearable devices, apps and other software for health and physical education lessons, such as coaching apps that record children’s sporting performances and digital heart rate monitors that track their physical exertions (Lupton, 2015).

We can see in the use of digital technologies to monitor and represent the bodies of children a range of forms of embodiment. Digitised data assemblages of children’s bodies are generated from before birth via a combination of devices that seek to achieve medical- or health-related or social and affective objectives. These assemblages may move between different domains: when, for example, a digitised ultrasound image that was generated for medical purposes becomes repurposed by expectant parents as a social media artefact, a way of announcing the pregnancy, establishing their foetus as new person and establishing its social relationships. Parents’ digital devices, and later those of educational institutions and those of children themselves when they begin to use digital devices, potentially become personalised repositories for a vast amount of unique digital assemblages on the individual child, from images of them to descriptions of their growth, development, mental and physical health and wellbeing, movements in space, achievements and learning outcomes. These data assemblages, containing as they do granular details about children, offer unprecedented potential to configure knowledges about individual children and also large groups of children (as represented in aggregated big data sets).

References

Holloway D, Green L and Livingstone S. (2013) Zero to Eight: Young Children and Their Internet Use. London: LSE London, EU Kids Online.

Horton J and Kraftl P. (2006a) Not just growing up, but going on: Materials, spacings, bodies, situations. Children’s Geographies 4(3): 259-276.

Horton J and Kraftl P. (2006b) What else? some more ways of thinking and doing ‘Children’s Geographies’. Children’s Geographies 4(1): 69-95.

Lee N. (2008) Awake, asleep, adult, child: An a-humanist account of persons. Body & Society 14(4): 57-74.

Lupton D. (2013) The Social Worlds of the Unborn, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lupton D. (2015) Data assemblages, sentient schools and digitised health and physical education (response to Gard). Sport, Education and Society 20(1): 122-132.

Mulcahy D. (2012) Affective assemblages: body matters in the pedagogic practices of contemporary school classrooms. Pedagogy, culture and society 20(1): 9-27.

Prout A. (1996) Actor-network theory, technology and medical sociology: an illustrative analysis of the metered dose inhaler. Sociology of Health and Illness 18(2): 198-219.

Rich E, Evans J and De Pian L. (2011) Children’s bodies, surveillance and the obesity crisis. In: Rich E, Monaghan LF and Aphramor L (eds) Debating Obesity: Critical Perspectives. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 139-163.

Selwyn N. (2014) Data entry: towards the critical study of digital data and education. Learning, Media and Technology: 1-19.

Söderström S. (2014) Socio-material practices in classrooms that lead to the social participation or social isolation of disabled pupils. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research online first.

Taylor E. (2013) Surveillance Schools: Security, Discipline and Control in Contemporary Education, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Williamson B. (2014) Smart schools in sentient cities. dmlcentral.

Woodyer T. (2008) The body as research tool: embodied practice and children’s geographies. Children’s Geographies 6(4): 349-362.

Why have children? Getting to grips with the ethical debate

My book review for the LSE Review of Books was published today. It looks at the ethical issues around the choice of having children. The book is entitled Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate by philosopher Christine Overall. The review can be viewed here:

Why have children? Getting to grips with the ethical debate.

In the review I critique Overall for what I saw as a rather disembodied view of the issue, and for not incorporating the fleshy dimensions of procreation choice. My working paper ‘Configuring maternal, preborn and infant embodiment‘ examines  some of the embodied experiences of pregnancy and the care of infants. And in my article ‘Infant embodiment and interembodiment: a review of sociocultural perspectives‘ I discuss in more detail how infant embodiment is experienced and conceptualised.

June 2012 highlights on ‘This Sociological Life’

Last month was the first full month in the life of this blog, and it was a busy one. One of the most popular posts of the month looked at the debate provoked by the obesity sceptics who challenge the orthodox medical view that (non-extreme) obesity is detrimental to health. Many interesting opinions were posted in response to the post, including clinicians and health promotion academics working in obesity treatment and prevention and activists advocating for the Health at Every Size Approach, as well as my own comments providing details about other work in this area and in fat studies. There were quite a few relevant sources cited to back up commentators’ arguments, so these comments would be a good place to look for those interested in the debate between anti-obesity exponents and obesity sceptics.

Other posts published last month looked at topics such as how women engage in voluntary risk-taking (‘edgework’) and how this differs from men’s edgework; pregnancy and loss of control of the body/self; the concept of the ‘good mother’ in relation to the ‘fat child’; the Australian government’s controversial introduction of a mental health check for three-year-old children; the new mobile device technologies and how they are being used for health promotion; and the concepts of the ‘milkmother’ and the ‘Yummy Mummy’ in contemporary understandings and experiences of motherhood.

