Over the past fortnight, I’ve put together a few open-access resources concerning what an initial agenda for COVID-related social research could be and research methods for conducting fieldwork in the COVID world.
With the rapid rise of short-form video-sharing platform TikTok, health professionals have started mobilising the popularity of the site to provide users insight into their work conditions as well as offer health advice. In the wake of the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis, social media has played a particularly central role in the spread of information, with the situation changing rapidly and events unfolding on a global scale. Health-related content on TikTok is diverse, ranging from everyday health issues, such as psychologists making ‘TikToks’ offering tips to deal with anxiety, to content that responds to emerging crises like COVID-19, with Italian doctors offering glimpses of their everyday lives and organisations like the Red Cross demonstrating proper hand hygiene. Despite ongoing controversies about misinformation, it’s important to acknowledge the positive potential for health information dissemination that TikTok presents, especially with reports suggesting that its popularity is increasing during the COVID-19 outbreak.
TikTok’s significant reach
There’s no doubt that Chinese-owned TikTok, known in China as Douyin, is now a major player on the global social media market. In January this year, it was the most downloaded (non-game) app worldwide across both the Apple App Store and Google Play. TikTok’s 800 million active monthly users create 15-second videos set to music, with lipsyncing and dancing being popular content. TikTok is oriented around humour and strongly focused on virality, with the app being characterised by a constant stream of prank videos and short, video punchlines. The app has significant potential to reach young people, with a largely preteen user base, especially given that recent reports in the US suggest many teens consider their internet use ‘near-constant’.
Health professionals take to TikTok
It might be surprising given the youthful nature of the platform, that doctors, nurses and health organisations are taking to TikTok to spread health messages. Yet, health-focused content on the app is popular, ranging from more-traditional informational content such as medical professionals using the short-form videos to explain specific concepts, conditions or practices. For example, a doctor might explain what to expect at your first pap smear exam or a mental health worker might offer a tool to help deal with impulses to self-harm. These demonstrations would rely on short explanations and perhaps be set to music in keeping with the usual style on the platform. While the health professionals on TikTok do draw on their authority as qualified medical practitioners, often appearing in their scrubs, stethoscopes slung around their necks, or in other distinctive workplace attire, the style of many informative TikToks are informal, often taking the format of ‘did you know?’.
The platform-specific conditions of TikTok, oriented around play and virality have facilitated the development of a genre of health-focused TikToks that are funny and informational. These videos might feature doctors and nurses offering behind-the-scenes views of their work in hospitals, highlighting the more light-hearted aspects of their often emotionally and physically demanding work. For example, medical staff have filmed videos of themselves dancing in various parts of the hospitals they work in or made videos mocking the most unreasonable requests patients have made while in their care.
COVID-19: potential and controversies
As the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has unfolded, TikTok has been criticised for failing to control misinformation in videos about the outbreak on its app, with some videos uploaded featuring users fraudulently posing as doctors or COVID-19 patients, or spread conspiracy theories about the virus. In response, TikTok has partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO) to produce content with experts from the organisation for the platform. The WHO verified TikTok account shares informational TikToks and runs live streams to answer questions about the virus. The social media giant also pledged $10 million (USD) to the WHO to help fight the spread of COVID-19. TikTok also joined forces with Microsoft and Facebook to help the WHO with a global hackathon to try to find software solutions for the pandemic. Alongside this partnership, other organisations like the Red Cross and the UN have recently joined the platform to share COVID-19 related health advice with videos on handwashing and tips for staying healthy at home.
TikTok viral trends have also played a role in the dissemination of health information and encouraging social distancing measures as COVID-19 has become a global crisis. TikTok enlisted one of their most popular content creators, Charli D’Amelio – a fifteen-year-old with more than 41 million followers on the site – to create a viral dance to encourage her young fans to stay at home and practice social distancing to reduce the spread of the virus. The #distancedance original video has over 170 million views, with millions of users creating their own dance videos.
Content from these health organisations and TikTok partnerships now dominates COVID-19 related search results, which is a welcome relief from controversial ‘corona challenge’ videos that had previously been popular on the site. These viral videos, which involved users licking toilet seats and door handles, have resulted in the hospitalisation of at least one person and drawn criticism to the platform. While TikTok’s response to COVID-19 is, in part, also a reaction to criticism of the site hosting controversial virus-related content, this is only the latest in a series of controversies to hit the social media platform when it comes to health information.
Medical professionals who are active on TikTok or other social media platforms have spoken out in the wake of the backlash, emphasising their experiences on the sites are largely about connecting with the community, sharing evidence-based information and addressing misinformation.
