More on parental monitoring

July 16, 2012

Here’s Slate’s Allison Benedickt on “The Case for Spending Less Time with your Kids,” a tongue-in-cheek reply to the parental monitoring piece in the New York Times.

NY Times story on parental monitoring features me & friends

June 26, 2012

‘Big Brother’? No, It’s Parents

By SOMINI SENGUPTA
Published: June 25, 2012 26 Comments

When her children were ready to have laptops of their own, Jill Ross bought software that would keep an eye on where they went online. One day it offered her a real surprise. She discovered that her 16-year-old daughter had set up her own video channel.
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Kyle and Colleen Reed, with Darren, 13, and Trevor, 11, in Golden, Colo. Mr. Reed monitors Darren’s texting with an app.

Using the camera on her laptop, sometimes in her bedroom, she and a friend were recording mundane teenage banter and broadcasting it on YouTube for the whole world to see.

For Ms. Ross, who lives outside Denver, it was a window into her daughter’s mind and an emblem of the strange new hurdles of modern-day parenting. She did not mention it to her daughter; she just subscribed to the channel’s updates. The daughter said nothing either; she just let Mom keep watching.

“It’s a matter of knowing your kids,” Ms. Ross said of her discovery.

Parents can now use an array of tools to keep up with the digital lives of their children, raising new quandaries. Is surveillance the best way to protect children? Or should parents trust them to share if they are scared or bewildered by something online?

The answers are as varied as parents themselves. Still, the anxieties of parenting in the digital age have spawned a mini-industry, as start-ups and established companies market new tools to track where children go online, who they meet there and what they do. Because children are glued to smartphones, the technology can allow parents to track their physical whereabouts and even monitor their driving speed.

If, a few years ago, the emphasis was on blocking children from going to inappropriate sites on the family computer, today’s technologies promise to embed Mom and Dad — and occasionally Grandma — inside every device that children are using, and gather intelligence on them wherever they go.Read more at the New York Times

Age verification for Skout & Facebook

June 18, 2012

An interesting article on the difficulty in verifying age on social network sites, quoting danah boyd and Anne Collier with helpful insights: New York Times story on age verification

The Parent App: Understanding Families in a Digital Age

June 11, 2012

Thanks to Oxford University Press, my book is now entering the home stretch and will be out this fall! Below the cover art is the new preface to the book. Feel free to offer any feedback. I was trying to write it in a way that combines my positions as (1) mom of a preteen and teen and (2) sociologist of media. I could write another book about how difficult that was to pull together based on my own tendency to doubt myself as a mom (and scholar). But that’s another story. Today I’m celebrating progress!

Preface: The Parent App and the Parent Trap
It’s 2:45 p.m. and I’m late—again. My husband, Jon, already texted me to tell me that he was going to be at a meeting, a subtle reminder that it’s my turn to pick up the kids today. I left my office on time, but I’d forgotten to allow for the construction project at the end of Evans Avenue, the main thoroughfare separating my office from the highway. So I’ve got my iPhone on the seat next to me, at the ready for when I hit the next red light, and I’m already scrolling through the list in my head. Should I call Delia? No, she’s working on Thursdays; so is Suelita, and she always works until six. Keiko and Mike are at work, too, and Jodi’s got to take her boys to baseball right after school. Laura, my friend who’s a dedicated stay-at-home mom, just helped me out two days ago; I’m too embarrassed to have to ask her to bail me out again. Red light: what’s the plan? I decide to call Margie, who works at the school’s front desk, and ask her to catch my young family members as they exit the school and let them know I’m on my way. But I dread that, too: who knows what the school staff does with the dirt they have on chronically late parents like me? I suddenly find myself wishing, for the very first time, that my ten-year-old had a cell phone. Life would be so easy then, I muse. I could simply call Jonathan and tell him that I will be there ten minutes after school lets out, and ask him to alert his younger sister so that they can wait for me together. Such a call might have an added benefit, too: maybe I could forestall “the look” (any parent who’s ever been late for pickup will know exactly which guilt-inducing look I’m talking about).

I quickly dismiss the idea of getting him a cell phone. I couldn’t do that, because then eight-year-old Allison would be more convinced than ever that Jonathan was the favorite—unless I bought one for her, too. Which she’d no doubt lose within a week, since she’d really have no use for it. And anyway, their school doesn’t allow them to bring mobiles into the classroom, so even if they both had one, there’d be no guarantee either one of them would remember to pick it up from the office and turn it on to check for a message from Mom. And then I had the strangest realization of all: the real reason that I didn’t want to get them cell phones was that I felt unprepared for it. I didn’t know enough about what getting them mobiles would mean: for them, for me, for our family. What would having a cell phone lead to? Is it sort of like the adult drug abuser’s slide from beer to hard liquor to heroin, so that the next thing I know they’re twelve-year-olds with a CrackBerry habit?

Especially strange was the thought that occurred to me in the next moment: how could I not know what having a mobile phone would mean? I’ve had a cell phone for more than a decade. What’s more, I’ve been studying family uses of mobiles, the Internet, television, and a host of other media for the better part of fifteen years. I can rattle off statistics with the best of them: 95 percent of kids have access to the Internet by age eleven; 89 percent of families have multiple mobile phones, and 75 percent of twelve- to seventeen-year-olds have their own phone; the average age at which young people get a cell phone is around nine and a half, and children in single-parent families tend to get cell phones earlier than those who have two parents living in the same household; the average number of texts sent a month by a U.S. teen is well over three thousand.1 I also know that it’s parental concerns for safety, as much as kids’ desires, that are fueling the growth of Xbox, PlayStation, Wii gaming, and portable game devices, since parents want kids to be supervised and kids who have fewer resources for or access to supervised outside activities are more likely to spend time inside with mediated entertainment. I know all about the defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Verizon-AT&T showdown over the iPhone. Like most moms, I’m sometimes unsure of myself, but shouldn’t I, of all people, know what to expect?

