Centennial College students looking to gain hands-on experience with today’s ever-changing digital culture should head straight to the kidsmediacentre—a think tank that explores how youth and social media interact. The downtown Toronto centre’s most recent project, #instaFAME, looks at why kids are giving up their privacy to get followers. “Over the past couple of years, a lot of kids are saying ‘privacy be damned, I want a following, I want to be famous, I want 150,000 followers,’” says centre director Debbie Gordon. To that end, selfies are king, with an estimated 90 billion of them posted to Instagram. A significant number of those are overtly sexualized, as both genders seem to feel the more provocative an image, the more followers it will attract.
It’s engaging research. Maritza Basaran, 26, volunteered to work on the #instaFAME project last year to complement her coursework in the post-graduate Children’s Media program. “The research just caught my eye,” she says, calling it a “unique experience.”
In addition to hiring volunteers, Gordon also chose three graduates from Centennial’s school of communications, media and design to help run the focus groups with junior and high school students, exploring the influences driving selfie culture. The teens and tweens were given questionnaires asking them, for instance, which movie most reflects their experience. The Centennial students also spent hundreds of hours searching through social media sites, watching GIFs and decoding hashtags. “What are the implications for their emotional health when they’re investing 12 hours a day in their smartphones?” asks Gordon.
Even though the team were all in their early 20s, they found they were out of touch. “The whole digital sphere is moving at lightning speed, so it’s impossible to ask parents to be in the know,” Gordon says. “So you just try to make sure you’ve given your kids important values and a moral code.”
Gordon wanted one place where she could gather resources for adults, to help them understand young people’s motivations for their online behaviour, so part of the project was developing the #instaFAME website hashtaginstafame.com, which contains details of the research and lesson plans for educators. Their research ultimately showed that selfies are driven by a complicated combination of economics and insecurity. “Maybe it makes me feel better about myself, it validates who I am,” she says. “They said they wanted to turn themselves into somewhat of a brand.” Kids know advertisers and opportunities come knocking if they have a huge following—Justin Bieber, after all, got his big break on YouTube—and there are many examples of Instagram stars who don’t need to transition to mainstream media because they’re making a living off their channel.
In the next phase of #instaFAME research, they are following up with students who have successfully attracted followers or demonstrated enough social media savvy that they are getting paid opportunities from corporations, like sponsorship deals. The kidsmediacentre will continue, Gordon says, to be “asking the hard questions.”