Archive for the ‘emotional work and communication technologies’ Category

Setting up a contract about tech use with your kids

January 8, 2013

The holidays are a time when lots of parents give gifts of technology to their children. And so, when a mom in Cape Cod created and then blogged about an 18-point contract for her son as she gave him an iPhone for Christmas, I guess I wasn’t too surprised to see that her contract went viral.

As a response I thought I’d post the contract that’s in the back of my book, The Parent App: Understanding Families in a Digital Age.

I got some of the ideas for my own contract from Common Sense Media, which provides great age-appropriate resources for parents who want help figuring out how to positively integrate technology into the lives of their family members. Like the contract that Janell Hoffman wrote, the contract in my book is meant to encourage conversation between parents and kids around technology. Mine includes not just mobiles but all kinds of family technologies and it also reflects a broad way of parenting in the digital age that emphasizes mutual respect.

I really liked that Hoffman’s contract included lots of fun. The one suggestion I’d add to that contract: I think it’s a good idea to create something that both the children and the parents can sign. From my research, I learned that young people learn a great deal from what they observe among their parents, and sometimes we have a hard time putting the tech down even when we really want to prioritize time with our precious family members (I speak from experience as an easily distracted multitasking mom of two teens!). So what’s below is not just a contract for a young person to sign – parent(s) need to sign it, too.

Here’s to navigating a media-saturated world together!

Time Together

1. I agree to spend ___ hours each week doing activities with only my family members.
2. I agree that when I am at the dinner table with my family (whether at home or elsewhere), I will put my hone and other devices away and I will not return to them until we have finished cleaning up after the meal.
3. I agree that the following locations will be no-technology zones:__________________

Mutual Support

1. I agree that I will tell someone in my family if I experience something online that makes me feel bad or if I find something that I feel is inappropriate.
2. I agree that no matter what I am doing, I will answer the phone when I see that a family member is calling.

Respecting the Rights of Others

1. I will download or use copyrighted materials only when they are legal to download or I have sought permission to use them.
2. When filling out surveys or questionnaires online or on a mobile, I will not give out specific information about where I live or where I go during the day.
3. I will give credit to others when I cite, quote, or copy their ideas or images from an online source.
4. I won’t copy, paste, and send a message to someone else if that message was meant only for me.
5. I won’t text and drive. Ever.


1. I agree that I will ask permission when I’d like to view what someone else has been doing online, with texts, or elsewhere. I agree that I will not hide what I am doing online and on my phone from other members of my family.
2. I agree that I will not share personal information that I wouldn’t be willing to see broadcast on our local television news.
3. I agree to limit play time on the computer to ____ hours each week.
4. I agree to limit game time on game devices, mobiles, or tablets to ___ each week.
5. I agree that I am responsible for remembering my own password, and I will not share it with anyone beyond my family.
6. I agree that I will practice respectful and responsible behavior, and I will not insult other people or send mean or inappropriate messages online, in a text, or in a comment.
7. I agree that I will not purchase anything online or enter a credit card for any reason without asking another family member first.


1. I agree that I will ask _______ (someone in my family) how to do _______ (e.g., how to play Minecraft, write a blog essay, set up a ring tone, etc.)
2. I agree that I will help _______ learn how to do __________.

Do you have some other items you’d like to add?


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 (retrieved January 20, 2008); Amanda Lenhart, Teens, Video Games, and Civics, Pew Internet and American Life Project, available at (retrieved October 1, 2008).

2 Sara Kessler, “Six Valuable SNs (Social Networks) for Parents,” Mashable, January 21, 2011, available at (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

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).



Parenting in a Digital Age: Introduction

December 9, 2010

This is the introduction to my forthcoming book, Parenting in a Digital Age.  The entire book is drafted and I will share parts of it here and would welcome your feedback. I’m also glad to send you the manuscript as a work in progress.  If you’re interested, just drop me a line: Lynn (dot) Clark (at)

Ch 1: Introduction: The emotional work of communication technologies

Parenting in a Digital Age, by Lynn Schofield Clark

Courtesy ThundaFunda free online images

When Melanie bought her preteen son Sam a Playstation for Christmas, she suddenly found herself faced with several new problems in her home.[i] Although 11-year-old Sam had been thrilled and surprised with the purchase, Melanie told me that she soon grew weary of the fact that any request for him to stop playing seemed to escalate until she found herself screaming. “Every time I try to encourage him to do something else, he seems to act as if I’m punishing him,” she said with frustration.  Later, it was Sam’s turn to experience frustration. When his younger sister Connie expressed interest in the Playstation, his mother decided that 9-year-old Connie, too, should have some games that were her own and that she should have equal time on the gaming system.  “Sam was spending too much time on it anyway,” Melanie reasoned. The system was in the main room next to the kitchen, and as that room contained both the one remaining computer and their one television hooked to the gaming system, it was the room to which both Sam and Connie naturally gravitated after school and after dinner.

Despite the heightened tensions the game introduced for her family, Melanie recognized that playing had soon become a regular part of the family’s routine.  As a single parent who worked full time, when she, Sam, and Connie were in their home, Melanie was usually making dinner, cleaning the house, doing work related to her own job on her laptop, or helping one of her children with homework.  The Playstation often provided Sam and Connie with something do to so that she could get the things done that she needed to do as a single parent.[ii]

Still, Melanie seemed almost constantly engaged in some kind of cost/benefit analysis involving the use of

Courtesy Photographers Direct

communication technologies in their home.  She did not like them to use the Playstation, television, and computer as much as they did.  She also believed that it was worthwhile for her to engage Sam and Connie in cleaning the house and preparing the food with her, although, as she said, this always involved more effort on her part. After all, Sam and Connie would much prefer to unwind in front of the television or gaming system rather than help her with the domestic work of the house.  So, each afternoon and evening, she weighed their media choices based on whether or not she felt she had enough energy to engage them in getting dinner ready or getting the house cleaned up.  If she felt she didn’t have the patience for the possible struggle and supervision required, she switched on her favorite Internet radio station and got to the work of cleaning or preparing the meal, while the Playstation, computer, and television kept Sam and Connie occupied.  Such a decision might gain her the solitude she needed, but cost her in terms of guilt feelings about relying on entertainment media as a babysitter.  Melanie therefore engaged in a kind of emotional work when it came to decisions about the communication technologies she and her children engaged in: she needed to decide whether she would feel better about herself as a parent if she got her preteen children engaged in helping with household duties, or if, due to her tiredness, her own impatience coupled with their resistance would result in greater stress and frustration and would therefore ultimately be a negative experience for them all.

Trevor also engaged in a kind of emotional work when it came to communication technologies.  A single father with two teenage daughters who spent the weekends at his house in rural Ohio, Trevor was used to the long commutes required to transport his daughters to and from their soccer games.  Actually, he said, he used to look forward to those long drives.  “When (older daughter) Katie was in soccer, we used to have lots of time to talk and listen to music together,” he said, chuckling as he remembered some of their favorite songs.  “It was that way with Emily, too, at least at first.”  Trevor’s smile faded from his face as he continued, “But she got her cell phone earlier than Katie did.  Most of the time now, we just drive in silence while she texts,” he said.  Trevor was

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saddened by this turn of events, but like Melanie, he too made a decision rooted in his emotions.  He was proud to be what he viewed as a “good parent” who was supportive of his daughter.  So, because he knew that she would interpret any intervention on his part as an interruption of her chosen activity, he decided to ride along in silence.

Media critic Sherry Turkle has recently argued that with new media technologies, middle class families are increasingly spending time “alone together,” utilizing differing communication technologies even when we share the same spaces with one another.[iii] In this book, I build on this compelling idea, arguing that today’s parents and young people, like Melanie and Trevor and their families, are experiencing an increase in emotional work as communication technologies have increasingly become an inevitable part of our everyday lives.  With all of the demands on our lives and the continuous possibility of interruption that digital and mobile media afford, parents and their children increasingly have to decide when and how to be together, and how we will interact with one another in a media-saturated environment. Parents know that temptations to be lured by the next email, text message, or call in for overtime are always there, and increasingly, they have to decide what to do about that.  They might make their decisions based on the weighing of job security versus their desire to spend uninterrupted time with loved ones, but given the demands of their employer in a 24/7 marketplace, and the pressure of a slow recovery after a recession, they may not even feel like they have much of a choice.

