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Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce, and Childhood in the Age of the Internet

Author: Kathryn C. Montgomery
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007
Review Published: April 2009

 REVIEW 1: Tyler Bickford
 REVIEW 2: Lisa Dusenberry
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Kathryn C. Montgomery

Kathryn Montgomery's Generation Digital presents detailed histories of the early Washington policy debates about regulating privacy and indecency on the Internet, and it examines the powerful role of consumer marketing in the development of interactive Internet sites innovated to target children and youth. Montgomery looks at how politicians, businesses, and advocacy organizations encounter young people as vulnerable populations and as profitable demographics.

The first half of Generation Digital looks at U.S. policy about children and the Internet developed during the 1990s, from the insider vantage that Montgomery had as head of the Center for Media Education (CME), a Washington organization that advocated for public-interest regulations on electronic media. CME had previously advocated for educational programming on television, and Montgomery's perspective locates Internet policies within a longer history of children's media policy. In chapter three she considers the development of a "V-Chip for the Internet," the government's efforts to protect children from inappropriate material online using voluntary ratings and filtering systems that were developed after the courts overturned the Communications Decency Act, a section of the 1996 Telecommunications Act criminalizing distribution of indecent content to minors. The voluntary rating and filtering framework that followed was modeled on the TV ratings and V-Chip filters established in the same 1996 law, and Montgomery spends as much time on development of the V-Chip as on Internet policies.

Chapter four documents responses to aggressive marketing and data collection that sprang up in children's corners of the unregulated Internet, revisiting debates over television advertising to children that had begun in the 1970s and continued through the 1990s, which had produced some weak regulations while cautioning regulators against opposing children's broadcasters. Eventually the privacy battles gave rise to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998, which made it illegal to collect information from children under thirteen without verifiable parental consent but left teen and adult information largely unregulated. Montgomery places these events in an even broader history in chapter two, tracing back the contemporary children's media landscape to marketing to childhood consumers from as early as the 1930s. Montgomery notes that, "when the World Wide Web was launched in 1993, children already were positioned in the center of a burgeoning media marketplace, with a full array of 'brands' tailored exclusively to their needs," such that "all the ingredients were in place to create a highly commercial digital-media culture, with unprecedented access to the child consumer" (13).

With this dual focus on "old" media policy and marketing, Montgomery points out the fundamentally political nature of discourses about children's Internet safety as she details the negotiations among a catalogue of interest groups seeking to profit, demagogue, or, in a few cases, find reasonable solutions to the issues raised by children's participation on the Internet. In some cases, these arguments distracted from substantive political issues, as with the frenzy over the 1996 telecom act, about which Montgomery writes that "the public furor over sex, violence, and indecency would deflect attention away from the critical policy decisions that would determine the media power structure of the new Digital Age" (37). Those decisions included allocating the digital spectrum, debate about which "was confined largely to the trade press and inside-the-Beltway discussions among policy wonks" (49), even though this was the main thrust of the 1996 law and continues to decide media winners and losers.

One of the side effects of COPPA's restrictions on websites dealing with children was for many sites to ban children under thirteen altogether -- further marginalizing children online. The recent growth of sites like Club Penguin, Webkinz, and Barbie Girls -- virtual worlds for kids with strong consumer tie-ins -- suggests that many of the issues around content and marketing documented in the first half of Generation Digital have continuing salience. Instead of following these threads, however, Montgomery sets young children aside to consider Internet marketing practices developed to target teenagers. Chapter five outlines marketing innovations designed to saturate teens' everyday environments with viral marketing and brands promoted across new and old media. While data mining was outlawed for children under thirteen, marketers began to collect more specific data from teens with social networking sites, Instant Messaging, and web-hosting services. Montgomery suggests that the increasing interactivity of the Web arose from marketers' continual fine-tuning of their data-collection tools to elicit more and more specific information about teenagers' social and personal lives. Especially interesting is the story of Bolt, an early and innovative social networking site highly popular with teens starting in 1996 (118-21). Bolt promoted a "community" for teens to interact with one another, access to which was then sold to other marketers and mined for increasingly sensitive data.

