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.

Same sex couples and division of labour

English: A child holding a sign in support of ...

English: A child holding a sign in support of his lesbian mothers’ marriage outside the Mormon temple at New York City’s Lincoln Center. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There has been a lively debate in response to my piece in The Conversation on stay-at-home fathers (see previous post: Why aren’t there more stay-at-home dads?’).

One commentator wondered what the division of labour was in same-sex couples. This is a very interesting question. I have done a quick search of the literature and have found an article which reviews studies conducted on lesbian families. The author notes that compared with heterosexual couples, lesbian couples share more equally in childcare tasks and reported higher satisfaction levels with their domestic arrangements than did heterosexual couples (Foster, 2005)

Another study provides more detail. It reports the findings of an American study comparing families with heterosexual parents with adopted children, lesbian parents who had adopted children and lesbian parents who had children related biologically (Ciano-Boyce and Shelley-Cireci, 2003).

The study found that the lesbian couples were more equal in their parenting practices than were the heterosexual couples, and that lesbians with adopted children were the most egalitarian. Lesbian parents who were the biological mother and the adoptive mother of heterosexual couples performed more childcare tasks than their partners. They were also more sought after by the child when the child was feeling tired, ready for bed, hurt, hungry, afraid or cranky. In contrast, the child sought the non-biological lesbian mother and the adoptive father in heterosexual couples for rough-and-tumble play, reading and watching television.

In families with lesbian mothers and adopted children, although there was more of an equal division of labour, the child also tended to make a distinction between the mother who they sought for the more he nurturing-type of care and the other mother. This sometimes caused conflict in these couples related to the type of care each woman wished to provide to the child. The researchers explain this difference by suggesting that in these couples there is no ‘obvious’ mother to perform the more nurturing care, as there is in the other couples.

What this suggests is that biological lesbian mothers and adoptive heterosexual mothers take on similar roles which conform closely to dominant norms relating to mothering. The non-biological lesbian mother and the adoptive heterosexual father also adopt similar roles, with both taking an approach which conforms to the traditional ‘father’ model.

References

Claudia Ciano-Boyce and Lynn Shelley-Sireci (2003) Who is mommy tonight? Lesbian parenting issues. Journal of Homosexuality, 43(2), 1–13

Deborah Foster (2005) Why do children do so well in lesbian households? Research on lesbian parenting. Canadian Women’s Studies, 24(2/3), 51–6.

Why aren’t there more stay-at-home dads?

I have just published a piece in The Conversation about stay-at-home fathers and why they are still such a rare phenomenon. There was a big front-page story on the domestic arrangements of Australian actor Rachel Griffiths and her artist husband Andrew Taylor in last Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald. For the past ten years, Griffiths has been busy working on her television career in the US on such shows as Six Feet Under and Brothers & Sisters, while Taylor has been the primary carer of their three children.

In my article for The Conversation, I look at why Taylor’s staying at home to care for the couple’s children received front-age coverage. I discuss some sociological research that has looked at the experiences for both men and women when they have decided that the mother should be the primary breadwinner while the father stays at home.

Here is the link to the article: https://theconversation.edu.au/the-stay-at-home-dad-syndrome-why-do-rachel-griffiths-parenting-choices-make-news-7285


Attachment parenting or extreme parenting?

Last week I wrote a piece for ‘The Conversation’ discussion website (http://theconversation.edu.au) about the US edition of Time magazine, 21 May 2012, that featured a cover image of young, attractive woman breastfeeding her three-year-old son (http://theconversation.edu.au/time-2-extreme-parenting-time-magazine-style-7055). I looked at the various responses to this cover image on the internet. Many of these were from mothers themselves or from professional female commentators and bloggers.

What I found was interesting.  Some people were horrified at the idea that a boy who could be old enough to remember suckling from his mother’s breast will still be doing so. There were many claims that he would be humiliated when he grew older at being featured in such a controversial and public image. The notion that a child as old as three was still breastfeeding seemed abhorrent to some. Breastfeeding here becomes sexualised and bestowed with incestuous meanings, simply because the child is old enough ‘to remember’ gaining comfort and pleasure from his mother’s breast. The fact that his mother was slim, attractive, young, dressed in a hip manner in tight black jeans, and blonde, simply added to the sexualisation of the image.

Other commentators were relatively accepting of the breastfeeding, but took offence at the headline of the cover, which read ‘Are you Mom enough?’. These are fighting words, suggesting that women who do not engage in practices such as breastfeeding for years are not ‘good enough’ mothers. The words ‘Mom enough’ imply that there are gradations of ‘Momness’ (to use a rather clumsy neologism) and that ‘real Moms’ are those who engage in ‘extreme parenting’ . ‘Extreme parenting’ was a term also used on the front cover and in the detailed article published within about attachment parenting and one of its most prominent advocates, American paediatrician Dr Bill Sears.

In contrast to the deliberate provocation of the cover imagery and wording, I found the article quite well-balanced, looking at both the pros and cons of engaging in attachment parenting, which involves baby-wearing in slings and co-sleeping as well as extended breastfeeding and breastfeeding on demand. Sears argues that these practices, based on age-old customs still found in non-western societies, contribute to infants’ physical and psychological wellbeing. According to the article, more and more mothers are taking up his advice and engaging in attachment parenting practices.

Nonetheless, as case studies used in the article attest, attachment parenting (also ‘extreme parenting’ according to Time) can be extremely hard work for the mothers who adopt it. In fact, it clashes with the contemporary notion that both women and men are autonomous individuals, freely making choices about their lives and engaging actively in the workforce without constraint. Attachment parenting directly challenges these assumptions, because it counters the notion of the mother and the infant or child as autonomous subjects. Instead, it rests upon the assumption that the mother-child dyad is interembodied, that the boundaries between the two are blurred rather than distinct, and that the mother, instead of actively seeking to foster autonomy and independence in her child, will follow its cues and submit to its neediness for her bodily presence.

For people in contemporary western societies, these are highly challenging and confronting concepts. This perhaps explains the controversy over the cover image and the use of the term ‘extreme’ to describe attachment parenting.

For sociological studies on women’s experiences of attachment parenting, see the work of Charlotte Faircloth: http://kent.academia.edu/CharlotteFaircloth. For my own work on concepts of infants’ bodies, see Deborah Lupton (in press) ‘Infant embodiment and interembodiment: a review of sociocultural perspectives’, Childhood and Deborah Lupton (2012) Configuring Maternal, Preborn and Infant Embodiment. Sydney Health & Society Working Paper No. 2. Sydney: Sydney Health & Society Group, available at http://hdl.handle.net/2123/8363.