But more than that, when it comes to the emotional work of communication technologies, parents are also weighing how much media is too much, particularly when they are trying to maintain their relationships with their children and, especially with younger children, they may want to be shielding them from the outside influences that commercial and social media afford.  How long parents need to do this shielding and negotiating over media is a subject of much debate, as today, young people are growing up in the context of what historian Philippe Aries characterized as a “long childhood,” an extension of the period before the time when children enter the adult world.[iv] The issues of a “long childhood” are heightened among more disadvantaged families, where children once left the house in pursuit of work immediately after the formal schooling of high school and are now finding it more difficult to manage on their own on what, too often, are insufficient wages.[v] But they are also present in middle class and elite families, where the slow economy similarly provides encouragement for young people to consider moving back into their parents’ homes during or after college.[vi] Thus, although a long childhood creates a wonderful space for the formation and development of children, it also creates new dilemmas as to when and how children are to enter adult social worlds, and what role parents are to play in mediating this process along the way. And in contemporary culture, digital, mobile, and traditional media become a focal point of concern for parents who are attempting to manage this transition and its linkages to the outside world when the children are younger, and a focus of different concerns when attempting to maintain and adjust their relationships with their children as they grow older.[vii]

Mom & Daughter

What complicates matters in families is that as parents and their children confront the challenges of modernity in their home lives, working out the ways that digital and mobile media will play a role in their lives both together and separately, they are doing so through differing sets of emotions invoked with digital and mobile media, as these media raise new issues in relation to authority and autonomy, connectedness and individuality, and trust and risk. Parents often feel anxious (or at best ambivalent) about how digital and mobile media provide more opportunities, and hence more risk, for young people to connect with people and ideas outside of parental control. They also may feel sadness about the possibility of relational time lost, whether to television, gaming, or texting.  In contrast, young people, especially teens and preteens, feel happy that communication media provide them with the possibilities for more autonomy from their home lives, more connection with their peers, and easier than ever access to commercial entertainment.[viii] Moreover, these emotional responses are woven into cultural scripts, so that whereas middle class families discuss these media as a source of potential distraction from a more “constructive” uses of time, less advantaged families are more concerned that their children might get unrealistic ideas from media content or use digital and mobile media in ways that do not honor their familial ties.[ix] Middle class parents approach these media with dread and angst, whereas lower income parents approach them with caution and annoyance.[x] And because parents, and especially mothers, are charged with the tasks of negotiating what media researcher Roger Silverstone and colleagues have termed the “moral economy of the household,” or the ways in which the family will structure its time and commitments in relation to demands both outside and inside the house, parents across the economic spectrum find themselves in situations where they have to make decisions about media, often decisions that involve or result in conflict with their children.[xi] Dealing with these decisions and the conflicts that may emerge as a result requires a form of emotional work.

The stories Melanie and Trevor told were not unique.  My research team and I heard stories like them often as we engaged in what turned out to be a ten-year study of how digital, mobile, and more traditional media are playing a role in, and even changing, family life. To explore these changes, my research team and I observed and interviewed 221 parents and 140 children between the ages of 6 and 18 over the course of those years. Most of these interviews and observations took place in family homes, which were located in urban, suburban, and rural areas of Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, California, Colorado, Washington, D.C., and Illinois, and were about evenly divided between more and less financially advantaged areas.  We also attended seminars on parenting, went to book talks, and participated in media literacy events.  We interviewed families that were affluent and families barely subsisting near the poverty line, although most fell somewhere in between and were either relatively more or relatively less advantaged.  We went to informal neighborhood gatherings, school, church, and synagogue events, and attended teacher-training sessions.  We reviewed and consulted on nationally representative surveys designed to better understand parents, teens, and digital media uses and participated in international and cross-cultural comparisons. As my own children grew into their preteen years, I became even more immersed in the questions of how media were playing a role in family life.  Throughout this work, I have found that parents and their children have been engaging in a great deal of nuanced decision-making, a fair amount of discussion, and a significant number of emotional exchanges when it comes to the roles of digital and mobile media in their lives.  And how they were managing these things had a great deal to do with the changes they were experiencing in the economic landscape, as more and less advantaged families were confronted with differing kinds of emotional work related to digital, mobile, and traditional media.  This book is about how families engaged in emotional work as they sought to maintain their relationships in the midst of a media-saturated environment, and how they participated in changing family life itself as a result.

U.S. Families and the Digital Revolution

Cell phone circa 1990

Over the course of the past few decades, family life has come to look quite different thanks to digital and mobile media. In 2000, wireless wasn’t even available in most homes, and only 5 percent of U.S. households had broadband access to the Internet. Only a quarter of U.S. adults used the Internet on a daily basis.[xii] Online access was even more strongly divided by economics than by race, as almost 90 percent of Latinos who were college educated were going online, whereas only 31 percent of those without a high school diploma went online.[xiii] Cell phone subscriptions were half of what they would be a decade later, and at that time mobiles were used almost exclusively for phone calls, as texting – still charged by the message — was too expensive.[xiv] Hardly anyone had heard of a “virtual world.”[xv]

In contrast, by 2010, just under two thirds of those in the U.S. had broadband and accessed the Internet daily, and 59 percent could connect wirelessly. Fully 93 percent of young people between the ages of 12 and 17 had access to the Internet.[xvi] And whereas in 2000, people accessed the Internet from their computers or laptops, by 2010, more people were relying upon mobile phones for such access, with African American and Latino families significantly more likely to own a mobile and use it for accessing data than their white counterparts.[xvii] In 2000, about 38 percent of households had access to a mobile phone; by 2010, more than 90 percent did.[xviii] And more than a third of households had four or more digital and mobile devices in 2010.[xix]

An economic divide is still present, but in more nuanced ways.  As Allison Pugh has pointed out in her study of parents, children, and consumer culture, one is likely to find very similar media products in the homes of both more and less financially advantaged families.  What differs is in how they talk about these material goods. Middle class parents are more likely to discuss them in terms of how well they exercised constraint in getting less than they might have, whereas low-income parents talk about how their goods are evidence that they are not “in trouble.”[xx] Parents in upper income families practice what Pugh terms “symbolic deprivation,” whereas parents in lower income families practice “symbolic indulgence.”[xxi] There are still some basic differences in digital, mobile, and traditional media, however. In 2010, young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds were still more likely to lack access to broadband at home, to attend schools that had outdated equipment, and to have fewer people in their social circles – and in particular, fewer parents and adults – who fully understand the implications of consequences in the digital realm.[xxii]

Still, by 2010, young people under the age of 17 were spending an average of 7 ½ hours a day utilizing various media devices – an increase of nearly an hour and a half over the time they spent with media devices just five years earlier.[xxiii] As has been the case in earlier surveys about television use, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that lower income families, as well as black and Hispanic families, spent more time with all kinds of media than white and higher income families did.  Texting remained popular across the economic spectrum, as half of all U.S. teens sent an average of 50 text messages a day, and one in three sent more than 100 a day.[xxiv] But all of this technology does not always seem to be solving the basic problem of helping families to maintain

Courtesy Write On New Jersey

strong interfamilial relationships.  One study found that families with multiple connection devices were less likely to eat dinner together and also somewhat less likely to say that they were satisfied with their familial relationships and their leisure time than others.[xxv]

The U.S. experience has been amplified by similar changes around the globe. By 2010, cell phone use around the world had doubled when compared with a decade earlier, with developing countries experiencing the most significant growth.[xxvi] There were more than 5 billion mobile phone users around the world by 2010,[xxvii] and India alone was adding six million mobile phone subscribers each month as early as 2007.[xxviii]

What all of this has meant for most families is that the volume of personal contacts and information they are able to access from home and elsewhere has grown exponentially, as has the variety in information sources and the speed at which they are able to access those sources.[xxix] This level of exposure and interconnection has increased the sense among parents that they risk falling behind, and parents across the economic spectrum wonder how they can keep informed about the possible risks that immersion in digital and mobile media use may mean for their children. Social commentators and analysts are quick to provide advice, blaming consumer culture and youthful naivete for the growth of such potentially sordid phenomena as ChatRoulette, Hot or Not, and 4Chan.[xxx] And the legacy media such as television, radio, and print news capitalize on parental fears, as they know that they can garner desirable demographics among their audiences when they churn out programming warning about sexting or highlighting arrests of Internet predators.[xxxi] Books and editorials with titles such as Endangered Minds: Why children don’t think and what we can do about it or “Hooked on gadgets, and paying a mental price” blame digital, visual, and mobile media for a rise in attention deficit disorder, a link to autism, and an inability to think critically.[xxxii]