What we see with the #distancedance is an effective mobilising of the core elements of the platform, the playful affordances that communicate effectively with the predominantly young user-base. The message is simple, telling users to stay inside. The engagement of an influencer is an important strategy that sidesteps some of the tricky concerns about maintaining professionalism I’ve identified. This is not to say that medical professionals can’t draw on the elements of dance, lip-syncing and meme-making that are the dominant language of TikTok. In fact, many of the health organisations on the platform do engage these strategies very successfully. However, recent controversies show that health workers do take a risk when they engage on TikTok in a professional capacity. When medical professionals invoke their authority on TikTok this extends expectations of professionalism into a space characterised by a quest for viral hits and this may, at times, be incompatible with their intentions to spread evidence-based health messages.
Though it is a difficult task, at times, to strike a balance between entertainment and information, there has never been a more important time to think more creatively about health promotion. Despite the Australian Prime Minister labelling a lot of the COVID19 information social media “gossip and nonsense”, it is clear from the significant number of medical professionals and health organisations engaged on these platforms that any assertion that expertise cannot be engaged in these places is false. The rapidly changing pandemic we are currently facing is a problem that demands diverse and innovative public health solutions. Though a 15-second dance video might not be a familiar format to get the message out, the time is now to engage. After all, as we can see from TikTok, health information circulates within these platforms, only increasing during global health events like COVID-19. The question is whether health professionals and organisations contribute to the conversation.
My latest book, Digital Food Cultures, co-edited with Zeena Feldman, has now been published with Routledge, as part of their Critical Food Studies Series. The abstracts and authors of each chapter are listed below. A book preview on Google Books is available here.
1. Understanding Digital Food Cultures: Deborah Lupton
This chapter introduces the book and provides a comprehensive overview of previous scholarship on digital food cultures. The five main themes into which the twelve other chapters are grouped are identified: bodies and affects; healthism and spirituality; expertise and influencers; spatiality and politics; and food futures.
2. Self-Tracking and Digital Food Cultures: Surveillance and Self-Representation of the Moral ‘Healthy’ Body: Rachael Kent
No longer defined in opposition to illness, ‘good’ health as representative of lifestyle correction has become a central discourse in international health promotion strategies for many decades. This neoliberal discourse positions the citizen as a consumer…
For those people who feel they might like to contribute their expertise and insights, please see this call for papers for a special section of Health Sociology Review I am editing on sociology and the coronavirus. This is a fast-tracked process designed to get important insights out as quickly as possible.
Health Sociology Review Special Section – Sociology and the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic
Call for abstracts
The current pandemic is unprecedented in modern times. In view of this, Health Sociology Review (HSR) (Q1 journal) has asked Professor Deborah Lupton to guest edit a special section of a forthcoming issue of the journal on Sociology and the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic. The emergence of this new virus and its rapid transformation from an epidemic localised to the Chinese city of Wuhan late in 2019 to a pandemic affecting the rest of the world by March 2020 has caused massive disruptions affecting everyday…
It has been said that we live in an ‘attention economy’, in which our attention is a commodity and the capacity to hold attention is a key value. Increasingly, technology has been blamed for bringing about this state, for distracting and re-orienting our attention to an ever expanding variety of digital devices and sources of digital information throughout the day such as smartphone notifications and the incessant flow of social media feeds. Within these panic inflected conversations, parents in particular have been singled out for critique when it comes to questions about how their attention is directed.
Giving your undivided attention to your child is often considered part of ‘good parenting’ – despite how unreasonable that may be. Parents have faced increasing scrutiny surrounding their use of technologies like smartphones and tablets, particularly while undertaking parenting duties. ‘Distracted parenting’ is often framed as a phenomenon largely caused both by digital technologies and parents who fail to control themselves (and their attention). Recently, a photograph taken at the Special Care Baby Unit (SCBU) Yeovil Hospital (UK), went viral after parents accused the hospital of shaming new parents. The image depicts a smartphone with a red cross over it and a cartoon baby with the text “Mummy & Daddy…Please look at ME when I am feeding, I am much more interesting than your phone!! Thankyou xxxxxx”. The plea for parents to focus on their children and not mobile phones has not been confined to the maternity ward. In England, some schools have gone as far as banning parents from using phones at the school gates with one reported as installing a sign on the school fence saying ‘Greet your child with a smile and not a mobile’. In Australia, public pools have put up signs urging parents to ‘Watch your child, not your mobile’ after concerns were raised about increased drowning risk due to distracted parents.
