Technological advancements have created more venues for girls to develop their interests and showcase their talents than ever existed before, making digital literacy—which involves both cognitive and emotional development—essential for safe and responsible participation. Parenting in the age of new media positions parents and guardians as the primary arbiters of access to these venues: finding the right technologies and approaches for your child’s age1 and stage of development, given their eagerness to explore the latest and greatest tech, can prove challenging. But like almost any kind of learning, building digital skills and knowledge takes time. Helping your child understand that not all apps, websites, and tools are appropriate for girls of all ages; explaining to them why social media sites, in particular, have important age restrictions in place to protect children’s privacy and safety; and guiding them as they begin to engage with the digital ecosystems they’ll encounter are ongoing processes.

Enter Z: with her collection of books, online videos, accessories, and connection to online communities, Z provides girls different points of access, depending on their age, to digital photography, filmmaking, and online participation.

With the release of her doll in 27 April 2017, “Z” (aka Suzie Yang) made her physical debut—but as a digital character, she has a following reaching back two years. Z launched her vlog in September 2015, and since then she has actively engaged both the American Girl Stop Motion (AGSM) and American Girl Instagram (AGIG) digital communities, often bringing them together in new and exciting ways. More than a half-million images and videos are tagged #AGSM or #AGIG on social media platforms, and the communities that have developed around these posts make space for girls to encounter, develop, and express new perspectives. Z’s character brings together imaginative play and art in ways that empower girls to create, connect, and transform their knowledge.

Z at The Market Theater Gum Wall, Seattle. Photo: @5hensandacockatiel

Creating quality images for photography and stop motion requires patience and exceptional attention to detail, and doll photography adds a layer of complexity to that already meticulous process, due to perspective and scale. Nineteen-year-old Instagram artist Sydney Rose Paulsen (@5hensandacockatiel) welcomes those challenges with an impressive zeal, and her Instagram account is an excellent example of AGIG digital storytelling. Likewise, teen artists are creating rich and engaging worlds in the AGSM videos they share on YouTube.

While AGIG and AGSM images and videos are visually arresting, our girls are creating more than images alone: they are creating stories, writing dialogue, designing sets, and building props. They are creating ways to communicate and opportunities to innovate. By sharing their content and their tips—whether face-to-face or, for teenage girls, online—they are creating opportunities to lead. And they are doing this in ways that are unique to each girl.

Paulsen works with her mom to capture the perfect image.

Z and the AGIG/AGSM digital communities offer girls access to content and perspectives from others who share their enthusiasm for AG stop motion and photography. When teenagers and young adults publish their photos and videos to social media, they share their content with an authentic, global audience in a digital environment that has the potential to invite feedback, nurture growth, and connect them to peers and mentors who encourage them. Pre-teen girls, who do not yet meet the age requirements to actively participate in social media communities, can enjoy Z’s videos and related content on American Girl’s website and on YouTubeKids: a parent-controlled, kid-friendly mobile app.2 These different points of access provide girls multiple ways to learn about digital imaging, relate to people (and characters) who share their interests, and find inspiration for their own projects.

But it is essential to note that the connections girls make are not exclusively digital in nature: to create the worlds in which AGIG and AGSM storytelling takes place, girls often enlist the help of family and friends. Stories like Sydney's—in which she shares how she relies on her mother, father, and brother to help her bring her artistic vision to life—are not uncommon: these creative projects invite camaraderie and collaboration. Creating digital content using photography and stop-motion animation is a fun and rewarding project to do together, regardless of whether the projects are shared online or in the privacy of Grandma and Grandpa’s living room.

Z looking out over Seattle. Photo: @5hensandacockatiel

While AG photography and stop motion is undeniably fun—both to watch and create—the fact is that in creating and connecting through Z, girls are hitting the markers educators strive for when integrating technology into learning.

At every age, girls engage in critical thinking when they plan, design, and develop these digital projects, and they have opportunities to reflect on their progress and final product. They learn how to communicate using a variety of writing, audio, visual, and multimedia technologies. They learn how to collaborate, and they learn what it means to make a purposeful contribution to a community. They learn ways to give voice to the things that interest them, and they're taking ownership of their work. Teens have the added opportunity to learn about digital citizenship, participation, and safety—Suzie Yang's use of an alias, "Z," for online communication is noteworthy. Finally, girls are developing practical knowledge and skills—including computing and presentation skills—that are valuable for success in other areas. And in all of this, the girl is central—not the technology; the technology is merely the tool.

The availability of quality imaging and editing tools make digital craft accessible to any girl who would like to explore photography and stop motion. Through Z, American Girl encourages and supports these opportunities for girls and their families to create, connect, and learn—which is all part of our ongoing commitment to reach more girls, in more ways than ever before.

1. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) regulates the collection of information from children under 13 for privacy and safety reasons. Most social media sites, including those mentioned here, are prohibited from registering children under the age of 13 to use their sites.

2. The YouTubeKids app does not include comment or posting features, and parents have access to a timer and other controls.