Such stories articulate and amplify the very real concerns that parents have for their children.  Yet underlying all these concerns is, perhaps, something deeper.  As evidenced in the rise of “helicopter parenting” and “overparenting” among especially more advantaged families who seek to manage ever-more minute aspects of young peoples’ lives, and the “enmeshed parenting” that occurs as lower income parents attempt to play a large role in their children’s emotional lives, western society seems to have developed a discomfort with both the developmental process of growing up and with the roles of parents and of the digital and mobile media within these processes.[xxxiii] Perhaps parents are worried that they have not adequately prepared their preteens and teens for the adult world as made available through digital and mobile media.  Maybe they do not quite trust their preteen and teenage children to act responsibly and sensibly, given all of the various mediated temptations they will encounter.  Or perhaps parents across the economic spectrum are concerned that their children’s peers, or maybe the commercial media itself, might have more influence over their decision-making than their parents

Courtesy DUJS Online

will. I believe that our contradictory feelings regarding the digital and mobile media in our children’s lives are masking a more fundamental concern: we are worried about the tasks of growing up and becoming independent in a world dominated by risk and uncertainty.

Families, Change, and Communication Technologies in a Risk Society

Numerous sociologists have commented on the changes western society has already undergone over the past hundred years, as we have moved from an agrarian and rural to an urban and industrialized society, and from a society organized by groups in physical co-presence to a society in which social and media networks comprise the primary mode of organization.[xxxiv] Modernization, as the German sociologist Ulrich Beck has noted, has introduced a series of new hazards and insecurities that arise from our increasing interdependence in this increasingly urban and networked society.  Beck notes that we now live in what he terms a risk society, and we have developed systematic ways of dealing with these hazards and insecurities in our daily lives. Living with risk is not new, as Beck points out that we have always lived with a certain amount of risk in our lives due to circumstances beyond our control.  In the past, people suffered ailments and even lost children to what we now think of as treatable illnesses that were then little understood.  The sciences offered medicines meant to cure or at least help, religion offered explanations and rituals that helped communities to go on, and governments were looked to for the development of safer systems as well as protection from formidable enemies.  As life became increasingly complex over the course of the past several hundred years, western society developed ever-more complex systems meant to guard against risks that were both natural and those that resulted from human behavior.[xxxv] Due to the complexity and interrelatedness of our lives, we must put our trust in abstract systems; otherwise, our lives in late modern society would be unsustainable.[xxxvi] But, as sociologist Anthony Giddens has pointed out, we have come to realize that there may be no permanent solutions to the problem of risk.  Instead, with the rise of disasters rooted in human decision-making such as the nuclear crises at Chernobyl, as well as other failings of industry and of the explanatory and governing powers of religion, science, and politics, the public has lost faith in the ability of societal institutions to manage risk.   We now increasingly look for ways to put preventative measures in place to reduce our exposure to risk, both at the societal and the individual level.  As we look for such measures, whether they are in a move toward exploring alternative power sources or creating more “green” industries, we are participating in a process of what Giddens has termed reflexive modernity: the ability to recognize that we can make decisions collectively and individually that can help us to reduce our exposure to risk.[xxxvii]

Communication technologies have long played a role in the development of the risk society, as they made possible the workings of the sophisticated military systems that supported governments and counter government activities.  These communication systems both sought to control for risk, and also contributed to the risk of human-generated war-related disasters due to the speed and distance over which messages commanding destruction could travel.[xxxviii] In a related way, communication technologies have fundamental importance to the development of globalization, as labor, money, and communications between people travel easily from place to place, allowing relationships, both of enrichment and of exploitation, to develop in new ways.  We are now “communicatively interdependent,” as Giddens says, and this is both a function and a result of the risk society.[xxxix] But as communication technologies have gained in importance in globalized contexts, we might assume that they have also changed our personal lives.

Several sociologists have been interested in the transformations of personal life that are outgrowths of life in the risk society of late modernity.  Giddens has related changes in personal life to the rise of a society defined by three things: disembeddedness, as many of us don’t live in the same village our ancestors did; a greater awareness of risk and contingency in everyday decisionmaking; and an increased reliance on abstract systems rather than leaders for providing structure in society. The changes in our relationships have also been supported through changes in laws as well as, more recently, through the feminist movement and its liberation of sexual practices.[xl] Yet rather than focusing on how actual families experience and manage these changes, Giddens has argued that he sees the rise of what he has termed the “pure” relationship: a voluntary social relation of intimacy that is rooted in the satisfactions it provides to participants rather than in kinship, status, or familial relations. He has argued that whereas in previous epochs, relationships of marriage were largely rooted in the economic necessities of managing households in agrarian society, today, since less of our time is taken up with those necessities, we are increasingly able to choose our mates based on notions of romantic love.  Now, Giddens argues, relating with others happens as a part of our own identity projects, and intimate relationships come to be understood in terms of “mutual disclosure,” trust, and bodily pleasure.  He believes that these changes in intimate life are ultimately leading to changes in the gendered order of society, as women and men become more equal.

But several feminist writers on marriage and the family have been skeptical of Giddens’ optimism when it comes to the risk society’s manifestation on the home front, feeling that this analysis of the “pure” relationship does not address the turmoil, uncertainty, and stresses that many U.S. parents identify.  Nor does it address the continuation of gendered inequities in many of these families.[xli] Certainly the distribution of wealth and

Christina Hendricks as Joan Holloway on Mad Men. Getty Images.

privilege, as well as divisions in professional labor markets and in domestic labor, are all gendered.  Moreover, even though couples can create arrangements that both parties believe are equitable, many still maintain gendered practices, sometimes by providing justifications that echo gendered norms (e.g., he works more hours outside the home with the better-paying job and therefore has less time to do housework; she cooks because she likes to do so more than her partner does).[xlii] But perhaps the biggest critique of Giddens is that, when it comes down to it, most relationships are not based solely in mutual self-disclosure; they are enacted and maintained as people work out the practical, economic, and material details of everyday life.[xliii] Love and care is expressed in this practical doing and giving.  In fact, intimacy is often undermined when participants in the relationship experience discontent in what are often unequal divisions of labor.[xliv]

Unfortunately, Giddens says relatively little about the role of parenting in the risk society, focusing his efforts on adults in intimate relationships.  Yet feminist sociologists have long found that having children frequently creates dissonance in relationships, since the work involved in raising children can make the gender inequalities more visible and more extreme.  At the same time, the same “communicative interdependence” that makes it possible for families to retain connections with one another across great distances also allows the young person in the same room as her parents to be disembedded from that environment and psychically connected to those who are elsewhere. There is also seemingly no “time out” from that separate youth culture, no temporal break from it since young people can participate in it at any time – and in fact, they feel rather compelled to be always available to be found in that culture.  Digital media introduce new challenges for parents who seek to maintain connections with their young people, because they have to figure out what it now means to be connected, and how to deal with the practicalities of expressing love and care in this new situation. For these reasons, it is worth thinking about the experiences of young people and parents in the risk society, particularly in relation to the larger digitally mediated culture through which we connect with those who are important to us.

The changes digital and mobile media bring to family life, then, are part and parcel with a long series of developments in the lives of families in western risk societies. The communication media that have arisen to resolve some of our society’s increasing risks and uncertainties have also contributed to heightening risks and uncertainties. And this dilemma is not unrelated to changes that have emerged in the economic landscape, as with the increased demands on our personal lives, communication technologies such as mobile phones and computers with high speed Internet access have moved from the status of luxury to necessity. We are now

Wavelink inc.

expected to manage ever-increasing amounts of data – both impersonal and interpersonal – in our everyday lives, and communication technologies both help us to cope and simultaneously increase our exposure to risk and uncertainty.