Montgomery writes that these invasive marketing practices were specifically designed to address -- or manipulate -- the developmental psychology of teenagers' "three core needs" for "community, self-expression, and personalization" (139). We have since seen viral marketing and social networking sites flourish into widespread use in adult media, and there does not seem to be anything unique to teenagers about these "core needs"; that adults now use the same products suggests that adults, too, desire community, self-expression, and personalization. Data mining and viral marketing are deceptive and invasive regardless of the psychology of the targets, and I worry that emphasizing adolescents' unique development over broadly shared rights to privacy and self-determination overdetermines teenagers' identities and has nothing to say about the privacy rights of adults. This was the compromise of COPPA, where privacy advocates initially hoped to protect everyone from unfair data collection, but by conceding children's unique vulnerability, media industries could get away with doing nothing to protect adults from manipulative practices on the Internet.

In chapter six, Montgomery looks at "social marketing," in which non-profit organizations worked closely with media companies to produce innovative and effective public education campaigns about tobacco, sex, and civic involvement, adopting many of the innovative marketing strategies outlined in chapter five. These examples suggest a positive potential for the direct interactions between marketers and consumers afforded by the Internet, but I would like more guidance from Montgomery in evaluating them. In the example of YouthNOISE, an organization devoted to increasing young people's civic involvement, Montgomery notes the role of "cause marketing," where corporations would prominently support non-profits to build brand loyalty. She mentions practices where, for example, teens would click an icon to donate money to a cause and receive branded corporate products as prizes, presumably providing personal information in the process. This is precisely the sort of marketing practice to which Montgomery objects in earlier chapters. Additionally, Montgomery highlights the viral marketing, pervasive branding, interactive websites, and mailing lists that the Kaiser Foundation used in a sex awareness campaign, and she notes that some conservative organizations objected to the normalizing of sexual behavior in Kaiser's advertising spots. Considering that these techniques were borrowed from commercial marketers, that the "pro-social" messages can be seen as manipulative or improper by some, and even that cause marketing is one more "innovation" developed by commercial marketers to convince consumers to spend, I struggle to reconcile the positive messages of the campaigns with the tactics so thoroughly critiqued in the previous chapter.

Finally, chapter seven considers a story that is probably very familiar to RCCS readers: political mobilization on the Internet, including MoveOn.org, Howard Dean's 2004 primary campaign, the free culture movement, and other case studies of increased civic participation. "Young people" in this chapter expands at times to include even adults ages 18-34, while largely excluding children. But the politics of children and the Internet did not end with COPPA, and I wish Montgomery spent more time in these later chapters exploring ways that the Internet may be expanding children's opportunities for participation on new social websites, and what it means that for children the Internet remains so consumerist. The civic participation Montgomery outlines in chapter seven stands in contrast to the manipulative, hyper-commercial children's Internet of the 1990s, suggesting a story of civic engagement displacing, or co-opting, commercial models. But despite regulations, the children's Internet remains hyper-commercial, if a bit less manipulative, and as Montgomery's focus shifts to teens and young adults in the second half of this book, I am left wondering if younger children have been left behind by these civic transformations. Montgomery notes that the "contemporary media culture, through the proliferation of specialized children's TV channels, Web sites, and youth brands, has purposefully cultivated a separateness between the realm of children and that of the adult world, as part of a further segmentation of the marketplace" (212). This segregation of children is itself political, and its current manifestations deserve to be explored more deeply.

In an era where "participation" has become the watchword in discourses about the Internet, Montgomery is sensitive to contradictions, noting that the Internet "is an immense public sphere, a forum for robust youthful debate on critical issues of the day, but it is also a sophisticated marketing machine, whose ubiquitous surveillance devices can track one's every move" (211). By linking innovative technological practices to media policy and children's consumer culture, Generation Digital makes an indispensible contribution to recent studies of children's changing media landscape.

Tyler Bickford:
Tyler Bickford studies ethnomusicology at Columbia University. His dissertation is an ethnographic study of children's media consumption and expressive culture at a small K-8 public school in rural New England.  <tb2139@columbia.edu>

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