I realized then that what all parents really need, or wish we had, is some way to discern the most caring, smart, sensitive, and effective responses to the dilemmas that digital and mobile media have introduced into the lives of our families. What we need is a Parent App. Is my thirteen-year-old responsible enough to handle a Facebook page? Check the Parent App. What will happen down the road if I allow my seven-year-old to download games onto my cell phone? Consult the Parent App. The house phone is ringing and ringing, but my twelve-year-old has decided that pounding out the Harry Potter theme on the piano is what he’d rather be doing right now. Parent App, can you help me out here? How about helping out with dinner, laundry, or after-school pickups while we’re at it?

A number of companies have rushed in to address our felt need for apps that will help with parenting. Parents can diagnose children’s aches and pains with the Portable Pediatrician mobile app, look to the Dinner Spinner for suppertime plans, or figure out what their teens are saying by checking the Teen Chat Decoder. There’s even a Time-Out app, so if you put your child in time-out, you can be reminded to take her out of it when her time is up. Additionally, parents can consult a number of social network sites for advice on parenting. Almost all of the most frequently trafficked have “mom” in the title. With sites such as CafeMom, Mamapedia, and MomsLikeMe, help is only a click away.2 These apps hold the promise of making life more manageable and productive, especially for women who are expected to balance the demands of work and family and to move seamlessly between them. But does technology really make life easier for us? Is that how technology is changing family life today? Most parents instead are reporting that technology is making life with their children more challenging, not less.3

Parents have always had to face challenges. Yet digital and mobile media have put a fine point on the experience of living with preteen and teenage young people who believe that they know better than their parents about how best to manage such things. I decided to name this book The Parent App when I said the title out loud and realized how much the voices of the young people in this book remind me of the perennially popular film with a similar name: The Parent Trap. Hayley Mills and, later, Lindsay Lohan brought to life a humorous fantasy with enduring appeal among generations of elementary, tween, and teenage young people, including me and later my own children. In those films, twins who were separated at birth discover a deep secret about their parents’ past that is obvious to everyone who meets them. Then they connive to help their parents recognize and correct the mistake the parents made so long ago. Once the parents have realized that the kids were right, they all live happily ever after. The pink landline phones featured on the cover of the 1961 video version are replaced with mobiles in the 1998 version, but the theme is the same: young people are able to work around and ultimately correct their parents’ wrongs because they are smart, they can pull together resources (including those of technology), and, of course, they knew all along what was best for everyone.

Young people thinking they know what’s best for everyone: that may sound familiar to parents and to those of us who remember what it was like to feel that way. In the interviews with mothers and fathers that form the core of this book, this is the way that many parents of teens and preteens characterize the interactions they have with their children about mobile phones, social media sites, gaming platforms, and the Internet. Parents recognize that young people are growing up in a world saturated by digital and mobile media, and we often feel trapped because the context seems so different when compared with our own growing-up experiences. Yet, like the similarities between the 1961 and 1998 films, we also know that some aspects of the growing-up years remain the same. We just need help navigating the new situations.

But this book is not strictly an advice manual for parents. For one thing, digital and mobile media are changing so rapidly that any book could be outdated before it reached publication. Numerous websites and blogs exist that provide excellent advice on how parents can address particular situations they confront, and thus it’s possible to find suggestions tailored to the unique challenges of individual families. Some of these resources are highlighted in Appendix B, and specific suggestions for parents are offered in the concluding chapter of this book. But in order to set those suggestions in context, this book explores the meaning behind the changes that we are all experiencing. It asks how families are experiencing and responding to the challenges, both new and old, of parenting young people through the late elementary, preteen, and teen years. Why are parent responding in the ways that they are? And perhaps most important, what will these responses mean for us as family members and as members of society?

In order to investigate these questions, in this book I bring together two different bodies of research. First, as a sociologist who studies media, I consider various theories that are helping to explain both the characteristics of today’s new media and the ways in which these characteristics may be changing our individual and social experiences. Second, as a communication scholar interested in families, I look at how families have adopted various strategies for communication between family members, and how these strategies shape the ways in which digital and mobile media technologies fit into our lives as individuals and as families. I also bring to this book my perspective as a married working mother of a teen and preteen, with our family living in a middle-class neighborhood.

When I first realized my own hesitation about getting my son a mobile phone, I wondered where the nervousness was coming from. I wasn’t overly worried about the risks that receive the most media attention: sexting, possible exposure to undesirable content, or contact with sexual predators. I just wanted to know whether a mobile would help me in my quest to be a good parent. Would getting a phone help me achieve my goal of having positive connections with my son, or would it undermine that goal? I realized then that I didn’t want to write this book solely about the risks of new media. I wanted to write about how digital and mobile media fit into this felt wish to be a “good-enough” parent.4 Of course, my own context and family background shape what it means to me to be a “good-enough” parent. I might use a Parent App to help me locate a family-friendly restaurant, but what I could really use is a Parent App that would help me recognize risk as I define it, so that I can be the best parent possible in my own context, in relation to my own children, and in what often feel like unfamiliar situations.

