There’s a secret movement taking place around the world. This movement is occasionally reported on, but never remains a sustained focus of attention for the media obsessed with messages of how inevitably doomed we all are. Regardless, this youth movement is influencing children and young people on a global scale and is disrupting everything we previously understood about youth culture and entertainment. Without needing much of an introduction, YouTube is having an effect on the role of children and on our notion of childhood.
This week I stumbled across a channel belonging to three pupils whom I have worked with over the past few years. I felt immediate anger at how three children under the age of 13 could even consider creating a Gmail account, let alone a YouTube channel, despite all the lessons and warnings they’ve had – I was ready to spontaneously combust! So in my typical capacity as online safety: judge, jury and executioner, I began to watch some of their videos in an attempt to catch them out, or at least find something to prove I was correct in my reaction. But what happened next, I didn’t expect.
As I watched, I was genuinely entertained and actually impressed with what I saw. My mood quickly changed and I realised that things may not have been as bad as I initially thought. The videos I watched all featured a computer-generated ident (the professional term for a title sequence), background music, props, steady camerawork and most impressively, well-delivered dialogue from ‘the presenters’ – who were two of the three children. They both spoke directly to the camera in succession of each other, as if they had rehearsed beforehand with a confidence and enthusiasm that I had never seen before.
I was taken aback by how, what I assumed was just three children messing around, was actually a lot more. And upon reflecting on this, I realised that it embodies everything about the way that childhood has changed.
Childhood and Technology
Regardless of whether we choose to accept these changes or not, it is evident that children and young people are engaging with technology in new and unprecedented ways. YouTube is just one of many digital spaces young people choose to express themselves and connect with others. But the impact of the current relationship between childhood and technology does raise concerns about children’s: physical, emotional, social, intellectual and moral development and wellbeing (Cordes and Miller 2000) as a result in their deepening engagement. And there are genuine reasons to be worried. Aside from: childhood obesity, depression, gaming addiction, cyberbullying, online grooming, radicalisation, pornography, and the access and distribution of explicit, inaccurate or inappropriate material, it is easy to understand the why most adults would be reluctant to give a young person today unrestricted online access.
However, sitting beside these concerns are the hopes and prospects that this relationship may be mutually beneficial: improving childhood for the better, and supporting technological innovation and prosperity in the future. Reflecting on my own position, I choose to remain optimistic about the influence of technology on childhood, recognising how the internet empowers young people and provides them with a world of opportunity. Thus, these opportunities shift the roles of young people as passive media consumers, to become active media consumers and producers.
21st Century Play
In the videos that I watched and similarly of those created by other children, the majority of the episodes focused on so-called challenges. These challenges, which include the likes of ‘The Chubby Bunny Challenge’ and ‘Hot Jawbreaker Challenge’, are intended to both absorb and entertain the audience. But what I found interesting about them was that the children didn’t devise these challenges themselves. They were actually imitations of other challenges they had probably seen elsewhere on YouTube. This led me to think about the purpose of consuming and producing videos for this online community, and I came to a striking conclusion: what I was observing might actually be play.
My understanding of play is that it is a self-directed activity in which children explore different ideas: problem solving, enacting, communicating and imitating actions to help them understand the world around them they have observed. If we suppose that children, like the three discussed above, are experimenting; imitating actions and embodying the role of more successful YouTuber’s, then their videos can be understood as an outcome of play within this digital space. Furthermore, I believe that this type of play is equivalent to that previously restricted to playgrounds.
As research shows children and young people are spending more-and-more time engaged with technology, it would be reasonable to suggest that they are spending less time on face-to-face social interaction. But, I believe this isn’t necessarily as bad as it may seem. This is because YouTube offers young people the opportunity to actively engage and interact with others, through a new type of ‘digital play’. But what is unique about this type of play, is that it exists in the same context it is trying to emulate. This would be the real world equivalent of children pretending to be doctors, and playing in a real hospital.
‘Flattening Hierarchies ‘
It is also possible that when children and young people are engaged with technology in this way, traditional hierarchies of power are also disrupted. This is could be because the distance between thinking ‘what if’ and acting ‘as if’, as described by Craft (2012), is removed as this takes place in the same context. The effect of this would be that traditional hierarchies become ‘flattened’ and thus young people gain from becoming empowered by sharing this space with adults, rather than being separate and marginalised.
Along with this newfound power, young people are also able to influence each other, shifting the socio-cultural direction of these communities away from adults with established-authority. Thus, fortifying the restructure of power. It is important to note, however, that youth influence is an ongoing characteristic of a marketised childhood, but in particular in the latter part of the 20th century.
I believe that empowering a generation of children and young people, who may feel disconnected or disenfranchised with the world around them, is a great thing. Through learning, ‘playing’ and engaging with others using platforms such as YouTube, people from around the world are brought together as both consumers and producers of content. Furthermore, the figurative ‘playing field’ is levelled as both novice and experts occupy the same space – meaning that it is possible for anyone to succeed and thrive in the micro-communities the platform offers.
But while this power shift is taking place, it is necessary to recognise that the initial concerns outlined above still exist. And in the name of protecting children and young people from these risks, adults can inevitably take back some of this power – which begs the question: for how long?