Generation C: childhood, code, and creativity.

Author:Matwyshyn, Andrea M.
Position:Conceptualization of digital childhood - II. Development and Generation C A. Goffman and the "Digital Native" through Conclusion, with footnotes, p. 2003-2030 - Symposium: Educational Innovation and the Law
  1. Goffman and the "Digital Native"

    Child development does not happen in a vacuum. As I have argued elsewhere, (120) the correct paradigm for conceptualizing human development is an ecological and contextualist one in line with the theory of Vygotsky, Bandura, and Bronfenbrenner: children develop in a particular context, and they are influenced by the tools their environment offers. (121) Essentially, development is a historically, culturally, and technologically specific construct--a dialectic conversation between the person and the environment. (122)

    For example, applying a contextualist approach to development, we know that a child with access to a computer and broadband from age two in the United States will develop in a fundamentally different manner than a child in Zambia whose first Internet access comes through a phone at age sixteen. These children's development is nonlinear (123)--the first child may demonstrate superior technology skills at age eight to those of the second child at age eighteen. The first child's skills may also significantly outstrip the skills of her parents, and parental supervision of children with superior technology skills presents a significant challenge for even the most diligent parent.

    Having established this mechanism of development and the complexity that technology brings, we next turn to the difficult legal questions surrounding childhood identity building, experimentation, and accountability. Two competing dynamics impact children's identity expression in digital spaces with respect to privacy questions--one internal to the child and one external. The first is an internally motivated need for identity building and expression in a community, and the second is the risk that the digital trail of this experimentation will limit future opportunities for the child through generating stigma. It is this set of developmental concerns relating to identity, privacy, and creativity that this section considers using the theory of Erving Goffman.

    1. Impression Management: The Bureaucratization of Spirit

      The role of identity experimentation and its connection to human development is perhaps most associated with the seminal work of notable sociologist Erving Goffman. (124) Goffman introduced the concept of "impression management"--where individuals, like actors, attempt to influence a situation by conveying an impression that it is in their interest to convey. (125) In other words, individuals experiment with crafting and performing personas for themselves while monitoring the reactions of others (126) to these personas or characters. (127) In Goffman's words, "[t]he expressiveness of the individual appears to involve two radically different kinds of sign activity: the expression that he gives, and the expression that he gives off." (128)

      Goffman uses the metaphor of a play being staged in the theater to convey the dynamics of identity crafting. A person, like an actor, has the ability to choose his stage and props, as well as the costume for a specific audience. (129) The goal for the actor is to maintain coherence and to adjust to the different stagings and interaction with other actors. (130) In other words, for Goffman, it can be said that certain structural constraints both enable and limit agency and vice versa. It is precisely negotiating this tension between creating expression and creating an impression that children, particularly teens, are still in the process of learning to manage. Meanwhile, these child performances now simultaneously play out on two stages at once--one performance in physical space for a physical audience and a second in digital spaces for a (sometimes overlapping) virtual audience. For Goffman, it is of fundamental importance to have an agreed upon definition of the situation. Without a clear set of parameters and shared definition guiding the structure of a given interaction, the interaction lacks coherency and the actors' ability to manage impressions falters. (131)

      Perhaps the most important insight that Goffman's work offers us in terms of understanding the challenges of children's interactions in digital spaces relates to this notion of coherence. A coherence problem currently permeates children's interactions in digital spaces. Apart from the legal coherence problem of the four conflicting paradigms of childhood discussed in the prior section, children--as well as adults--struggle to impression manage successfully in digital spaces. In digital spaces such as social media, the audiences for the performance are sometimes unexpectedly bundled together across various contexts, and future audiences are not always foreseen or even foreseeable. In particular, the ability to maintain what Goffman calls a "front" becomes jeopardized. A front is "that part of individual's performance which regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation for those who observe the performance. Front, then, is the expressive equipment of a standard kind intentionally or unwittingly employed by the individual during his performance." (132) Particularly in a digital world with multiple information sources and multiple audiences are converging in social networks, impression management becomes a struggle.

      For example, when a young teen (or one of her friends) posts a picture of her with a red plastic cup at a party or in a state of quasi-nudity, she is more likely to be considering the immediate audiences-her friends in school, her virtual friends and perhaps her parents--rather than prospective future audiences--college admissions officers, possible employers, and future acquaintances. It is unlikely that she is considering that five years in the future a prospective employer may wrongly analyze the red plastic cup to contain illegal alcohol, deem her bikini pictures to bespeak poor judgment and a signal to him to hire someone more responsible-seeming. Today's teenage pictures and rants may be tomorrow's stigma. (133) In Goffman's words, "a certain bureaucratization of the spirit is expected so that we can be relied upon to give a perfectly homogenous performance at every appointed time." (134)

      The usability of the technology itself further complicates this set of risks: privacy settings frequently provide a false sense of security to children, emboldening them to overshare information in the rapture of a moment, forgetting that the data then leaves their control in unanticipated ways. Further, the standard child protection avenues of parental supervision that exist in physical space often fail in digital spaces. Children frequently refuse to "friend" their parents in social networks, for example, or when they agree to "friend" them, it is frequently with such restricted access that meaningful supervision cannot happen short of sneaky parental conduct. (135) Anecdotal tales of parents cracking into their children's Facebook accounts to monitor their children's conduct abound. (136) Apart from the practical infeasibility of expecting every parent to be a technology expert and a "hacker," the familial dynamics fostered by this kind of supervision expectation are obviously not positive. It is precisely because we acknowledge that parents cannot successfully supervise their children every minute of the day that we exempt childhood in various bodies of law in physical space. (137) In the case of technology-mediated communication, these concerns are exacerbated--even reasonable adults frequently wrongly analyze information flows and the risks associated therewith. (138) The risks to which a particular website or application exposes a user are not transparent to even the most sophisticated users: vulnerabilities may exist in the underlying code, which are hidden from the user. (139) How can we expect a child to successfully conduct this calculus when even adult software engineers occasionally commit errors in their use? (140) All these factors may contribute to children's higher likelihood of mismanaging their information in ways that may prove damaging to them in the future.

    2. Stigma

      Goffman writes that a

      correctly staged and performed scene leads the audience to impute a self to a performed character, but this imputation--this self-is a product of a scene that comes off, and is not a cause of it. The self, then, as a performed character, is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fates is to be born, to mature, and to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented, and the characteristic issue, the crucial concern, is whether it will be credited or discredited. (141) Using Goffman's framework, the danger of information flows rests in a risk of what he calls "stigma"--the result of a discredited character, sometimes due to information mismanagement.

      Goffman describes stigma (142) as an "undesired differentness" from what society deems to be "normal" or expected. According to Goffman, "we exercise varieties of discrimination [against the stigmatized], through which we effectively, if often unthinkingly, reduce his life chances." (143) Stated another way, stigma for Goffman is a special kind of gap between what Goffman terms "virtual social identity" and "actual social identity":

      Society establishes the means of categorizing persons and the complement of attributes felt to be ordinary and natural for members of each of these categories.... We lean on these anticipations that we have, transforming them into normative expectations, into righteously presented demands.... [These assumed demands and the character we impute to the individual will be called] virtual social identity. The category and attributes he could in fact be proved to possess will be called his actual social identity. (144) Although Goffman's use of the word virtual came long before the arrival of the Internet, the idea the concept of virtual social identity embodies is directly applicable. Goffman repeatedly articulates...

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