In this book, I want to add to the numerous important studies exploring how parenting is changing in the United States, particularly with the rise of overparenting and the “helicopter parent,” trends that are much in evidence in my own cultural milieu.5 Some books, such as Margaret Nelson’s Parenting Out of Control and Barbara Hofer and Abigail Sullivan Moore’s The iConnected Parent, have argued that today’s technologies make it altogether too easy for “helicopter parents” to spy on their children or remain too connected to let go as the children get older.6 The temptation to be this kind of parent is surely there, but it’s one that many parents in my study actively tried to resist.

I also wanted to consider insights from my field, media studies. It does have an important lens of theory to bring to these issues of how families are experiencing digital and mobile media in their everyday lives and how children and parents struggle together over the when and why of their practices involving media.7 The field of media studies reminds us to think about communication technologies not as things we merely use but as innovations that evolve in specific contexts in relation to perceived needs and which continue to evolve in relation both to those needs and to practices that specific technologies discourage or make possible.8 Technologies such as mobile and online communication do not only enable our connections with others and with information. They also add a new layer of meaning to those connections, and in doing this, they change our relationships with each other. New technologies make possible certain ways of being, and how we use technologies then further shapes our options for the future.9 I wanted to look not only at how parents and their children were using technologies but also at how those uses made sense to them in relation to the rest of their lives.

The media-saturated context of our lives is undergoing change, and this provides an excellent opportunity for us to reexamine some of the taken-for-granted ways in which we have approached communication and communication technologies within our families. Some of our assumptions may be outdated given this new context; as this book will argue, they may even be having unintended consequences that we are not yet able to see. As Carolyn Marvin argued in her book When Old Technologies Were New, “new practices do not so much flow directly from technologies that inspire them as they are improvised out of old practices that no longer work in new settings.”10 It’s in the spirit of this observation that this book turns to how, exactly, families are improvising in the new settings inaugurated by digital and mobile media.

This book argues that two distinct patterns in how families communicate are shaping media use in the digital age, and each of these patterns both is rooted in particular histories and is now evolving in relation to digital and mobile media affordances. Among upper-income families, I observe an ethic of expressive empowerment, in which parents want to encourage their children to use these media in relation to education and self-development and to avoid use that might distract them from goals of achievement. Among lower-income families, I observe what I term an ethic of respectful connectedness, in which family members want to encourage the uses of digital and mobile media in ways that are respectful, compliant toward parents, and family-focused. Certainly upper-income families want their children to be respectful and connected, and lower-income families want their children to grow into expressive and empowered people, and there are many instances in which family members use these media in ways that end up being disrespectful or even disempowering. I use the term ethics to signal that there are guiding principles that help parents and young people determine a course of action in relation to communication practices.  Even if our efforts fall short, we all act out of the limits of our practical situations and in relation to what we take for granted as the right or good way to do things. But I argue that families live in a cultural milieu that tends to value one approach or the other, and we find ourselves adopting or responding to the patterns that are taken for granted in our particular context. Because there remain distinct gradations of digital inclusion, and because U.S. families experience lives that are increasingly isolated from the lives of those in different economic circumstances, the uses of these media are reinforcing rather than alleviating what is becoming a troubling economic and social gap in U.S. society.11

What may be surprising is this: when you consider the stories people from differing economic backgrounds tell about how they incorporate technology into their family lives, those with the greatest access to skills and resources would find much to envy among the family communication ethics of those who have much less access to skills and resources. And yet the very embrace of a communication ethic of expressive empowerment may be undermining our ability to foster an ethic of respectful connectedness within our families and beyond them. Does this mean that middle- and upper-income families are actually losing something of value as we unconsciously embrace certain approaches to technology in our fast-paced and teleconnected lives? I believe that we are, and this is part of the larger story this book will tell about how technological advances and family communication patterns are working together to reshape the family and the communication environment in which we all live. What I will argue is that in the networked society, focusing on the empowerment of our individual children may be causing us to miss the bigger picture. We need to understand not only what’s new about technology and how technology changes our children’s environments but also how our traditional ways of communicating with one another in our families may be generating more work for us all, and may need to be rethought in the digital era.

Not all upper-income families engage in the same strategies for setting guidelines regarding digital and mobile media, and not all lower-income families are similar to one another, either, as this book will demonstrate. But I believe that the patterns of difference that are emerging now will continue to shape the landscape of the future. The ways in which families are now differently engaging in digital and mobile media use suggest that technology is playing a role not in leveling the playing field, as many of us had hoped it would, but rather in contributing to the income inequality that has been on the rise in most countries since the early 1980s.12 Thus, this book will foreground three issues: (1) how new technologies are introducing new situations that parents and children confront in their daily lives, (2) how today’s inherited patterns of communicating within families are shaping our uses of and approaches to digital and mobile media, and (3) how the ways we communicate with one another (and not only the ways we regulate or oversee the uses of technologies) may need to be reconsidered so that we can better understand and manage the changes we are currently experiencing. All three of these components are needed if we are to understand how young people and their families are experiencing the mediated environment today, what parents can and should be doing to help young people to prepare to face the challenges of the emergent digital environment, and what we might anticipate for our future together. I believe that for too long we have overlooked the connections between family, technology, and what researcher Roger Silverstone referred to as the “moral economy of the household”—the relationships between what we do in our individual households and what happens in the world at large.13 We owe it to ourselves to understand both how digital and mobile media are reshaping family life and how family uses of these media are, in turn, reshaping our society. Ultimately, these interrelated issues inform what parents need to do with, for, and in relation to young people in the emergent digital environment.

