Family context eclipses screen time. If you get nothing else from the new book Parenting for a Digital Future, that one takeaway would help so many educators, policymakers, pediatricians and advocates trying to get “Internet safety” and “digital wellbeing” education right, i.e., as free of generalized pronouncements of what is and isn’t good for children as possible. It has a number of implications, which I’ll get to in a moment.
First you need to know how much light this book – by social psychologist Sonia Livingstone, parent of adults, and socio-cultural anthropologist Alicia Blum-Ross, parent of young children – sheds on family context in the digital age. The authors spoke in-depth about tech use with 73 families of diverse cultures, sizes, income brackets, ethnicities, religions, parenting styles and family makeups in the families’ own homes, where the tech use happens.
Those conversations covered parents’ practices, fears and hopes for their children, household rules and in some cases disagreements about tech – and of course multiple types of tech use by kids with a myriad interests, challenges and dreams of their own, including children with special education needs.
That qualitative research followed a nationally representative quantitative study of more than 2,000 sets of parents about tech and media use in their homes. Add to those studies insights from hundreds of other scholars in related fields (the bibliography is extensive and spans many countries), and we get context for the context – for these views of families doing their best to prepare kids for an uncertain future. This was sorely needed, because the digital part of parenting has become such a lightning rod, gathering too much of our attention away from all of children’s needs right now.
“The digital has become the terrain on which we negotiate who we are, our identities, our relationships, our values and our children’s life chances. No wonder our anxieties and arguments about technology are often so fraught,” said co-author Sonia Livingstone in her recent TED Talk, in which she tells us her mother “wouldn’t have any technology in the house at all” (so these questions are hardly new). “Fast-forward 30 years…digital is everywhere,” she adds. “Why are we so fascinated? Lots of other things have changed in recent decades that have added to our anxieties: uncertain work, changing forms of family, increasing inequalities, intensifying educational pressures on our children. But…it’s the digital that symbolizes the change between then and now.”
Some key themes that run through this book:
- 3 digital-parenting styles – resisting, embracing and balancing – that are each whole “constellations” of practices and values, not a “neat classification of individuals and families.” And “balance” is both “highly individual…from one family to the next” and an “active and effortful process, like standing on a rolling log,” the authors write. “Not simply a compromise, it invites constant self-questioning and adjustment” – just one reason why parents deserve support not judgment.
- The parenting paradox: Even as parents are expected to “police their children’s screen time” in the middle of what has become the Internet safety “control paradigm,” society is “reconfiguring the family [unit] to be more democratic,” the authors write. Parents are getting impossibly mixed messaging. Sociologist Ulrich Beck as saying, “Negotiation is the dominant pattern” for today’s parenting, and family historian Howard Gadlin is cited writing that “the most important characteristic of contemporary child rearing is the continued diminution of parental authority.” And “there is little evidence to show that policing digital technologies is actually effective,” Livingstone and Blum-Ross write.
- Parenting’s backdrop. Not even talking about the pandemic, because this book went to the publisher before much of the world locked down. What the authors describe is “the risk society”: growing warnings of crisis in childhood, climate change, migration, economic uncertainty, a mental health crisis and what scholars call “institutionalized individualism” – families living in “a competitive, ‘sink or swim’ culture in which social support is contracting.” Yes, technology’s changing fast, but it might help to have a sense of proportionality about the challenges parents face.
- Call-out culture, online and offline is another part of the backdrop. “Parents are the first in line for blame and shame, and the first to blame themselves if things go wrong, or if their children ‘fall behind’.” So all the anxiety and guilt around “screen time” is no surprise (we all would do well to consider comedian Franchesca Ramsey’s “6 call-out rules”).
- Hunger for advice: “The depths of emotions in the interviews and the pleas from parents for advice highlighted to us just how few avenues parents have…[to find] support when challenged or a recommendation for where to find positive opportunities,” the authors write. I’ve seen this too, including on a recent podcast I did. I realized that, when we focus on “the digital” and treat it as some alien force intruding on family life (as it’s typically represented to us), we feel helpless. But when our kids and the activities they’re engaged in, on screen or off, are the focus, we’re just parenting.
- Kids as learning partners: Instead of policing, there are so many ways parents can approach kids’ tech use: “as co-learners, resource providers, ‘brokers,’ teachers and…a new and important task for parents: namely, guiding children to benefit from the potential of digital technologies while also building their resilience to manage the pitfalls, to ‘trust your child’,” the authors quote one of the parents they interviewed, Ariam Parkes, as saying.
- “Geeky” families: There’s a whole chapter on families that take the “embrace” approach and “geek out.” The authors characterize geeking out as both courageous and risky – there’s “a sense of being apart from the majority of one’s peers, as well as a way of seeking varying forms of agency, expertise, self-actualization, recognition and community for their children,” they write. I guess for the purposes of their subject matter, they hark back to the narrow, tech-focused meaning of “geeking out” rather than the broader sense used by the editors of a book they cite, Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out, who describe it as diving deeply into any specialized interest: writing, needlework, choreography, video editing, cooking, etc., with tech playing an important supporting role (see this for examples), including the sense of belonging that often comes from “geeky” online interest communities.
- Agency for their kids. “For many parents, the digital is associated with agency – not only for their child, but also for themselves,” the authors write. This reminds me of the gamification fixation in the early part of this past decade, when – at the Games+Learning+Society conference at University of Wisconsin – I learned about the difference between gamification, which is about controlling outcomes through extrinsic rewards, and “meaningful gamification,” which brings intrinsic rewards and grows trust, agency and a sense of competency (see this). Author and media Prof. Nathan Schneider at University of Colorado told an interviewer that taking away people’s agency or capacity to make change takes away hope. I think this is why Prof. Ian Rivers in the UK found that, in bullying situations, bystanders can experience depression and despair as much as perpetrators and targets; they feel powerless.