Another popular post in June looked at how sociologists and other social scientists can use the social media platform Pinterest as part of their research and teaching. This post was republished on the LSE Impact of the Social Sciences website. I noted in the post that I have made my own Pinterest boards on my current research interests. They include ‘Medicine as Culture’, ‘Fat Culture’, ‘The Sociology of Infancy’, ‘The Sociology of the Preborn’, ‘M-health and the Digital Cyborg’ and ‘Public Health Campaigns’ (you can view the boards here). I was also interviewed for The Australian newspaper’s Higher Education section about using Pinterest in academic work.

In June I also wrote a guest blog for ‘Croakey’, the health section of the ‘Crikey’ discussion website on making an app as an experiment to see how easy being an ‘app developer’ is (). To view or download the app itself (which explains over 25 key concepts in medical sociology) go here. I continue to be fascinated by the capabilities of social media for academic work and have been busy experimenting with Twitter (@DALupton), Delicious and Storify.

Meanwhile, in other academic writing my article ‘”Precious cargo”: foetal subjects, risk and reproductive citizenship’ was published in Critical Public Health. Last month I continued work on the revisions for the second edition my book Risk, originally published by Routledge in 1999, and plan to submit the final manuscript to the publishers at the end of July. I am bringing the book up to date by including, among many other issues, discussions of Ulrich Beck’s and Anthony Giddens’ latest writings on risk and new governmentality approaches on ‘prudential risk’ in the context of the catastrophic events that have occurred since the turn of this century and which have resulted in different ways of understanding and dealing with risk.

Pathologising young children’s emotions

fearfull and crying child before dental treatment

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Australian government has announced a new screening program for three-year-old children to determine whether they have a mental health problem. All children of that age will be offered the Healthy Kids Check from next month, predominantly conducted by general practitioners. As part of this check, which also seeks to identify health problems such as allergies and developmental delays and checks hearing and eyesight, doctors will ask questions of the children’s parents in a bid to identify children who are showing signs of having or developing a mental illness or condition such as anxiety disorder, autism, bipolar disorder or attention deficient hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Those who are identified as demonstrating such behaviour will be referred to paediatric psychologists or paediatricians for further diagnosis and treatment. Doctors will be looking for such behaviours as shyness, aggression, difficulty with impulse control and the desire to sleep at night with a light left on.

This is a troubling move towards pathologising young children’s emotions as indicators of mental illness. It may be seen as a progressive medicalising of what previously have been understood as normal responses and behaviours. The singling out of such emotional responses as fear of the dark, difficulty in controlling impulses and aggression represents such emotional responses as abnormal and in need of treatment and control, despite the fact that the children involved in the screening are so young that they are barely out of nappies.

Over forty years ago, sociologists such as Freidson, Zola and Illich began to write about the tendency of medicine to exert its power and authority over an increasingly large domain of human behaviour and experience. More recently, Nikolas Rose and others have noted the rise of the ‘psy disciplines’ in particular — psychology, counselling, psychiatry — as well as developments in neurobiology as progressively gathering behaviours under their authority. Rose (2010) has commented on the emergence of the concept of the ‘risky brain’, or the brain considered most likely to potentially cause its owner to behave in irrational, criminal, risk-taking or other ways considered inappropriate. He notes that attempts to identify susceptible individuals is part of a culture of ‘precaution, pre-emption and prevention’, in which it is considered important to identify potential difficulties with the ways in which people conduct themselves, even if there is only a small possibility that these difficulties may occur.

In the Australian government’s new initiative to identify young children who may be susceptible to mental illness in later life, thousands of children and their parents will be incorporated into a web of surveillance in which what seem like very minor behaviours common to many children (such as fear of the dark) will position these children as potentially at risk. Such a program  is overtly prescriptive in assuming that young children should not feel fear or shyness or sometimes aggressive towards others, or fail to control their impulses. The notion that children should be able to control their emotions underpins these assumptions. This conforms to a general societal trend towards lack of tolerance of the inability of children to behave in a ‘civilised’ fashion and increasingly high expectations that they should demonstrate emotional control similar to that achieved by adults (see my previous post ‘Animals as children, children as animals’).

While it is important that young children with significant mental illness receive an early diagnosis and treatment, this mental health screening directed at all children in the target age bracket will inevitably result in many children being identified as potentially at risk. It will label them with a possible mental health problem and create great anxiety in their parents. Moral judgements and stigmatisation are inevitably involved in diagnoses of what is considered ‘abnormal’ behaviour in children. Being singled out as ‘at risk’ of mental illness and requiring further medical intervention may lead to the stigmatising of children, potentially for many years.