In order to write this book, I relied upon both formal and informal interviews held over more than a decade with parents, young people, relatives, educators, and researchers. I also relied upon the excellent research being produced in the areas of parenting, digital and mobile media, and gender and technology, and am especially grateful for the many journalists who have worked hard to keep parents informed about the issues confronting parents and young people today. Although my research team and I analyzed interview and survey data that filled well over a bookshelf’s worth of three-ring notebooks, this book is also informed by my own experiences. As my children have grown up, the issues of this book have taken on increasing urgency in my own family’s life.

In this book, I write in a way that is consistent with what some scholars have called “women’s ways of knowing,” in which there is no harsh separation between research and life, and where what happens in one realm inevitably informs the other.14 Researchers are charged with telling stories that help to convey new interpretations of data and to offer new insights into shared experiences. Similarly, when parents, and in particular mothers, are faced with parenting dilemmas that relate to digital and mobile media, we also share stories. Just as researchers contribute to an ongoing conversation in which they build upon or challenge existing understandings, parents listen to what others have done and we try to learn from the successes and foibles of other parents. Sometimes the stories that parents share with one another are laugh-out-loud funny; other times they’re sad and deeply troubling. Sometimes they’re not even our own stories, but stories that have attained a mythic level of resonance because they speak to deep fears or anxieties about what it means to be a human being who cares about others. We are symbolic animals, and by putting our experiences in story form for others we learn what to do and what our actions mean.

My own understandings of the role of digital and mobile media within family life have been impossible to separate from my personal experiences as a parent who now lives within the milieu of expressive and empowering parenting. They are also influenced by my own experiences of having been parented in a context that was a study in contrasts. I grew up in a household where one of my parents came from privilege and the other didn’t; one liked television, the other liked reading. Members of my mother’s Italian American family have lived their entire lives in an economically depressed rust belt city of the Northeast. Many members of my father’s Anglo-American family moved from the New York City area to the upwardly mobile and progressive city of San Francisco. On my mother’s side there are bankruptcies; on my father’s, millionaires. I think my own complicated background is why the relationships between economics, technology, and family life have always fascinated me. I’m sure it’s why I am uncomfortable with the term “working class” or even “lower middle class,” as you will see in this book. Sociologists would refer to half of my extended family in that way, although my family would never use those terms themselves. Members of my extended family buy middle-class things; they do things middle-class people do. If things had worked out differently, they would have had middle-class incomes and security. Some of them do now; others might someday. That’s the way they, and I, see it. Like most parents, and like my own relatives, I hope that my own children are able to craft a balanced life that is meaningful and not financially strapped, and I worry about today’s economy and their future prospects. Today my children go to a school two blocks from a mobile home park and two blocks from mini-mansions, and I sometimes wonder if there will be anything in between when they are older. As much as anything else, my desire that there be something in between is behind this book.

Researchers often fail to acknowledge how our own stories connect with what we study and why.15 I include these personal stories to provide a framework for evaluating what I say here. It may not make the stories in this book any more “informational” or “factual,” but I hope the stories will be resonant and instructive.

I have structured this book as a series of stories because I believe that even as human beings are challenged to access, process, and manage information to a greater extent than ever before, we do not make decisions based on a formula that is rooted in algorithms. Having information is not the same as knowing. Knowing involves feelings and intuitions as well as logical analysis. Knowing is relational, and our past experiences shape what we think we know about our present. We do not need more information on how to parent, therefore: we need ways of knowing that can frame how we understand the changes we are experiencing, and how we might parent as a result.

This book is divided into three parts, and you are welcome to read them in the order that strikes you as most interesting or urgent.

The first section foregrounds the most well-publicized parental fears related to digital and mobile media. These chapters tell stories that highlight concerns about possible links between depression and overinvolvement in social network sites, cyberbullying and teen suicide, and gaming and dropping out of high school. These chapters include some discussion of how young people experience some of the things parents fear most about digital and mobile media contexts: cyberbullying, sexting, and Internet predators. Most of these stories reveal that young people are capable of handling the new situations that emerge with digital and mobile media, yet they also reveal the benefits that can come from advocating for those who are most vulnerable.

In the second section, I turn to the stories of young people, particularly preteens and teens. The stories in these chapters illuminate why digital and mobile media technologies have come to be so central in the lives of youth today, and what that looks like in the lives of differently situated young people. These chapters consider how these media relate to youthful needs for identity, peer relationships, privacy, and autonomy, as well as to young people’s continuing needs to maintain relationships with family members, cultures, and traditions.

In the third and final section, I introduce the two ethics of communication that I observed among upper- and middle-class families, on one hand, and “would-be middle-class” and less advantaged families. I do this by discussing how communication technologies both contribute to risk and are used to resolve it, how parents’ patterns of communication have evolved to be responsive to these risks, how parents mediate the media as a means of overseeing their children’s media environment, and how parents strive to keep their own familial goals in mind as they parent in spite of the host of other pressures they feel. I explore the ways in which even technologies that seemingly save time can add to the workload of the primary caregiver, who is usually but not always the mother.

The final chapter reviews the main themes of the book and presents a map for building a Parent App that will suit the needs of different families as they address themselves to the challenges and opportunities that digital and mobile media present to us all.

I have no interest in contributing to the already healthy amount of anxiety that parents have about technologies. Instead, I’m interested in understanding what’s new about new media technologies as well as how these technologies are being used according to patterns that came before, so that we better understand how both factors are contributing to the changes we are all experiencing.