Undoubtedly digital technologies are becoming deeply intertwined with our daily routines, shaping our behaviours and emotions in complicated ways. Like many things, these technologies – and their impact on our lives – are not all ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ rather they bring with them an intricate mix of capacities and constraints. However, we are often tempted to categorise them in black and white terms. The signs described above are a case in point; they clearly identify parental use of digital technology, in this case a smartphone, as a ‘bad’ parenting behaviour, effectively equating technology use with inattentive parenting and the prioritising of technology over one’s child.
Although such messages are framed as addressed to all parents, researchers have highlighted how the cultural messages of intensive parenting are directed more keenly at mothers and their behaviours. From discussions about co-sleeping attachment, school homework, to feeding practices including mundane activities such as preparing lunchboxes the focus tends to concentrate on mothers and are generally internalised by them more acutely. This is a by-product of the culture of ‘intensive motherhood’, theorised by Sharon Hays in her 1996 bookThe Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, that demands women demonstrate their maternal ‘goodness’ through a dizzying array of practices requiring an abundance of time and financial resources.
An understandable response to this social scrutiny – and to the signs described above admonishing parents about spending time on their screens – might be feelings of shame or guilt, which are often experienced by mothers as they negotiate the daily demands and complexities of intensive mothering. Another response might be a “sassy” display of embracing time-saving options like being an “Amazon Prime Mom” in a sort of refusal of this idealised and labour-intensive version of motherhood. In each of these cases, the social expectations of mothers go unchecked and women are left to figure out how to navigate and respond to these pressures. Therefore, we propose an alternative take on parental use of technology that (we hope) is less quick to assign blame and reorients the focus back to the broader conditions of parenthood and care giving. Specifically, we ask, what is it that digital technologies might ‘do’ for parents? What do they make possible – or not – for those juggling busy schedules, multiple obligations and also trying to perform good parenting?
Research suggests mothers often adopt and use technologies (i.e., self-tracking devices, mobile apps, blogs, online parenting communities) as part of their efforts to comply with ideals of intensive motherhood. For example, these technologies are taken up by women in order to participate in fitness regimes so they can be ‘healthy’ mothers for their children, to seek out information about best parenting practices, to organise and schedule various healthcare appointments and children’s extra-curricular activities, and to conduct research about the health and development of their children. In these ways, digital technologies are in fact being used in such a way that intensifies women’s attentions to the parenting project. Importantly, this counters the narratives of inattention suggested by the sign described above.
Additionally, and what risks being overlooked in simplified understandings of technology as perpetuating problems of inattention, is the capacity of some technologies to connect and enable communication. Parenthood can be isolating, it can be difficult and frustrating and lonely at times. Online forums, social media platforms and even communication apps play an important role in the way that we all – not just parents – connect and communicate with people and communities. The ability to form relationships and make connections with others in similar situations may be particularly important for parents and digital technologies, such as smartphones, may be key to enabling these connections in what is an increasingly digitally mediated world. However, it is also important to note that recent research has shown that parents also seek refuge from judgement in online spaces where they may also face judgement and exclusion from doing things differently to the group.
Considering this, we are reminded again that digital technologies and their associated practices cannot be understand in simple terms but require us to consider the context in which they are embedded. While not always clearly apparent, there are often structural and cultural issues that shape how and why parents turn to technologies. For example, smartphones may be a way of accessing information and support about how to feed young children in social contexts in which funding for children and family support services is constantly under threat. Another structural issue is the sky-high cost of childcare in many countries and the cultural expectations that parents (mothers) will still be there for their children despite working in the paid labour force. Parents may have to send urgent work emails from their smartphones while tending to their children, because work increasingly happens outside of formal working spaces and formal working hours. This is particularly true for those parents who seek flexible jobs in efforts to balance the responsibilities – and financial obligations – of childcare as well as paid employment.
Overall then, instead of associating technology use with ‘bad’ or inattentive parenting, we can consider different angles to the context in which parents are scolded and told to reduce or abstain from technology use. We might think of the ways technology actually supports parenting practices by providing parents with information and support, enabling social connection, and allowing the integration of work and family life. We can also acknowledge how digital technologies can also be a source of stress and exclusion. As a result, we may not be able to make any categorical or evaluative conclusions about parent’s technology use, but instead recognise the complexity and nuance of the situation. In turn perhaps we can rethink those messages being put up in hospitals and schools that are presented as acting “in the name of the children” but don’t account for the messy reality of contemporary parents’ lives, aspirations, obligations and connections.