U.S. Families and the Time Crunch

Most people experience this stress of having to deal with more data and more risk in relation to a sense that we are busier than ever, and numerous studies have documented the time crunch that’s experienced among today’s families with children across the economic spectrum.[xlv] A key part of the felt busyness in U.S. family life in the years since World War II has been the rise in the number of women in the paid labor force. In 1960, 38 percent of women in the U.S. were employed outside the home, but that number had risen to 59 percent by 2006.  In 1970, almost 36 percent of couples in the U.S. were a part of dual income families; by 2000, almost 60 percent were dual income couples.[xlvi] The combined total of the hours worked by parents in households has also been on the increase.  In 1970, couples worked a combined total of 52.5 hours a week.  By 2000, that figure had risen to 63.1 hours. [xlvii] Women have had to enter the work force in greater numbers, or work more hours during childbearing years, as a means of making up the household income that has been lost as a result of the stagnation of wages that economists date to 1973, arguably the beginning of globalization.[xlviii] Those with less than a college degree have suffered even greater losses since then, as two thirds of those without degrees experienced a 6 percent decline in real wages since 1973.  And the Economic Policy Institute estimated in 2010 that wages in the industries where jobs were being created were on average 21 percent lower than the wages in industries where jobs were disappearing.[xlix] Not surprisingly, then, by 2006, there were more two-paycheck couples than there had been male breadwinners in 1970, meaning that more people in family groups were experiencing longer work hours than forty years earlier. [l]

Because of the demands on families and the decline in the practice of extended families assisting with the rearing of children, a variety of childcare arrangements have arisen to meet the needs of families where two parents or a single parent works.  80 percent of children under five whose mothers work full time spend at least 40 hours in some kind of child care arrangement, and 63 percent of children ages 6 to 14 spend an average of 21 hours each week in child care with someone other than a parent.  And because options for adolescents are more limited (particularly for those from lower income families), it’s estimated that 40 percent of 14-year-olds with

working mothers spend time on their own when they’re not in school.[li] And as a result, between 1981 and 1997, children aged 3 to 12 experienced a decline in their unstructured time by 12 %, or 7 hours per week.  Household conversations also declined in the period between the mid-1980s and mid-2000s, as did visiting with friends and church-related peer activities.[lii] Today’s young people spend more time away from home in school, day care, and after-school programs, they spend more time now in organized sports, hobbies, and outdoor activities, and they also spend more time doing homework, than did the young people and children of prior generations. With increasing suburban sprawl and time pressure on parents, there has also been a decline in the number of students who walk to school and an increase in the time spent in the car moving between these activities.[liii]

The makeup of U.S. families has also undergone changes over the course of the past few decades.  Most notably, the U.S. has seen an increase in the number of persons under the age of 18 over the past few decades. In 2000, the teen population was 31.6 million, almost 6 percentage points higher than during the peak of the baby boomer population’s teen years, which reached 29.9 million in 1976. And the demographics of the youth population are shifting, so that 2010 was predicted to be the year when births among historically minority groups accounted for 50 percent of all births in the U.S. What this means is that young people today are growing up in family formations that are more diverse than ever before, with greater diversity in backgrounds of ethnicity, race, and religion than ever before, are more likely than ever before to experience a change in their family status, whether that be due to marriage, divorce, or remarriage, over the course of their lifetimes, and are growing up familiar with a family life that is characterized by rapid successions of changing activities, interruptions, and ongoing negotiations about these things among various family members. [liv]

Today, due to the rise in communication technologies that have enabled both a 24/7 work environment and an interweaving of work and family responsibilities, people are expected to adjust their home lives to accommodate the demands of their workplaces, changing their shifts or their hours worked to best benefit the companies that pay them, or working from home in addition to work during “normal” business hours.  As a result, we have been left with shorter “bursts” of free time.  This is a finding that doesn’t always show up on statistical measures of work/leisure time. [lv] According to those studies, we may actually have more cumulative minutes devoted to leisure time than in the past.  But the rapid interleaving of leisure with work activities has become a pattern that has replaced longer stretches of uncontaminated free time.[lvi] And today, communication technologies not only connect us with our employers, but they also increasingly are designed to provide ways for us to fill those spare

Courtesy The Telegraph.

minutes between demands.[lvii]

Even if our individual work hours have remained about the same as thirty years ago, therefore, family lives today have become characterized by a constant negotiation between changing demands of work and family life. This situation has led to increased household dissonance and heralds an era of household-level negotiations over work, gender, and family that are unprecedented.  Some, such as Hochschild, have argued that the rising rates of divorce and single parenting are directly related to these heightened tensions wrought by the demands of the workforce. [lviii]

Perhaps as a result of the increase in the amount of time young people spend alone at home or with caregivers who are not their parents, middle class parents today report both a high level of concern about entertainment media options, and a desire to be involved in their children’s education and in their formalized extracurricular activities such as community sports leagues, chorales, orchestras, religious and community leadership events, or other activities, in what have been termed “intensified parenting activities.”[lix] Intensified parenting affects both mothers and fathers, for whereas the amount of time mothers spend with their children has remained fairly consistent over the years, fathers in 2000 spent more than twice as much time with their children than did fathers in 1965 (going from 24 to 60 minutes a day; for mothers the change was from 90 to 102 minutes a day).[lx] Middle class families have thus experienced an increased sense of busyness as a result of at least three

Dad on sidelines. Frerx Adventures.

things: the proportion of time parents devote to work, the constant interleaving of work and family time, and the felt pressure to spend more time together with their children to meet the emergent norms of what it means to be “good” parents today.

Communication technologies have become an almost transparent part of how families manage their ongoing commitments as well as unexpected disruptions in this busy life.  Many middle class parents remain available to the world of their work through cell phones and Internet connected laptops that can move with them from home to activities. More disadvantaged families, in contrast, are asked to respond more quickly to the changing needs of a dynamic workforce with fewer guarantees of work hours or stability.  Parents across the socioeconomic spectrum then manage their family and home life responsibilities from their work settings, as work and home lives increasingly overlap and boundaries between the two are blurred.  Parents spend quite a bit of time developing coping strategies, relying on lists, calendars, smart phones, and other means for the planning and ongoing management of the information and communication that is necessary in order to get through the countless activities and decisions that need to be made each day.[lxi] So, even as these technologies help to address problems of management, they also become another source of demand on parents’ time, as parents must work to keep the information in calendars and digital devices up to date and they must coordinate such information with other family members.  Technologies have evolved to serve these needs, changing the landscape of family life and the coordination of its activities.

Thus digital and mobile media both potentially solve, and potentially exacerbate, many dilemmas of contemporary family life that relate to these risks and uncertainties.  They can enable young people to check in more frequently with their parents and can make it easier to keep track of young peoples’ activities and interactions. They can make new opportunities for intergenerational interactions possible and even desirable.  But they are also sources of distress, anxiety, and worry for a great many parents, because they provide more opportunities for autonomy and for risk-taking, thereby amplifying what has long been a source of concern about the preteen and teen years.  Parenting practices have had to change in relation to this increase in the autonomy of youth culture, but what has not changed is the desire on the part of both parents and young people to establish and maintain meaningful relationships, both within the primary relations of one’s family and with those outside the family, as well.

I argue that the question we need to be asking, then, is this: How are these new media shaping what it means to be a family?  How are our interactions with one another in, through, and about these media shaping our emotional connections, enabling or detracting from each family member’s ability to weather the challenges of growing up in a risk society?[lxii] And what differences do racial/ethnic, gender, and especially economic backgrounds play in these differing experiences?

Emotional Work and The Rise of the Reflexive Parent

As a society and as families, we now increasingly look for ways to put preventative measures in place to reduce our exposure to risk.  As we look for such measures, we are participating in the process of what Giddens termed reflexive modernity: the ability to recognize that we can make decisions collectively and individually that can help us to reduce our exposure to risk.[lxiii] These processes have given shape to what my colleagues and I in an earlier book described as the rise of reflexive parenting.[lxiv] Reflexive parenting has emerged because with the shifts in the availability of information flows and the ongoing shifting of risk from large scale societal institutions to the level of individuals, parents and family members are now increasingly assuming the responsibility for making a whole host of decisions, ranging from decisions on their own health care, to banking and investments, to schools and extracurricular and community activities.[lxv] This, in turn, means that adults must manage a wider array of information sources than ever before, and they recognize that they are responsible for the choices they make.[lxvi]

Reflexive parenting is about parenting in a self-conscious way, and thus refers to the sense that parents are not born with a “parenting gene;” rather, they recognize that they must learn how to parent, and they must make

Kentucky Child Abuse Prevention

choices about how they will enact their role as parents. Whereas much of our learning about parenting happens through our closest relationships and in our observations of our own parents, parenting today is also occurring in the shadow of parenting “experts” who help parents to think about how they choose to respond to particular situations.  And because these expert voices do not always agree on what it means to be a “good parent,” parents must make more choices, not only about how they will act in any given situation, but about how they will explain why they act as they do to differing members of their social circles, including their children, their friends, their coworkers, and perhaps even their own parents and siblings.