1 Amanda Lenhart, Teens, Cell Phones and Texting, Pew Internet and American Life project, April 20, 2011; Amanda Lenhart, Mary Madden, Aaron Smith, Kirsten Purcell, Kathryn Zickuhr, and Lee Rainie, Teens, Kindness, and Cruelty on Social Network Sites, Pew Internet and American Life Project, November 9, 2011; Amanda Lenhart, “It’s Personal: Similarities and Differences in Online Social Network Use Between Teens and Adults,” presentation at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, May 23, 2009; Amanda Lenhart, Mary Madden, and Aaron Smith, Teens and Social Media, Pew Internet and American Life Project, available at http://pewinternet.org (retrieved January 20, 2008); Amanda Lenhart, Teens, Video Games, and Civics, Pew Internet and American Life Project, available at http://pewinternet.org (retrieved October 1, 2008).

2 Sara Kessler, “Six Valuable SNs (Social Networks) for Parents,” Mashable, January 21, 2011, available at http://mashable.com/2011/01/21/parenting-social-networks (retrieved January 31, 2012).

3 Insert cite here about parenting becoming more challenging with technology (from later chapter)[CE1]

4 On “good-enough parenting,” see, for example, Becky Beaupre Gillespie and Hollee Schwartz Temple, Good Enough Is the New Perfect: Finding Happiness and Success in Modern Motherhood (New York: Harlequin, 2011).

5 Margaret Nelson, Parenting Out of Control (New York: New York University Press, 2010).

6 Barbara K. Hofer and Abigail Sullivan Moore, The iConnected Parent: Staying Close to Your Kids in College (and Beyond) While Letting Them Grow Up (New York: Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2010).

7 See Sonia Livingstone, Young People and New Media (London: Routledge, 2002).

8 On the concept of affordances, or the practices that technologies either curb or make possible, see I. Hutchby, “Technologies, Texts, and Affordances,” Sociology 35, 2 (2001): 441–56.

9 This is a position articulated in feminist theories of the social construction of technology, notably Judy Wajcman, Technofeminism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004). Wajcman is interested in how women’s uses of technology relate both to women’s continued experiences of discrimination and oppression and to their prospects for emancipation. Her work is discussed later in this book.

10 Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 5.

11 The term “gradations of digital inclusion” is introduced in Sonia Livingstone and Elizabeth Helsper, “Gradations of Digital Inclusion: Children, Young People, and the Digital Divide,” New Media and Society 9, 4 (2008): 671–96.

12 Marina Primorac, “F&D Spotlights Widening Gap Between Rich and Poor,” IMF Survey Magazine: In the News, September 12, 2011, available at http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/survey/so/2011/NEW091211A.htm.

13 Roger Silverstone, Eric Hirsch, and David Morley.  Information and Communication Technologies and the Moral Economy of the Household (pp. 15-31).  In Roger Silverstone and Eric Hirsch, eds., Consuming Technologies (Routledge: London, 1992).

14 Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule, Womens Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1997).

15 My favorite book in this regard is religious studies scholar Robert Orsi’s Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).


 

 

The New Upper Middle Class

March 19, 2012

I’m reading Charles Murray’s book, Coming Apart, which argues that the U.S. has become a two-culture system defined by increasing isolation of the upper middle class from the working class. I’m sure I’m going to dispute some of his policy suggestions, but I’m finding the sociology in the first half (on the new upper middle class) pretty compelling and in line with what I’ve written about in my forthcoming book The Parent App: Understanding Families and Media in a Digital Age. I have one reservation that I’ll note at the end, however.

In the first half of the book, Murray argues that as a result of the increased education among U.S. populations following WWII and the increased number of jobs in the concentrated sector of IT and related industries, we now have an elite population that has swelled. This elite population tends to segregate itself into particular places they prefer to live. The new upper middle class is concentrated in the “superzips,” or in key suburbs and urban areas around New York City, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Think Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Georgetown, uptown Manhattan, Berkeley, Marin County, Beverly Hills, Malibu. These suburbs have been around for a while, but Murray says that the suburbs that surround them are increasingly wealthy as well, creating a “bubble” for those who live within them that can prevent them from interacting with people whose life and work experiences differ vastly from their own. Murray argues that this concentration has happened because “it is difficult to hold a nationally influential job in politics, public policy, finance, business, academia, information technology, or the media and not live in the areas surrounding New York, Washington, Los Angeles, or San Francisco.” (p. 94)

I have certainly seen evidence of this “bubble.” There are smaller manifestations of it everywhere: the private schools that serve the wealthy and a few of the lucky gifted; the country club swim pool; the high end health club. Even Whole Foods gives a bit of a feel for the bubble.

But I don’t live in a super zip. I live in a small town outside of the city of Denver. The few super zips near Denver are on the other side of the city bracketing the country club mansions of Cherry Hills. My experiences with the upper middle class aren’t nearly so exclusive as those Murray describes.

Like others in my small town who work in information, politics, finance, or education, however, I have work relationships that connect me to those in the super zips. And, I recognize some aspects of the new upper middle class culture even among friends in my small town: the emphasis on personal health, the commitment to widened opportunities and good education for children, a penchant for gourmet foods and wine, a love of HBO and offbeat comedy, a disdain for conservative religion and a commitment to rights for same sex couples and for addressing climate change.