Affect, Knowledge and Embodiment is a critical feminist arts/research workshop series (and zine!) lead by myself (Ash Watson, postdoc with the Vitalities Lab) and my colleagues Laura Rodriguez Castro (Griffith Uni) and Samantha Trayhurn (WSU).
We have run four workshops since late 2018: at Monash University in Melbourne, at Griffith University in Brisbane, at the Australian National University in Canberra, and most recently at the University of Melbourne.
On Tuesday February 18, 2020, we were hosted by the School of Political and Social Science and the HSIF at Melbourne – thanks to Ash Barnwell and Signe Ravn for the invitation, and Emma Dutton for her help putting the day together.
In each AKE workshop, we explore ways of practically extending critical and feminist social research with art – specifically with blackout poetry, participatory visual methods, sociological fiction writing and, of course, zine making. These arts practices are valuable for opening up how we critically explore, analyse, collaborate on, and share experiences and understandings of the social world.
The day is very hands on – participants experiment with each of the creative methods we introduce to explore the themes of affect, knowledge, and embodiment. The result is a collaborative zine made on the day, a ‘curated sociology’ of photography, collage and writing interventions, which is published with Frances St Press (my indie press).
At each workshop, we engage with a key piece of writing by writers and scholars who have been influential in our own practices. So far we have drawn on Audre Lorde, Sara Ahmed, and Quinn Eades. At the University of Melbourne AKE workshop, we drew an excerpt from Gloria Anzaldúa and AnaLouise Keating’s this bridge we call home (2002).
Participants cut, pasted, ripped, drew, wrote, scribbled, peeled, pressed and stamped. They made use of provided quotes from the reading (like those below), and transformed provided poems into new works of their own.
‘Honoring people’s otherness, las nepantleras advocate a “nos/otras” position—an alliance between “us” and “others.” In nos/otras, the “us” is divided in two, the slash in the middle representing the bridge—the best mutuality we can hope for at the moment’
‘Empowerment is the bodily feeling of being able to connect with inner voices/resources (images, symbols, beliefs, memories) during periods of stillness, silence, and deep listening or with kindred others in collective actions’
‘You look beyond the illusion of separate interests to a shared interest—you’re in this together, no one’s an isolated unit’
‘Through the act of writing you call, like the ancient chamana, the scattered pieces of your soul back to your body’
‘Éste quehacer—internal work coupled with commitment to struggle for social transformation—changes your relationship to your body, and, in turn, to other bodies and to the world. And when that happens, you change the world’
‘Change requires more than words on a page—it takes perseverance, creative ingenuity, and acts of love’ (Anzaldúa and Keating 2002)
As we say in the editorial introduction to volume #4 of AKE Zine, when we started the workshop series we envisioned that the zine-making process would allow people to break traditional academic boundaries, to cross bridges through creative practice. With the fourth volume we wanted to push these boundaries further inspired by the rebellious herstories of zine-making and feminisms.
Most social analyses of the use of personal health data for dataveillance (watching and monitoring people using information gathered about them) have largely focused on people who engage in voluntary self-tracking to promote or manage their health and fitness. With the outbreak of COVID-19 (novel coronavirus), a new form of health dataveillance has emerged. I call it ‘digitised quarantine’.
Traditional quarantine measures, involving the physical isolation of people deemed to be infected with a contagious illness or those who have had close contact with infected people, have been employed for centuries as a disease control measure. Histories of medicine and public health outline that quarantine (from the Italian for ’40 days’ – often the length of the isolation period) was practised as early as the 14th century as a way of protecting people living in European coastal cities from the plague brought by visiting ships.
Our 2019 Annual Report has now been published! You can download a copy from the link below. The report lists all our publications and activities from the last year alongside images of some of the highlights of the year.
Digital technologies and platforms are increasingly important parts of our everyday lives, so much so that it often makes more sense to think about how we come to exist with and through these technologies, rather than how we “use” them. This entanglement between humans and technologies can be uncomfortable at times, even troubling, as they unsettle commonly held assumptions about what social life should look like. Importantly, these relationships and our negotiations of them always take place within, and are reflective of, the specific socio-political conditions of the time.