- Focus on values. In both the survey and their conversations with parents, the authors found that family “together time” is a value in and of itself for many families, and parents use technology for meaningful co-viewing, co-play and sometimes co-creating. Life in the 21st century is so busy that it can take a conscious effort just to “hang out” and allow meaningful connection to happen. Those are times when parents can cultivate the “strong family narrative” about who we are and what our values are as a family that cultivate the resilience, self-knowledge and self-esteem in our children which support and protect them life-long, online as well as offline.
- Back to family context: I hope it’s obvious from all the above that time on screen tells us little about a child’s wellbeing or future prospects. They could be learning to code or cook, building a mansion in Minecraft, designing a game in Roblox, skyping with Grandpa, watching a calculus tutorial on YouTube or playing Fortnite with a sib, a cousin and friends on a Saturday night. It’s family context and so much more – the content, the people involved, the life context and their mental outlook at that point in time. It’s individual, situational and contextual. Over a decade ago a national task force I served on found that a child’s psychosocial makeup and home and school environments are better predictors of online risk or safety than any technology the child uses.
So this is not a how-to book, thank goodness. Because how could people who’ve never met you or your child tell you how best to parent them? Because that’s the true focus of digital parenting: the child, not the digital.
The authors do provide six recommendations, takeaways from their research “that could support parents as they take steps toward realizing their visions for their children’s future in a digital age.” One of them is for journalists and policymakers, urging them to “recognize and reflect parents’ lived realities [emphasis mine]” and integrate two things in the public discussion about kids and the digital: keep it “child-centered” and “parent-respecting [again, emphasis mine].” Even this one part of one of the six recommendations would help us all move the needle closer to sound policy-making at both societal and household levels.
Calm, confident parenting
What struck me most about Livingstone’s TED Talk, which she gave last year after finishing the research for this book, was what she learned from the “calm and confident” parents she and Blum-Ross talked with. Among other things, she said “they were clear about their values and they found ways to live close to their values and to include the digital technologies in those, so that the digital is not something weird or contradictory to their way of life.”
That’s the key. Now that “the digital” is part of family life and our children’s futures, the best digital parenting questions aren’t “When should I get my child a mobile phone?” or “Should I let my child use social media/videogames?” The best questions go something like: “What’s important to us as a family?” and “How can digital media serve that?”
Added Aug. 15, 2020:
SIDEBAR: A simple exercise for (digital) parenting
Inspired by all the families in Parenting for a Digital Future….
So coming back around to the statement I led off with above – “family context eclipses screen time” – here’s a little exercise. Instead of watching the clock to measure screen time, take a family environmental scan. Questions you might consider:
- What do we value as a family? or What’s important to us?
- What’s going on in our family these days?
- What’s happening in our household right now?
- What’s happening out in the world that’s affecting our family and each one of us individually
- What’s going on in our heads (parent’s and child’s)?
Only after thinking about some of those, ask…
- “How can our devices and the apps on them serve us – what we value, what’s going on with each one of us right now and how we’re doing as a family?
There are certainly many other questions parents can ask themselves which point to children’s basic needs – what need addressing first and foremost. Here are some the authors offered parents back in 2017 in their essay, “The trouble with ‘screen time rules’”: Is my child “eating and sleeping enough? physically healthy? connecting socially with friends and family – through technology or otherwise? engaged in school? enjoying and pursuing hobbies and interests – through technology or beyond?” They continue, “If the answer to these questions is more or less ‘yes’, then perhaps the problem of ‘screen time’ is less dramatic than many parents have been led to believe. The notion of ‘addiction’ to the screen requires particular care, and certainly cannot be determined by simple measures of time.”
- Link to the publisher’s page: Parenting for a Digital Future: How Hopes and Fears about Technology Shape Children’s Lives , from Oxford University Press
- This just in! (added 9/18/20): “Unequal Struggles and Impossible Digital Choices for Parents During Covid-19,” a conversation in the blog of University of South California media professor Henry Jenkins with co-author Sonia Livingstone, Meryl Alper (communication studies professor at Northeastern University) and Craig Watkins (professor and founding director of the Institute for Media Innovation at University of Texas, Austin): Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3
- “The Stories that Bind Us: What are the 20 Questions?” by psychology professor Marshall Duke in HuffingtonPost.com and what I learned from him and his fellow psychology professor Robyn Fivush about how a strong family narrative is good for kids and a comfort to parents trying not to succumb to a media siege mentality
- “3 fears about screen time for kids – and why they’re not true,” a TED Talk by Sara DeWitt, vice president of PBS KIDS Digital
- About Gen Z: from Quartz (“Understanding Gen Z”) and McKinsey & Co. (“True Gen”): This is market research, not academic research, but it too suggests where our kids and our parenting are headed: “Our study based on the survey reveals four core Gen Z behaviors, all anchored in one element: this generation’s search for truth. Gen Zers value individual expression and avoid labels. They mobilize themselves for a variety of causes. They believe profoundly in the efficacy of dialogue to solve conflicts and improve the world. Finally, they make decisions and relate to institutions in a highly analytical and pragmatic way. That is why, for us, Gen Z is ‘True Gen’.”—McKinsey & Co.
- Sonia Livingstone’s TED Talk based on the research that went into this book
- “When It Comes to Screens, Kids Need a Guide – Not a Disciplinarian”: The authors talk to NPR’s Anya Kamenetz on the (transcribed) “Life Kit” podcast
- My 2017 post: “6 takeaways from 20 years of Net safety” (in 2 parts, starting here)