Moreover, in an age of reflexive parenting, parents are increasingly aware that their parenting practices must change as the needs of their children change. Parenting experts as well as parents themselves describe a “good parent” of the young child as one who is consistent, involved, and focused on assuring the well-being of the child, whereas a “good parent” of the older child is one who is flexible, available, and focused on allowing the child both the freedom to take risks and the responsibility for dealing with the consequences of her mistakes.[lxvii] But the movement from one type of parenting style to another does not happen instantaneously, nor at a certain predefined moment in the life course. And to further complicate matters, parents and young people almost always have some disagreements about when and how those changes in parenting that afford greater freedoms should come about. Gauging these changes in parenting in relation to the affordances of digital and

Saginaw News

mobile media technologies takes a certain kind of work; work that is rooted in the sometimes-competing demands of relationship maintenance, economic necessity, and self-identity that characterize life in modernity.  It is not work that takes place among members of the middle class alone, as members of lower-income families also must make choices about how they will act and react in relation to one another.  It is deeply emotional work, because it invokes strong feelings about what it means to be a “good parent” and about what parents and children each expect in terms of the exercising of authority in their relationships with one another.

I use the term emotional work, therefore, as a means of referencing the negotiations that parents and children make in relation to their own ongoing calculations of perceived benefits and potential risks as they discuss possible options and make decisions regarding digital and mobile media.  The term builds upon sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s concept of emotional labor, which more explicitly looks at how people (particularly women) are called upon to perform emotional tasks, such as appearing calm and hospitable, to the benefit of their employers.[lxviii] Parents similarly experience pressures to perform as “good parents” who are conscientious about their children’s engagements with digital and mobile media, and this public pressure contributes to a tendency to valorize certain approaches to parenting while overlooking the actual ways in which parents negotiate in relation to the emerging notion of child-centered parenting practices.

In this book, I offer an in-depth look at how parents and children navigate the emotionally fraught concerns that arise in relation to digital and mobile media as they invoke issues of authority and autonomy, connectedness and individuality, and trust and risk.  I am especially interested in how families of higher and lower income experience the emotional work of communication technologies, and I attempt to explore these differences in light of contemporary thinking on how class plays a role in differing approaches to the goals of parents and of children when it comes to digital, mobile, and traditional media.  The book aims to explain why we seem to have two competing discourses regarding parenting in a digital age: on the one hand, we are told stories of parents who seem to be over-involved in the oversight of their children’s digital and mobile media uses, whereas on the other, we are told that parents seem to lack the willpower to oversee their children’s digital and mobile media use at all.  Often, there is an implicit class marking in these critiques, as middle class parents (and especially mothers) are the targets for criticism about what some see as their tendency toward surveillance, and lower income parents (again, especially mothers) are criticized for what some see as their lax approach to oversight.  The actual experiences of families do not fall as neatly into these two categories, however.  Many parents aren’t interested in engaging in surveillance, and most have reasons for why they engage in the approaches to oversight that they do.  As we will see, some middle class parents adopt a view of media as a resource for education and for necessary participation in their children’s peer culture and work hard not to “overparent,” whereas some lower income parents overcome great obstacles to supervise or curtail media use from a stance of “strict” parenting that emphasizes parental authority.  These contradictory stories signal the dilemmas that emerge as parents and children try to navigate their relationships with one another and their peers in the context of both a shifting mediated environment and a context of ever-changing emotional responses to their roles within it over time.

Communication technologies are therefore playing a large role in the changes that are taking place in the lives of western families.  Not only are they helping us to manage our day-to-day lives, but they are also increasingly integrated into how we live out our lives as interconnected persons.  They are not just cultural items to be owned and used as tools; technologies increasingly play a role in how our society is shaped and how we, collectively and individually, relate to one another in the management of risk.  In other words, communication technologies are not merely “things” that we “use” or “don’t use.”  They are actors in our lives together, actors that come to be enshrined and encased with particular meanings.

The Changing Digital, Mobile, and Traditional Media Landscape

One of the dangers in focusing on how digital and mobile media come to be meaningful in the lives of children and their parents is that we can miss the ways in which large corporations benefit by our dependence upon these technologies.  TimeWarner, Disney, Apple, CBS and Viacom, Comcast, Nokia, Sony, Samsung and others happily produce products and services that are available more quickly than ever before and that offer increased speed, usefulness, choice, and efficiency at a tidy profit.[lxix] Those following the media industries often focus on the “big six”: Disney, Viacom, CBS, TimeWarner, News Corp, and General Electric (GE).[lxx] These six global corporations have concentrated control over much of the commercially available content that families view, hear, or read.  Yet there are other important players in the emergent digital and mobile media landscape.  Whereas GE had revenues of $157 billion in 2009, for instance, AT&T’s revenues were $123 billion, Verizon’s were at $107.8 billion, and Sony’s were at $78 billion that same year – significantly more than Disney’s $36.1 billion or Time Warner’s $25.8 billion.[lxxi] Comcast, Time Warner, and Cox serve as both cable television and Internet service providers in many places across the U.S., and as such are important players both in how families receive commercial media products and in how families and friends communicate with one another through mobile calls and messages.  The Sony Corporation, for instance, is a leading manufacturer of electronics goods, including digital cameras, televisions, video game consoles, and is also holder of Sony Pictures, Sony Music, and Sony Computer Entertainment.  Each of the four major mobile phone carriers in the U.S. – Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile – offer family plans designed to appeal to families in terms of cost and features and increasingly offer access to data, and have seen record profits and greater concentration of ownership in their networks in recent years, as well.[lxxii] These service providers offer text-only plans and unlimited messaging plans, as well as fees per message for video, photo, or instant messaging.  Billions are invested annually to keep up the production of culture from these media industries.  Yet whereas these industries are surely an important part of the story in how digital and mobile media have come to play an indispensable role in the lives of families today, they are not the whole story.

There are two important premises that provide a foundation for this book, therefore. First, I believe that most parents are trying their best to raise young people who are responsible and capable, and they see themselves as playing a key role in the growing-up process.  And second, I believe we need to recognize that digital, mobile, and traditional media do not exist somewhere apart from the practices of parents, children, and others; rather, our collective uses of communication technologies encourage the media industries to develop ever-more fast and efficient products that contribute to the speeding-up and intensification of family life.[lxxiii]

We are living through a time in which the emotional work of parenting and of growing up is unprecedented, and digital and mobile media are contributing to this by demanding of us ever-more-personalized and nuanced responses to the particular dilemmas we face.  It is not enough simply to blame the media industries for creating and selling the products that our culture is increasingly finding indispensable, therefore.  We need to be considering how we are participating in the construction of our culture and how the unequal effects of our emotional work play out in relation to existing prisms of class, ethnicity, and gender.

What parents are bringing to this emotional work, then, are their own beliefs about what it means to act


appropriately as a “good” parent who cares about the long-term development of their children, the economic viability of their household, and the desire for both long- and short-term maintenance of positive family relations.  In contrast, what young people bring to this emotional work are their own developmental needs, such as their desire to find out who they are in relation to their self-concepts and their peers. At the same time, both parents and young people also take into consideration how the other will interact with them as emotional beings whose priorities sometimes do, but often do not, coalesce with their own.  This emotional work of managing relationships while also managing the communication technologies in their lives was central to the stories of Melanie and Trevor and their children that opened this chapter, and the different ways in which families negotiate this emotional work marks a theme that will continually emerge in the stories that parents and children of all ages told.