A New Yorker article published in late 2019, titled “The Quiet Protests of Sassy Mom Merch” by Jia Tolentino, explores the intimate and somewhat fraught relationship between technology and user through the case of Amazon Prime and motherhood. Specifically, Tolentino examines the expression of this complex relationship as it manifests in the form of “sassy mom merch” which includes T-shirts boasting slogans such as “Coffee, wine and Amazon Prime”. While the notion of mums wearing t-shirts emblazoned with “sassy” declarations of a particular form of motherhood might initially seem trivial, it emerges as an emotionally laden phenomenon with socio-political relevance. It brings the sphere of family life into focus and situates mothers’ online purchasing practices within the broader socio—material and political conditions of motherhood. The slogans playfully convey the important role of the online shopping platform in helping mothers meet the daily demands of child rearing and keeping a household going in a less-laborious and less self-sacrificing manner than other available – and celebrated- representations of motherhood circulating. This includes the contrasting figure of “The Pinterest Mom” who carefully crafts different ideas into new combinations for her family. The voices of mothers and t-shirt producers captured in the article suggest that such merchandise is a way of inserting some humour into a situation where the expectations around motherhood have become heightened and contradictory. Plouff, an owner-creater of an Etsy store interviewed for the article elaborates:
“It’s true that you’re supposed to act like you’re a stay-at-home mom, but you’re also supposed to have a full-time job,” Plouff said. “It’s expected that your hair and makeup should be done, and that your house is spotless, but also that you can afford child care, and if you work, when do you have time for your child? You really can’t win, so you just have to laugh.”
Wearing t-shirts with “coffee, wine, and Amazon Prime” emblazoned across the chest may then be a public declaration that one sometimes fails to meet the near-impossible-ideals of intensive mothering and that one is OK with this. These mums may be attempting to signal that they do things differently, that they in part refuse the expectations placed upon them, although of course this refusal is performed through the market and it comes at a price. Interestingly, the article highlights that such merchandise is often produced by entrepreneurial mothers seeking to combine childcare and employment.
Tolentino’s piece also draws our attention to a tension that emerges between mothers’ need for convenience, and the limitation of “sassy mom merch” as a means by which to critique the structural problems facing mothers, or society at large. She highlights the ways “Amazon Prime moms” are symptomatic of the unachievable standards of motherhood noting “it seemed to me that what actually sucked was the idea that kids absolutely needed confetti on their birthday, and it was a mom’s job to get it”. However, she also contemplates the motivations of those who embrace the image of “Amazon Prime mom” while – in her analysis – largely remaining disengaged from broader concerns like the labour practices (warehouse workers and delivery drivers) implicated in the use of Amazon Prime and social issues such as maternity leave and childcare.
Through the juxtaposition Tolentino sets up between the discussions her own friends have about “socialism and universal childcare” and the Amazon Prime mum’s approach, the author (perhaps unintentionally) invites the reader to see “sassy mom merch” indicative of a mother that is more interested in buying things than important political issues. However, perhaps inadvertently, is this placing one more demand on mothers? That is, to demonstrate the “right” kind of ethical consumption and political awareness.
Given this starting point for sociological analysis, we might ask – who is let “off the hook” here? This account doesn’t give us the full picture of the ways in which technologies, practices and relations of power constitute what is possible in this scenario. Nor does it invite us to question the social, economic or material conditions that give rise to mothers’ practices and choices, rather it locates mothers and their choices as “the problem”. In so doing it places other institutions, systems of governance, relationships and individuals outside of the analysis. There is, perhaps, altogether too much emphasis placed on the choices that mothers make – whether they use Amazon Prime, whether they discuss universal childcare– rather than the conditions from which those choices emerge. While certainly the critique of Amazon’s business ethics is a fair one, addressing this critique at the level of individual consumer choices is limited. There may be a range of socio-economic factors that create conditions in which Amazon becomes an important source of goods for these mothers. Affluent city dwellers may have access to ethical choices that may be much more difficult for those living in less accessible areas, or with less means. Furthermore, there are a number of beneficiaries of the mother’s labour – that is the easy purchasing of goods on Amazon – such as fathers, who face no such critique. Indeed, even Amazon gets off lightly when individual choice becomes the focus of our criticisms as it is the consumer who is supposed to make the correct choice, rather than the company.
The example of “sassy mom merch” and the reaction to “Amazon Prime moms” reveals the way our preoccupation with individual choices can come at the cost of accounting for the complex context that makes these choices possible. This is not to say that there is no responsibility for individuals per se, rather how we understand this responsibility needs to be broadened to include all the important actors. It’s always easier and more comfortable to attribute all the responsibility to an individual – in this case a mother – rather than confront the reality that there are companies like Amazon with significant power and inadequate laws that allow these companies to exploit their vulnerable employees. The messy relations of power that must be shifted to change the everyday reality for mothers far exceed a choice between being an “Amazon Prime mom” or a “Pinterest mom” or choosing not to use Amazon Prime. Though the “sassy merch” may not challenge the impossible expectations on mothers or fight for social change, by finding humour in the imperfections of motherhood they provide spaces for solidarity and connection.