I was thinking of these characteristics of the new upper middle class when I was chatting with mom friends over the weekend. There was the lengthy discussion about trips to Europe. The talk about the woman who gets up super early to “get a run in” before 12-hour workdays. And there’s the woman my friend calls the ubermom. She’s busy organizing the last fundraiser so that the girl scout troop she leads will be fully funded on their trip to Switzerland this summer. Conversations with these related-to-upper-middle-class friends are not always about getting our kids into the elite colleges of the northeast, although that possibility does shadow choices we’re making about high schools right now. We also talk with passion about working with social movements, about decaying schools, about housing and care for the elderly and about the inequities we see in the larger metro area.

But what’s interesting about not living in the super zip is that there are other moms whose household incomes are similar to those of my IT-related friends, but who completely disdain this group and define themselves in opposition to it. These are my friends who staunchly support the public schools and wouldn’t dream of “choicing” into a more selective school. Rather than a wine tasting, we like late nights at the unpretentious corner bar and the bowling alley. We discuss gourmet offerings that are offered at Costco but are happy to take our kids to Dairy Queen. We like it when local events are well-attended and when kids feel like they’re a part of a community.

These mom groups have a significant amount of overlap. We all work together on school-related projects and attend the same kid concerts and sports events. Most of my friends love to hike and spend time outdoors, and most ski with their families. We all talk about our kids practically nonstop. But the women in the first group are somewhat critical of the choices of the other group, and vice versa. You don’t talk about climate change with the moms whose family members work in the gas and oil industry, for example, just like you don’t talk about the ongoing volunteer needs of the local school with group whose kids travel the metro area for the educations best suited for that particular kids’ needs. The fault lines don’t show up between household incomes, or between full time and part time working moms, or between the jobs that our husbands hold. This is an interesting split that seems to have more to do with proximity to the culture of the New Upper Middle Class than with anything else.

So what’s my reservation about Murray’s thesis regarding the new upper middle class? Charles Murray unabashedly relates intelligence with the Upper Middle Class, and I am really uncomfortable with that. Following Robert Reich’s discussion of “symbolic analysts” and Richard Florida’s naming of the “creative class,” Murray says that we are in an economy that rewards sophisticated cognitive ability. He explains upward mobility in relation to cognitive giftedness: if you’re cognitively gifted, you’re more likely to get into a prestigious school and thus bring your progeny closer to the upper middle class.

Maybe. But this certainly does leave a lot unexamined. First of all, there are a limited number of cream-of-the-crop jobs in these “symbolic” fields, and they don’t always go to the smartest. In my experience working in a private university, those jobs tend to go to those who are most well-connected. It takes a LOT of luck to break into these fields if you’re not so connected.

Second, not everybody wants, or has access to, these jobs. For every “symbolic analyst,” there are probably three cashier jobs, four truck driver jobs, and five janitorial positions. And then there are the people who make professional choices based on their idealism as well as on what’s available when they happen to be looking. That sometimes means choosing a job that a person thinks makes a difference in the world, or choosing a job that enables him or her to support and spend a great deal of time with their loved ones. It means that sometimes really smart people end up in fields other than those Murray calls the elite. Sometimes, like my friends in the second group, these people harbor some resentment toward those who share their income level and their intelligence but not their commitments.

Third, there is an implicit assumption in Murray’s work that some are simply smarter than others, and thus they earn more as a result of their smarts. There is no mention of the well-documented fact that tests that measure such things are culturally biased. Nor is there mention of the fact that people can dramatically improve their test scores through such things as test preparation, elite school education, and plain old determination. But actually, that’s why we tend to consider education the “great equalizer:” because people can learn and develop their abilities.

It sounds as if in Murray’s view, the American dream is limited to those who happen to test well and who find themselves gravitating successfully toward government, education, IT, or policy. They can be born poor, in his view, but they’d better be smart if they want to succeed. But this is a limitation that seems inconsistent with my vision of the American dream. My vision suggests the need for less concentration of rewards among those who go into these select fields that culture has determined are “elite.” My vision questions how we determine what it means to be “cognitively gifted,” recognizing contributions across professions – and particularly in those that are historically underpaid. My vision includes a belief in the possibilities for each individual, in which every person is valued and every person is considered gifted in some way and every person’s intelligence is given a chance to flourish.

I think that most parents would like to believe this. They’re more likely to want to believe it if they have a child who is not “gifted” in that cognitive-symbolic-analyst way. If they have a child gifted in other ways, and in ways that the parents believe will allow that young person to make a significant contribution to society, maybe they’re more likely to rethink the assumptions that suggest that smart people should dominate economically, politically, and in every other way.

I hope that’s something that moms from both parts of my experience can get behind.

More on technologies for tracking teens

March 14, 2012

In my last post, I wrote about parents using tracking devices to find out where their children were so as to keep them out of danger. I’ve been curious about these tracking devices since I’ve been interviewing parents about how they negotiate digital and mobile media use with their teenage children.

I met a friend of a friend who wanted to talk with me about her own approach. She told me that she and her husband are both in the IT industry. They hadn’t found a use for microchips, but her daughter had complained about being constantly under surveillance anyway. The parents and daughter used phone calls to keep in touch regarding whereabouts, as most parents do. But these parents had also installed a security system earlier on that had now come to have a secondary function: every time the daughter entered the house, the lights automatically came on. Then, as she opened the door, the security system’s bell chime announced her arrival. First, her daughter said, she felt spotlighted, and then she felt as if her entrance drew all eyes to her. Couldn’t she just be allowed to come in the door without all the fanfare? We laughed at how the security measures of the house look from the dramatic perspective of the teen years: “oh no, they’re focusing on me! Don’t look at me! Don’t! No – do!”