What is more, there is a continuing debate about how to treat such conditions in children as ADHD, and indeed whether the behaviours incorporated into these conditions should be considered abnormal and requiring treatment. Some critics have argued that ADHD is simply the expression of normal, albeit challenging, childish behaviour that is pathologised because it causes disruption in contexts such as classrooms in ways that adults find difficult to manage and therefore seek to control via medical intervention and treatment with drugs (Visser and Jehan, 2009). The same might be said of aggressive, fearful or anxious behaviour in very young children. Yet it is likely that diagnosis rates of such conditions — and associated therapeutic and pharmaceutical treatments — will rise steeply in the wake of the Healthy Kids Check initiative.

References

Rose, N. (2010) ‘Screen and intervene’: governing risky brains. History of the Human Sciences, 23(1), 79–105.

Visser, J. and Jehan, Z. (2009) ADHD: a scientific fact or a factual opinion? A critique of the veracity of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, 14(2), 127–40.

Animals as children, children as animals

A cat and dog, the two most popular animals ke...

I read a newspaper article recently that discussed the vast sums of money people are now spending on their pets. When once pets were put down with barely a thought if they developed a serious medical condition, their lives are now often extended by the kind of expensive surgery that humans have. They can  have hip or knee replacement operations, surgery for cancer and even drugs to treat separation anxiety. Many thousands of dollars are spent on these kinds of treatments.

Dogs and cats are also now commonly given human names. Once their monikers related to their appearance (Spot, Fluffy, Blackie) or were specific to their species (Rover, Fido and so on). Now there are Jeremys, Poppys, Ruperts and Emilys galore among the companion animal population.

Companion animals have become thought of for many people as ersatz family members and are treated as such: given clothes, special accessories, beds, gifts for birthdays and Christmas. Puppies attend ‘puppy preschool’ to be trained in compliant behaviour.

When pets are anthropomorphised in such a way, they are portrayed as babies or young children rather than as adult humans. Young children, for their part, are often portrayed as animalistic. Debates often appear on the web or in the letters columns of newspapers concerning what kinds of public spaces babies and young children should be allowed to occupy.

To give one example, a discussion in the online version of a newspaper last year concerned the issue of crying babies in aeroplanes. The discussion was sparked by the findings of a survey of Australian travellers which found that the vast majority voted for infants and young children and their parents to be segregated on overseas flights. An opinion piece in response to the survey argued that travellers should be tolerant of infant behaviour on planes and have empathy for their long-suffering parents. Hundreds of responses from readers to this piece were posted, many of which complained of the behaviour of children and criticised their parents for choosing to even bring them on the flight.

Other debates have concerned whether young children should be banned for cafes, and alternatively arguing that dogs should be allowed to accompany their owners to more cafes.

Underlying these debates are assumptions concerning the civility of these small humans, their inability to regulate their bodies and emotions, their propensity to annoy other patrons because they fail to measure up to adult standards of behaviour. The notion of the infant and young child as requiring taming like a wild animal is frequently expressed in such forums, and also in some texts on child-rearing. Child-rearing strategies are sometimes directly equated to those used to train domestic animals such as dogs. A popular Australian childcare book was entitled Toddler Taming, its title implying that very young children, like wild or uncontrolled animals, require ‘taming’.

Both animals and children are viewed as being closer to nature and further from the civilised body of adults as a consequence. This positive association of nature with the young child’s body draws upon the valued meanings of purity, authenticity and lack of artifice. However an alternative discourse of nature represents it as ‘bad’: as uncivilised, uncontrolled, wild and requiring domestication. The uncivilised young infant child is deemed to require training in bodily deportment to render them more fully human: manners, toilet training, sleep training, eating habits and other personal bodily habits are all taught as part of the civilising process (as outlined by Norbert Elias), to induct children into adult society and take on the status of the civilised adult.

It has been argued by some sociologists that in developed countries children are now considered more precious, more valuable, than at any other time of human history. Yet they also continue to be considered as inferior to adults, lacking appropriate decorum, spoiling adult spaces. When behaving well, they are adored — when misbehaving, they are reviled. They offend adult sensibilities concerning behaviour in public places. These reactions suggest a deep ambivalence towards young children in developed societies.

In the meantime, dogs and cats are also considered more precious and childlike, moving in their symbolic status from simply animals to beloved member of the family. Strangely, in some instances they have become viewed as more civilised, as more deserving of occupying adult space than are children.

Further reading:

Ulrich Beck and Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim (1995) The Normal Chaos of Love. Cambridge: Polity.

Chris Jenks (1996) Childhood. London: Routledge.

John Knight (ed) (2005) Animals in Person: Cultural Perspectives of Human-Animal Intimacies. Berg.

Deborah Lupton (2012) Precious, pure, uncivilised, vulnerable: infant embodiment in the popular media. Available at http://hdl.handle.net/2123/8201.