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The Intimate Surveillance of Young Children

The final AoIR 2015 session for today starts with Tama Leaver, whose focus is on the sharing of very early childhood images as a form of co-created online identity. There are a number of approaches to understanding online identity: the networked self is persistent, replicable, scalable, and owned; identity is always under construction, and never complete, and it is also generated by users other than ourselves – identity is co-created.

Users have internet footprints (their purposeful presence) as well as digital shadows, created by others, and these turn into social media rivers that we as users try to curate. This leads to the content-generated user. Individual agency is central in all this: the presumption is that identity should be able to be controlled and curated by the user. There is also a shift towards 'real name' policies in major social media platforms, which have a range of intended and unintended consequences.

But how does this apply to (very) young people – such as babies, even unborn children, whose parents share images and even create online profiles for their children? This can be seen as a further extension of surveillance culture, which includes government and corporate surveillance as well as tracking through social media platforms, and is increasingly also focussed on images, not just texts.

The countermovement to this is sousveillance, which includes physical as well as digital resistance against surveillance. At the same time, surveillance also extends to peer surveillance for good as well as bad reasons, and especially in the case of children includes intimate, purposeful, and usually at least well-meaning surveillance by parents.

Infant surveillance is increasingly normalised – apps like Sprout Baby enable a detailed tracking of the baby's sleep patterns, feeding patterns, etc., which may be useful for health workers but also results in large corporate databases of aggregated infant data. Various wearable technologies (ankle bracelets etc.) are also available, and represent some very strange models of parenthood.

But generic social media platforms are also important in this, of course – Instagram hashtags such as #birth and #ultrasound are not uncommon, for example. Some one quarter of these ultrasound images do in fact include personally identifiable information, too, which may be very problematic for a range of reasons – this, in essence, is where these babies' shadow profiles begin.

In particular, the changing structures and alliances of social media platforms may significantly affect the visibility of such images: Instagram was bought by Facebook, and so their backed user databases are beginning to blend. This leads to a social media contradiction: what users think about as a social interaction is what the companies think about as the generation of media data and metadata.

Not all of this is necessarily negative, however: large-scale data analysis has shown specific patterns in the vital data of prematurely born babies which may help significantly in ensuring their survival.

Intimate surveillance normalised surveillance, then; we need better digital Literacies to understand and address this, and more transparency about data may be shared. Most of all, we also need better social norms that govern the sharing and non-sharing of data and media generated about young people – not just the social media activities of young people.