The organization of this book reflects the various ways in which families approach the digital, mobile, and traditional media in their lives, and the role that their economic position plays in relation to the emotional work in which they engaged.   In chapter two, I begin with the question that parents often seem to ask when it comes to media in the lives of their children: why are digital and mobile media so much a part of young peoples’ lives?  To address this question, I draw upon survey data, interviews with young people, and the growing field of sociology of childhood to argue that young people find that digital, mobile, and traditional media address several important developmental and social needs in their lives.  In the third chapter, I turn to the question of what parents want, and what they are primarily concerned about, when it comes to digital, mobile, and traditional media in the lives of their children.   In this chapter, I review how parents have attempted to serve as mediators for their children when it comes to media content, peer pressure, and commercial youth culture, and how these practices relate to the parental desire to be a “good parent,” which is an idea with strong cultural ties that differ somewhat among middle and lower income parents. I also delve more deeply into the dilemmas facing parents in relation to changing ideas of what it means to be a “good parent,” considering the shift from strict parenting to the rise of protected childhoods and the changing idea of what it means to be a child in western society – and the conflicting messages about what is expected of parents as a result.  Chapter 4 explores class differences explicitly, considering how media are viewed as personal or family items, luxuries or necessities, and as “open” or “closed” social experiences by parents and young people who are situated differently economically.  Chapters 5, 6, 7, and 8 delve into the stories of particular families and their emotional work.  Chapter 5 focuses on lower income families in which the parents consider “strict” parenting as a form of extending protected childhood in relation to media, and other parents who seek to engender trust between parent and child as a safeguard against the dangers of perceived digital, mobile, and traditional media.  This chapter reviews parent/child negotiations around digital and mobile media among younger children and considers conflicts that emerge when parents attempt to continue to employ “strict” parenting practices in the realm of digital and mobile media as young people enter their preteen and teen years.  In this chapter, we hear from both parents and from young people themselves about how they feel about practices of intrusion, extreme restriction, and rigidity when it comes to digital and mobile media, enabling a consideration of both the benefits and costs of this approach at differing ages. Chapter 6 focuses on another manifestation of the parents’ desire for a protected childhood, but in this case, focusing on the middle class helicopter parent who seeks to insert herself into the lives and decisionmaking processes of her children, ostensibly for their own good.  This chapter similarly considers conflicts that emerge when middle class young people struggle to assert their autonomy through the use of digital and mobile media in their preteen and teen years.  Chapter 7 focuses on the middle class parents who take a different approach, believing that childhood is less about protection than about acquainting children with their world, and who believe that digital and mobile media provide them with opportunities to do this.  This chapter considers parents who seek to monitor their children’s media use while still allowing some freedom, parents who intentionally utilize media to teach moral messages, and parents who are uncertain about their own view of the world and so allow their children to have a great deal of authority over their own choices – perhaps too much, too soon. Chapter 8 focuses on the approach that seems to be the most adaptive to the contemporary environment of busyness, relationality, and connection.  It considers families across the economic spectrum in which an emphasis is placed upon parental flexibility and mutual respect among family members, exploring how these families adapt to the mediated environment and utilize their beliefs about interfamilial relations to guide their discussions and negotiations regarding digital and mobile media in their lives.

In the final chapter, I conclude by reconsidering why it is that some approaches to parent/child relationships when it comes to digital and mobile media seem more adaptive than others, and how such approaches are easier to manage when one has the resources of a middle class lifestyle to draw upon.  I review the advice of experts and offer some suggestions for parents on how best to navigate the challenges of digital, mobile, and traditional media in family life.  I consider some of the suggestions and the best practices of families, including the emergence of “tech retreats,” cross-generational mediated leisure activities, and the rise of reflexive efforts at family identity-making through media.  I then consider how digital and mobile media are creating greater emotional work for all and are contributing to a movement toward the personalization of parenting, which is rife with conflicting messages about how to stay attuned to the changing needs of children while also allowing them the freedom to develop and to make mistakes and suffer consequences because of them.  I return to the argument that the conflicts we are experiencing in our family lives around digital and mobile media are actually expressions of larger unresolved issues that have emerged in relation to the requirements of living in a society of risk and uncertainty, and I question both the extent to which parents can mediate for such risks, as well as the seeming necessity that we need to.  I argue instead for addressing ourselves to policy issues that would lessen the sense of risk and enhance the sense of security.  It is only in a rethinking of societal institutions that we will be able to support parents and their children in ways that our increasingly mediated and risk-dominated society demand.  And it is only in understanding how communication technologies contribute to the intensification of the emotional work of parenting that we can better address ourselves to these parental pressures and deeper uncertainties they signify.

[i] I first discussed this with Melanie in December 2008, and our conversation continued into 2009.   Melanie’s was a biracial Latino/Anglo middle class family living in the southwest.

[ii] Ellen Seiter has written about the ways in which single parents utilize digital media as a means of organizing their children’s time while they attend to the work of maintaining a household.  See E. Seiter, Television and New Media Audiences.  New York: Clarendon, 2000.

[iii] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books, 2011.

[iv] Philippe Aries, Centuries of Childhood: A social history of family life.  Vintage, 1965.

[v] Study of more disadvantaged young people living in parents’ homes longer.

[vi] Cite on trend toward middle class kids moving back in from ASA 2009.

[vii] This insight is from a personal correspondence with sociologist Gordon Lynch, July 21, 2010.  See also Joshua Meyrowitz, No sense of place.

[viii] Sonia Livingstone comments about this discrepancy in how parents and young people respond to digital media in Children and the Internet.  London: Polity Press, 2009.

[ix] This is a point to be elaborated on in a subsequent chapter, but builds on observations of Jordan, 1992.

[x] Pugh, p. 123.

[xi] Roger Silverstone, Eric Hirsch, & David Morley.  Listening to a long conversation: An ethnographic approach to the study of information and communication technologies in the home. Cultural Studies 5(2), 1991.

[xii] Rainie, Lee.  (2010).  How media consumption has changed since 2000. Presentation given at the Newhouse School’s Monetizing Online Business conference.  Available online:  Accessed: July 16, 2010.

[xiii] S. Craig Watkins, The Young & the Digital: What the migration to social network sites games, and anytime, anywhere media means for our future.  New York: Beacon, 2009.  Citing NTIA data, p. 31.

[xv] Christy Matte, Most influential virtual worlds of the ‘00s.  Available:  Accessed: July 21, 2010.

[xvi] In 2000, the figure was 75%.  Amanda Lenhart, ‘How do [they] even do that?  A Pew Internet guide to teens, young adults, mobile phones and social media.  Presentation to the Lawlor Group’s Summer Seminar, June 10, 2010.  Available: Accessed: July 16, 2010.

[xvii] Aaron Smith, Mobile access 2010.  Report of the Pew Internet & American Life project. Available online:  Accessed: July 16, 2010.

[xviii] U.S. wireless quick facts. Accessed: July 16, 2010.

[xix] Mary Madden, Four or more: The new demographic.  2010 Presentation for the American Library Association.  Available:–The-New-Demographic.aspx.  Accessed: July 16, 2010.  Note that the report specifies that 49% of adults aged 30 – 49 own four or more digital and mobile devices, and 40% of those aged 18-29 own four or more.  The study did not ask whether or not people interviewed had children in their homes, so this is an admittedly high estimate.

[xx] Allison Pugh, Longing and Belonging: Parents, children, and consumer culture.  University of California Press, 2009.

[xxi] Pugh, p.p. 123-124.

[xxii] Watkins.

[xxiii] Victoria Rideout, Ulla G. Foehr, & Donald Roberts.  Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds.  A Kaiser Family Foundation Study.  Available:  Accessed: July 16, 2010.

[xxiv] Amanda Lenhart, Rich Ling, Scott Campbell, Kristen Purcell.  Teens and mobile phones.  Report of the Pew Internet & American Life project, April 20, 2010.  Accessed: July 18, 2010.

[xxv] Tracy L.M. Kennedy, Aaron Smith, Amy Tracy Wells, & Barry Wellman.  Networked families: Parents and spouses are using the Internet and cell phones to create a “new connectedness” that builds on remote connections and shared Internet experiences.  Report of the Pew Internet & American Life project, October 18, 2008.  Available:  Accessed: July 16, 2010.

[xxvi] World mobile use has doubled since 2000.  Infosync: Reporting from the digital frontier.  Available: Accessed: July 16, 2010.

[xxvii] Five billion people to use cell phones in 2010: UN.  The Independent (U.K.).  Available: Accessed: July 16, 2010.

[xxviii] The Globalist syndication services.  Available:  Accessed: July 16, 2010.

[xxix] Rainie, Lee.  (2010).  How media consumption has changed since 2000. Presentation given at the Newhouse School’s Monetizing Online Business conference.  Available online:  Accessed: July 16, 2010.