This family also employed Microsoft’s Family Safety, so that the parents took turns reviewing all of the sites that the children had visited. The parents were quite matter-of-fact about all of this surveillance. They had good relationships with their kids, but couldn’t imagine not using the technologies made available to them. Sometimes awareness of online activities generated very useful discussions, such as when the mom learned that her slim 9-year-old had been looking at sites about dieting and weight loss. That seemed like the kind of thing I’d want to know about, too. Although on the other hand, I’m not sure I’d need to check a history to know that girls worry about weight and looks.

I continue to wonder about the ways that in that family, the technology had made what might have seemed from the teens’ perspective like a shared home into a parent-structured space.

I love that my own children feel like the house we live in is “their” house. Of course, we chose to move to this particular house specifically for what we saw as its family-friendly architecture: a big open and public room with a tv and computer where there’s freedom but also the potential for observation (I know my Foucauldian friends will recognize the panopticon-like plan there), bedrooms too small to house personal technologies, and an upstairs area where adults can read or converse away from the constant thrumming of video games or Disney sitcoms and where all technologies are parked for charging overnight. We also finally have space in the back yard for that most unsafe of all pieces of equipment: a trampoline. I wonder if I don’t feel the need to track my kids because even though they’re not constantly under my supervision, they spend a lot of time in the public spaces of our shared space, whether indoors or out. I like that they can relax in and around their house.

Conversations like the one with the IT mom and dad always make me wonder about my own naivete. My children are not quite in the middle teen years, so I’m fully aware that I could change my plans and my own children will no doubt surprise me in unpleasant ways in the years to come. But it just seems a little invasive to me to do all of this tracking.

No wonder the college students around me feel that it’s normal to engage in surveillance of each other all the time through Facebook, which they half-jokingly call cyber-stalking.

Tracking our growing children, one microchip at a time

March 4, 2012

Last night I went out for dinner with four women friends. Each has children that are about the same age as my own children, who are 11 and 13. The first thing one friend said to another when we sat down was that she had heard that chips were now available. Being ever-perceptive, I assumed she was going to tell us about that product that is the current source of my guilty pleasure and that I’d been eating just before our dinner: Pop Chips (“the potato chip that’s not baked or fried!”). But she continued to explain that she was talking about the chips I study rather than those I eat: microchips that would allow parents to track their kids’ whereabouts.

“Yeah, but you can already do that with their cell phones, right?,” I asked, trying to understand the enthusiasm for this new portable parent-friendly microchip. Yes, of course, several friends acknowledged, and the mom who’s especially enthused about this possibility for tracking talked about how glad she is that this technology will be available when her now-11-year-old reaches her teen years. This friend’s told us about her own teen escapades sneaking out of the house, and she very much wants to nip that temptation in the bud for her daughter.

We then launched into a series of riffs on how one could “plant” the microchip on our kids: in a pocket? In sports equipment? Under their skin? This led to a lot of laughter. It all seems so sci-fi.

Eventually, one of my friends then talked more seriously about how much she and her husband had enjoyed using cell phones to keep track of their two sons when they were all skiing together. “We can see exactly where they are on the mountain,” she explained, which helped them to feel reassured about giving their sons the freedom to ski down on their own, and also limited the possibilities for missed signals about meeting times and locations.

The conversation was striking to me because I’ve just been reading Margaret Nelson’s book, Parenting Out of Control, which gives a tut-tut-tut to moms like me and my friends who have casually adopted a variety of technologies for keeping track of growing children. Nelson’s analysis is spot on: she’s right that parents voice anxiety about the risks our children face, and that we are interested in how technologies might contain that risk. It was interesting to me to observe that, as Nelson noted, technologies of surveillance seem to have moved from strange to commonplace in parent life. But it’s also interesting that none of the parents of preteens around the table were currently using these microchip technologies. Instead, the fact that they were available was a source of comfort: it was a just-in-case technology.

Is this a function of age, or of differing parenting philosophies? Are my friends and I parents who will want to use these technologies in a few years, or will we find for some reason that we don’t need them or don’t want them? As of today I’m hoping that I don’t want to use them, as it seems pretty invasive and overbearing to want to track teens’ whereabouts. I think it’s okay for them to make some bad choices and suffer some consequences without me intervening. I kind of suspect that my friends won’t really do much tracking either, although I bet we’ll know – and discuss – other moms who do. And I’m sure that I’ll find some reasons for surveillance more convincing than others the more I hear about them.

As a social scientist, the strange thing is that we’ll never really know what such tracking might prevent, so we won’t be able to tell whether this invasiveness is actually worth it in the long run. Will our Super Parent tracking efforts result in the prevention of car accidents or of other risky behaviors? Maybe. That’s why we do it. Sadly, though, making such tracking “normal” will make it seem even more unnatural to let teens make mistakes without parental intervention. And that seems like a real loss.

The dad who shot his daughter’s computer

March 1, 2012

OK, everyone has read the story already: his daughter wrote disrespectful things on Facebook, she’d been warned that if she did it again her dad would shoot her computer, she does it again, he shoots it – and posts the shooting and a video message on YouTube that goes viral. 31 million views within a month! What I can’t believe is how much energy people are devoting to analyzing it. You have to read these comments about the issue over at Men’s Health.

