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
Kathryn C. Montgomery's Generation Digital seeks to "provide background and insight about this new digital-media culture, the forces that are shaping it, and the ways in which young people are involved in it" (xi). The book is invested in exploring the role that marketing and advertising have played in the development of internet practices and the primacy of the child/adolescent demographic to the success of these business models. Montgomery provides an in-depth analysis of the complex relationships among children, parents, special interest groups, governmental agencies, and telecommunications industries since the early 1990s; all of these relationships were determining factors in regulating digital media. Generation Digital examines the importance of children and teenagers as "consumers-in-training," arguing that the internet facilitated the creation of a more intimate and unsupervised relationship between brands/advertisers and their youth demographic. The book also traces the history of governmental and industry regulations for marketing to and collecting information about children on the internet. Montgomery historicizes the debate over information privacy, parental authority, and protection from pornography online within the framework of the regulation of television and film. Finally, she illustrates how internet marketing strategies and social networking infrastructures have been adopted to promote civic activism. Overall, the book locates the child both literally and symbolically at the center of the politics and policies surrounding digital media.
Generation Digital makes a strong argument for how the internet allows marketers to tap child/teen consumers in a way no previous media technology has. The internet provides an avenue for an unprecedented level of market research to be done directly with children. Montgomery demonstrates how the internet's usefulness as a youth market research tool led to public outcry for privacy policies and how the focus on youth shaped public policy for all users. Digital media allowed marketers to employ "behavioral marketing" to cultivate brand loyalty through personal relationships with individual consumers and by tracking these individuals' habits. Children willingly gave out information on the consumer practices of their friends and family, along with their names, ages, locations, and other sensitive information, which market research companies (using children's entertainment websites as their medium) sold to third parties, often without parental consent. This exploitation of child users was met with calls for children's online privacy regulations. However, privacy issues were not fully addressed because, in political debates, protecting the privacy of children online became rhetorically linked to and subsumed by protecting children from online pornography. Any dissent to child protection legislation on the grounds of personal rights became an attack on childhood and comprehensive protections were not developed. To partially mitigate privacy concerns, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act was passed; it curtailed intimate marketing tactics targeted at children under thirteen but did not provide any guidelines for interactions with teens.
Having established strong ties between marketing, the internet, and youth, Montgomery elaborates on child privacy concerns taken up by different advocacy groups and the debate between protecting innocence and providing electronic freedom. The child became a primary figure in the public struggle between the internet's educational promise and the perception of the internet as a gateway to pornography. The image of the innocent child became a key factor in the regulation and legislation that followed, often "deflect[ing] attention away from the critical policy decisions that would determine the media power structure of the new Digital Age" (37). The child-protective interests of "pro-family" groups were pitted against the individual-protective interests of civil liberties and electronic freedom groups. Montgomery connects the history of the V-chip for television and its rhetoric of parental empowerment to the development of the Clinton administration's "virtual toolbox" of software that provided parents control over children's access to the World Wide Web. The book explores the failure of both the V-chip and the "virtual toolbox" to effectively empower parents and the need for various legal and industry regulations to change existing practices.
Montgomery effectively details the development of public policy and the organizations responsible for those regulations, emphasizing the symbolic role of children and the groups speaking about them. Child agency and individual user resistance to marketing tactics, protection policies, and commercial exploitation are minor elements in Montgomery's narrative of the digital generation. She engages in her most in-depth look at the crafting of personal information that individual teens engage in online and their overwhelming presence as users in chapter five, "Born to Be Wired." The chapter illustrates the important shift in teens' conception of public and private as their identity work moves from the private diary to the online forum. It also notes the performative element of identity present in teens' personal Web pages, chat rooms, and instant messages. Despite the experimental personal space provided by digital media, Montgomery makes it clear that being "Born to Be Wired" is mostly about being identified, commercialized, and harnessed by marketing firms. Social networks and online ventures targeted at teens remain mostly unregulated and often use questionable tactics to gain personal information about teens by fusing consumption and online entertainment. These companies and social networks enlist teens as loyal promoters of the company, product, or brand, thereby creating effective viral marketing to other teens; these practices often escape the notice of parents and advocacy groups.
While they have not succeeded in regulating the relationship between marketers and teens, advocacy groups and teen media outlets have been able to use the tactics of behavioral marketing and branding to promote teen health and awareness. Examples of successful ventures include the many new public service announcements (PSAs) like the MTV "Be Safe" campaign (a.k.a. "Fight for Your Rights: Protect Yourself") and the "Truth" campaign. These PSAs were notable because of their cross-platform promotion and their merchandising, as well as their promotion of youth activism. Several groups have made use of social networking and branding to promote civic engagement and change the image of volunteerism among youth, including websites like YouthNOISE and campaigns like "Rock the Vote." But these campaigns, sites, and organizations also represent the further "blurring of content and promotion that has come to characterize so much of contemporary media" (156). The final chapters of Generation Digital focus on several examples of online organizations that facilitate youth political action, as well as the ways the teen conception of ownership and production has changed, to show that youth are "taking ownership of the new media as tools for the practice of citizenship" (207).
Despite the book's insistence on the primacy of the child as an adopter, user, and producer of the new digital media culture, the book is not about the voice of the individual child/teen, but about the symbolic role of the child as a figure in the debate over the future of digital technology. Montgomery makes a calculated choice in avoiding doing a study of individual users (for example, Sandra Weber and Shanly Dixon's edited collection Growing Up Online: Young People and Digital Technologies). This avoidance allows Montgomery to circumvent the often utopic tendencies of many of the ethnographic studies of child users and to emphasize the way the child is spoken about instead of with. Generation Digital does an excellent job of contextualizing the different ways the symbol of the child is mobilized in political debate. The tension between teens' conscious construction of new identities and the rhetorical imperative to protect vulnerable children from the public nature of digital media becomes a major point of contention among the organizations working on internet regulations. Dissent regarding child-protective regulations and practices are met with public shame and outcry. Montgomery emphasizes that the ambiguity created by conflicting images of the child (as innocent, as technologically savvy, as consumer par excellence) was an important factor in deciding the future of digital media.
Overall, Generation Digital is a well-written account of the intersection of politics, childhood, and digital media with engrossing narratives from multiple points of view. Each chapter illustrates the conflict over society's relationship to the child, changing conceptions of family, and the collapse of public and private space created by digital media, emphasizing the local, national, and global ramifications of focusing on child-related concerns with digital media. The book clearly and effectively depicts the influence that fears about child users and hopes for the educational and social promise of digital technology had on public policy. Montgomery makes a compelling argument for the historical relationship between the family-centered regulation of the television and film industries and the struggle for internet regulation. She also illustrates the strong shift to one-to-one marketing and the change in advertising and marketing culture that accompanied the rise of the digital generation. The book lays the groundwork for further investigation of individual teen practices and resistance, as well as additional inquiry into digital media, activism, and civic engagement. Generation Digital successfully balances the voices of and interplay among commercial interests, government interests, and advocacy groups, showing the role each played in defining how digital media would be used to reach teens and children.
Lisa Dusenberry is a Ph.D. student in English at the University of Florida focusing on children's culture and digital media. Her research analyzes the intersections between developing digital forms and children's literatures and cultures. She is especially interested in the symbolic circulation of the child, the negotiation among reader, player, text, and game, and the ways texts structure user interactions. <email@example.com>
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