[xxx] Lynn Harris, ChatRoulette: Should parents worry about the new Internet sensation? Report on  Available:  Accessed: July 16, 2010.

[xxxi] The NBC program To Catch a Predator is perhaps the apex of examples, but almost every television network or local station has aired some version of the “parents, be worried” story.

[xxxii] Matt Richtel, Hooked on gadgets, and paying a mental price.  New York Times, June 6, 2010; Jane M. Healy, Endangered minds: Why children don’t think and what we can do about it. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

[xxxiii] See, e.g., helicopter parenting books.  This is an argument echoed in Lenore Skanazy’s book, Free range kids: How to raise safe, self-reliant children.  Jossey-Bass, 2010.  See Olson, family soc psych guy, on enmeshed families in working class.

[xxxiv] The study of the shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft has been a central concern of sociologists from the field’s earliest traditions, rooted in studies by Durkheim, Marx, Weber, and Tonnies, among others.  In recent years, contributions to the understanding of the network society have come notably from Jan Van Dijk, The Network Society, transl. 1999.  Manuel Castells, The Network Society, Information Age trilogy, 1996.  See also Barry Wellman’s work on the rise of networked individualism.

[xxxv] Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity.  London: Sage, 1992.

[xxxvi] Roger Silverstone, Media and Morality: On the Rise of the Mediaopolis. Polity Press, 2006.

[xxxvii] Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity.  Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990.  In this and in subsequent writings, Giddens develops his theory of structuration, which attempts to explain the relationship between individual agency and social structure.  He argues that society provides the structures that give shape to how people live, and the choices we can make.  We learn society’s “rules” as we grow into the culture, but these rules do not determine everything about how we will live.  Thus, the structure is like a language in which there are ways of using words that create familiar sentences, and some freedom to create new sentences using existing words.  This theory attempts to explore why and how social change can occur, and gives a way to think about the relatinship between micro choices and macro change.

[xxxviii] Paul Virilio (transl. Mark Polizzotti), Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology. New York: Semiotext(e), 1977.  Virilio argues that the risk society has been related to the development of sophisticated military systems that have supported both governments and counter government activities.

[xxxix] Rantanen, Terhi. (2005). Giddens and the ‘G’ word: An Interview with Anthony Giddens.  Global Media and Communication 1 (1): 63-77.

[xl] Anthony Giddens, The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love, and Eroticism in Modern Societies. Cambridge: Polity, 1992.

[xli] Lynn Jamieson (1999). Intimacy Transformed?  A critical look at the ‘pure relationship.’  Sociology 33(3): 4770-494.

[xlii] David Morgan, 1996, in Jamieson.

[xliii] This is Lynn Jamieson’s central argument in Lynn Jamieson (1999). Intimacy Transformed?  A critical look at the ‘pure relationship.’  Sociology 33(3): 4770-494.

[xliv] Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Second Shift.

[xlv] Turcotte, M.  2007.  Time spent with family during a typical work day 1986 to 2006.  Canadian Social Trends, Statistics Canada – Catalogue No. 11-08.Available at:; Milkie, M.A., Mattingly, M.J., Nomaguchi, K.M., Bianchi, S.M. and J.P. Robinson.  2004.  The time squeeze: Parental statuses and feelings about time with children.  Journal of Marriage and Family 66(3), 739-761; Mattingly, M.J. and Sayer, L.C. 2006.  Under pressure: Gender differences in the relationship between free time and feeling rushed. Journal of Marriage and Family 68(1), 205-221.

[xlvi] Jerry A. Jacobs and Kathleen Gerson.  The Time Divide: Work, Family, and Gender Inequality.  Harvard University Press.

[xlvii] Kathleen Gerson, The Unfinished Revolution.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[xlviii] Richard Posner, American wage stagnation.  Blog entry, April 18, 2010, The Becker-Posner blog.  Available:  Accessed: July 28, 2010. The trend toward wage decline has only continued in recent years, as the U.S. median household income fell by 4 percentage points between 1997 and 2008 after adjusting for inflation.

[xlix] Exporting America.  AFL-CIO website:  Accessed: July 28, 2010.

[l] Kathleen Gerson, The Unfinished Revolution.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[li] Eugene Smolensky and Jennifer Appleton Grootman (Eds.), Working Families and Growing Kids: Caring for Children and Adolescents. National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2003.  Available online:

[lii] McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., and M.E. Brashears.  2006.  Social isolation in America: Changes in core discussion networks over two decades.  American Sociological Review 71(June), 353-375.

[liii] Roland Sturm (2005).“Childhood Obesity: What we can learn from existing data on societal trends, part I.”  Preventing Chronic Disease 2(1): A12. Sturm also cites data from the 1999 Kaiser Family Foundation study that found, among other things, that computer gaming goes up and tv watching goes down among 9-12 boys.

[liv] See U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001.  Census 2000.  Washington, D.C.  Department of Commerce, Economics, and Statistics Administration.  Also Roberts, Sam. Births to Minorities are Approaching Majority in U.S.  New York Times March 11, 2010.  URL:

[lv] Ken Anderson and Tye Rattenbury, Laptop, Netbook and MID study data: The realities of usage. Presented to the Intel Developers Forum, San Francisco, CA, 2009.  See also Ken Anderson, Dawn Nafus, Tye Rattenbury, Ryan Aipperspach, Numbers have qualities too: Experiences with ethno-mining. In Proceedings of EPIC, 2009.

[lvi] Ken Anderson and Tye Rattenbury, Laptop, Netbook and MID study data: The realities of usage. Presented to the Intel Developers Forum, San Francisco, CA, 2009.  See also Ken Anderson, Dawn Nafus, Tye Rattenbury, Ryan Aipperspach, Numbers have qualities too: Experiences with ethno-mining. In Proceedings of EPIC, 2009.

[lvii] See, e.g., Matt Richtel, Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Downtime.  New York Times, August 24, 2010.

[lviii] Between 1985 and 2000, the percentage of the population who were living in households with married partners and children declined from 31 to 23 percent of all families, according to the U.S. Census statistical abstract 2008, table 1304.

[lix] Charles N. Darrah, James M. Freeman, & J.A. English-Lueck.  (2007).  Busier than Ever! Why American Families Can’t Slow Down. Stanford University Press.

[lx] National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, Working Families and Work Policies, 32-36.

[lxi] Darrah, op.cit.

[lxii] Ulrich Beck. Risk society: Towards a new modernity. Delhi: Sage, 1992.

[lxiii] Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity.  Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990.  In this and in subsequent writings, Giddens develops his theory of structuration, which attempts to explain the relationship between individual agency and social structure.  He argues that society provides the structures that give shape to how people live, and the choices we can make.  We learn society’s “rules” as we grow into the culture, but these rules do not determine everything about how we will live.  Thus, the structure is like a language in which there are ways of using words that create familiar sentences, and some freedom to create new sentences using existing words.  This theory attempts to explore why and how social change can occur, and gives a way to think about the relationship between micro choices and macro change.

[lxiv] Diane Alters and Lynn Schofield Clark, Introduction.  In Stewart Hoover, Lynn Schofield Clark, and Diane Alters, Media, Home, and Family. Routledge, 2004.

[lxv] Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, trans. Mark Ritter. Thousand Oaks, CA, 1992.

[lxvi] Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, New York: Harper Collins, 2004; Darrah, op.cit.

[lxvii] Steinberg, 1985, 1990, 1994; Weiss & Schwarz, 1996.

[lxviii] Hochschild, Arlie Russell.  (1979).  Emotion work, feeling rules, and social structure.  The American Journal of Sociology 85(3):551-575; Hochschild, Arlie Russell.  (1983). The Managed Heart. University of California Press.

[lxix] Joseph Plambeck, Big paydays for chiefs in the media.  New York Times, May 2, 2010.

[lxx] Ownership chart: The big six.  Free Press. Available:  Accessed: July 20, 2010.

[lxxi] Ibid.

[lxxii] Quick guide to top cell phone carriers.  CNet, March 7, 2010.  Available:;page. Accessed: July 20, 2010.

[lxxiii] This is consistent with an argument for the mediatization of families, or the role that media are playing in creating.  See, e.g., Lynn Schofield Clark, Theories: Mediatization and Media Ecology.  In Knut Lundby, Ed., Mediatization: Concept, Changes, Consequences.  Peter Lang, 2009; Lynn Schofield Clark, Considering mediatization through a case study of J + K’s Big Day: A response to Stig Hjarvard.  In Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, forthcoming.