New article on how parents mediate the media

October 26, 2011


“Parental mediation theory for the digital age” is an article in this month’s journal Communication Theory. It’s meant to update communication theories about how parents are mediating the media, now that digital and mobile media have become firmly entrenched in family life. Specifically it argues that with digital media, young people can contribute to family life in ways that weren’t possible before, and we need to take account of how children aren’t just vulnerable to media effects but are also co-contributors to our lives together with and through digital and mobile media. Here is the more academic version of the article’s abstract:

This article describes the theory of parental mediation, which has evolved to consider how parents utilize interpersonal communication to mitigate the negative effects that they believe communication media have on their children. I discuss the strengths and weaknesses of this theory as employed in the sociopsychologically rooted media effects literature as well as sociocultural ethnographic research on family media uses. To account for the emotional work that digital media have introduced into contemporary family life, I review interpersonal communication scholarship based on sociologist A. R. Hochschild’s (1977, 1989) work on emotions, and suggest L. Vygotsky’s (1978) social development theory as a means of rethinking the role of children’s agency in the interactions between parents and children that new media affords. The article concludes by suggesting that in addition to the strategies of active, restrictive, and co-viewing as parental mediation strategies, future research needs to consider the emergent strategy of participatory learning that involves parents and children interacting together with and through digital media.

Full citation and where it’s available online:
Clark, L.S. Parental mediation theory for the digital age. Communication Theory 21(4): 323-343.

Making Your Kid Super and Using Education to Hedge Your Bets

October 3, 2011

Okay, admittedly, this is going to be a more cynical reflection than the title of the post suggests.

Two recent op-ed columns are worth reading back to back: Bill Keller’s The University of Wherever,” about the unsustainability of today’s expensive university educations, and James Atlas’“Super People,”on young adults with over-the-top lists of achievements for college and graduate school applications.

Atlas marvels at the resumes of young adults who have worked in orphanages around the world and founded farmer’s markets in lower-income neighborhoods, all while learning several languages and playing multiple instruments. He wonders, “has our hysterically competitive, education-obsessed society finally outdone itself in its tireless efforts to produce winners whose abilities are literally off the charts?”

Atlas’ column links the over-achievement of today’s young adults with “helicopter parents,” particularly mothers who give up careers to manage their children’s prospects for future economic success. But actually, he does more than blame the mothers, a familiar theme in many articles about what’s wrong with today’s children. The article subtly raises the deeper moral dilemma that this new “species” of “super people” represents. Even as wealthy young people have been striving to become hyper-competent to compete for fewer and fewer desirable positions at the top, those young people from the lowest socioeconomic levels suffer greater declines in verbal and math skills compared to earlier generations. So those with privilege focus on making sure that they’re able to access the best, while those without are less competitive even for the positions their parents might once have held.

Even the hopes we once held out about the “leveling” potential of the Internet are now fading. Maybe once we would have celebrated the ways that university professors could make their content accessible to those who otherwise would have little means to gain the insights of higher education. Access to outstanding university-level education could be accessible for more than just the “Super People” that Atlas discussed in his column. But NYT columnist Bill Keller seems a little more skeptical.

Keller talks about a Stanford faculty member who’s made his lectures available worldwide and for free. Stanford’s Sebastian Thrun offers a course titled, “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence.” Keller notes that after the New York Times ran a piece about this offering, online enrollments in the course grew to 130,000. Certainly, this indexes a desire for outstanding education about a significant topic, and demonstrates that the Internet can make it available to those who couldn’t go to Stanford. But does it solve the fundamental problem of shrinking access to “the top”?

In Keller’s article, Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun is quoted as criticizing the traditional university as “insanely uneconomical.” After all, he says, he can provide “free” education to whoever wants it at a fraction of the cost (never mind the fact that Stanford is paying him to create this “free” content for those who are actually paying $50,000 a year to receive it in a classroom).

What’s interesting in Keller’s article is that this description of “free” university education gets examined in relation to the question of whether or not its offerings will undermine traditional brick-and-mortar schools. After all, he cautions, higher education remains one of the last of the desirable U.S. “exports,” a point on which he cites both Thrun as well as Stanford’s president. Sure, the Internet makes it free, these experts as well as the article’s author seem to suggest. Just as long as it enhances, rather than undermines, the pedigree of a Stanford degree. “We” in the U.S. need to maintain our space at “the top,” after all. Wow, are we collectively nervous about that. And rightly so.

It’s kind of funny how much Thrun, the Stanford professor, sounds like a grown-up version of the earnest Super People young adults Atlas reviewed. Can you imagine having 130,000 sign up for your college course? When he talks about wanting to make his course available “for free,” he sounds as if he is being generous and populist – until you consider the fact that the added value he brings to the university (even through “free” students auditing his class) actually, and maybe ironically, guarantees his own “spot at the top.”

We in the U.S. sure do love — and loathe — these stories of individual greatness. Sure, we all want fairness. But when it comes down to it, parents want whatever will give their kids an edge over others. We are profoundly competitive. Our current economic strife didn’t cause this competitiveness, but it certainly has brought it to the fore.

But as we focus our energies on competing, what might we be losing? If there are “winners” and “losers,” are we ok with the fact that we can no longer ignore the huge discrepancies between “winners” and “losers” that have a lot more to do with luck of birth than with giftedness, drive, or education? Or perhaps I should ask, how long will we be ok with this? Isn’t this fundamentally the opposite of the U.S. dream of a society of equal opportunity?

I feel like we as parents are so nervous about the future of our own kids that sometimes, we fail to see the ways in which that future is inextricably bound up with the future of *all* kids. Maybe not thinking about that inevitable connection, actually, has become a central strategy in how we’re hedging our bets. Because if we thought about it, we might have to change what we’re doing as parents. We might have to think less about “us” and “them” and more about shared futures and win-win (rather than win/lose) scenarios. And we just might have to examine our assumptions about what makes a kid “super” to begin with.


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