Comm Tech & Emotional Work

June 30, 2010

This is a paper presentation given at the International Communication Association Conference, June 23, 2010, by Lynn Schofield Clark for the Philosophy of Communication division’s panel, Erving Goffman Matters. Drop me an email for the full length & citable version.

Erving Goffman, Arlie Hochschild, and the Emotional Work of Family Communication Technologies


Erving Goffman has long been influential within the fields of media and communication studies.  In this paper, I explore some key concepts developed by Goffman’s student Arlie Hochschild, whose work has been influential in the studies of emotions and of the relationships between families, work, and time use.  Reflecting upon empirical data from a large-scale interview-based study of families and media practices, I argue that Hochschild’s concept of emotional work sheds light on a significant lacuna in the current theoretical approaches to family media studies.  I propose several future directions that a consideration of the emotional work of communication technologies opens for further inquiry.


As a friend of mine was getting on a plane, she observed a mother and a teenage son getting into an argument.  After some heated words, the young man whipped out his cell phone and composed a text.  His mother, who was seated by my friend, heard her cell phone beep.  The son had texted his mother: “I am not talking to you for the rest of this trip.”  The mother then quickly typed back, and the son’s phone beeped.  The message she’d written was this: “That’s juvenile and I won’t play this game with you.”

There are many reasons why this exchange is funny.  For media scholars, it is one of the more humorous examples of how family communication is now mediated, perhaps to a greater extent than ever before, by communication technologies.  In this paper, I would like to suggest more seriously, however, that in media studies, we can use analyses of these kinds of exchanges to get insights into the roles that communication media are playing in our everyday lives and our relationships.  And we can rely upon the work of Erving Goffman and one of his students, Arlie Hochschild, to develop a line of inquiry into what I will call the emotional work of communication technologies. What I will argue is that people interact with and about technologies not as a result of the rational choices they make, but because of the emotions they feel.  And not solely as individuals, but as people in relationships.

A number of people in the field of media studies have already paid a great deal of attention to the role of emotions in relation to entertainment media, such asKatrin Doveling, Dolf Zillman, and Singer & Schacter.  We know that people don’t consume media based on what they think is good for them; they consume it because they want to experience emotions.  In short, we know that emotions are the engine that drives the media industries.

But in U.S. media studies at least, we have tended to approach emotions as the province of individuals: people watch horror films because they enjoy feeling scared, or play games because they want to feel triumph and satisfaction.  What we don’t think about is how emotions are the province of social groups.

Within the sociology of emotions and in anthropology, the collective aspects of emotions have been a main focus of research over the course of the past few decades.  Research has explored how emotions are defined differently within different cultures (as anthropologist Michelle Rosaldo first pointed out in her work on the Liongot tribe in the Philippines).  Emotions aren’t fixed and immutable; they are things we learn.  This has been the major area of research for Arlie Hochschild, a student of Goffman’s who looked further into the emotional reasons why people engage in impression management and how this relates to their management of what Goffman termed the “front” and “back” regions. Whereas he was interested in how people seek to avoid embarrassment or how to avoid contradictions between the front and back regions, Hochschild has developed his ideas in relation to a fuller range of emotions, looking at how people’s emotional responses to situations are a part of a repertoire of culturally learned behaviors.

Goffman has enjoyed a resurgence of interest as those studying mediated communication have increasingly looked to interpersonal communication to understand how and why people interact on a one-to-one, a one-to-many, or a many-to-many basis.  This move to what Jensen calls a three step flow in communication challenges our field’s tendency to separate interpersonal and mass communication. And because of this turn to exploring intersections of interpersonal and mass mediated communication, I think that Hochschild’s work can contribute to our own field.

Emotions & Family Media Studies

In the longer version of this paper I offer a brief review of three current strands of research into media, young people, families, and parents.  The first strand is influenced by sociology of childhood and new literacy studies, each of which focuses on young peoples’ experiences – the kind of work that Sonia is doing, as well as work by Mimi Ito and her colleagues.  The second strand is research that’s focused on parental mediation practices, which I’ll discuss in a moment.  And finally, in the vein that forms the most important bridge to what I’ll propose, the third strand offers research into patterns of household uses of media that shape family life, such as Morley and Silverstone’s work on the “moral economy” of the household and on the domestication of technologies, Jane Brown’s and Sonia’s work on teen bedroom culture, Elizabeth Bird and Jane Jorgensen’s work as well as Elaine Lally’s on placement of media in the home, and work on how digital and mobile media are changing the spatial and temporal relations between family members that’s being done by Rich Ling, Barry Wellman, James Katz, Heather Horst, and Danny Miller, among others.

What I’d like to address today is how we might move toward a more fulsome understanding of what’s going on with parents when it comes to media, and I will argue that a focus on emotions that occur in relation to interactions around media use is one way of doing this.

Parental mediation is the area of media studies that has looked at how parents choose to mediate their children’s media use, by either restricting content or use, talking about it, or enjoying media alongside their children. (Amy Nathanson, Michael Eastin, Patti Valkenburg) What this area of research does very well is tell us about the time in young peoples’ lives when they are in need of protection, and when parents, policymakers, and educators are anxious to identify risks and potential harm.  What it doesn’t do is tell us much about what happens when preteens and teens get to the point where they are making more of their own decisions about their experiences with media, and when parents can no longer protect them by shielding them or forbidding them from it.

How parents and teens negotiate that time in life has long been a particular interest of mine.  It’s especially interesting now, given that digital and mobile media intensify two characteristics that have long defined the adolescent years in western cultures: they give more opportunities for freedom and autonomy, and they intensify the lack of separation between adult and child culture that Joshua Meyrowitz first identified in No Sense of Place.  As parents and teens work out the way that digital and mobile media will play a role in their lives both together and separately, they are doing so through differing sets of emotions that relate to the experiences of greater freedom and autonomy: parents feel anxious about how media provide more freedoms and hence more possibilities for risk.  And teens and preteens feel happy about how media provide these things (this is a point Sonia makes in Children and the Internet and in Kids Online). And because parents, and especially mothers, are charged with the tasks of negotiating what Roger Silverstone called the “moral economy of the household” in a dynamic system where the needs of various children and relationships between those children and their parents are constantly changing, parents find themselves in situations where they have to make decisions about media, often decisions that involve or result in conflict.  It’s not that parents don’t act rationally; it’s that their decision-making when it comes to media also involves their emotions. This was brought home to me when I was participating in a workshop on how parents should be dealing with digital media in their homes.

At that workshop were moms of preschoolers, elementary aged kids, and some parents of preteens.  A media literacy expert showed a very lengthy and persuasive presentation about the powerful negative influences of commercially-generated media in a powerpoint that included an important statistic: that the American Pediatric Association recommends that young people should have no more than 2 hours of screen time.  At this point in the presentation, a mom in front of me raised her hand.  She said she agreed that limiting screen time was a good idea.  But, she asked, “then what should they do instead?”  What occurred to me was that what people want to know from us doesn’t really involve the question, “do the commercial media have effects on our children, and how should we mitigate them?”  Parents agree that media have effects, and they know that they are responsible for mitigating those effects; that’s why, when asked about their media regulation practices, parents give what my colleagues and I termed “accounts of the media:” stories, or accounts, about how they regulated media that were always inflected with the knowledge that as parents, they were accountable for how well they were doing at that regulation (Hoover, Clark, & Alters, 2004).

What parents such as the mom in the workshop seem to want to know from us as media scholars is when should they assert authority about the media, and how do they make the calculation that the cost of asserting such authority is worth it?  In other words, the mom might have asked: when should parents force kids to get offline and do something else?  And what are parents supposed to do with kids who resist their efforts or become resentful, sneaky, or manipulative? And moreover, how are parents supposed to oversee the doing of something else when they’ve also got to manage work or domestic duties while they’re supervising the kids?  I’d like to argue that this ongoing calculation is the work of what Arlie Hochschild called emotional work. By emotional work of communication technologies, I mean the tasks of making decisions about media that involve the negotiation of such issues as authority and autonomy, connectedness and individuality, trust and risk – all of which are at stake in relation to interactions with digital and mobile media uses.

Arlie Hocschild on Emotional Work

Hochschild’s work on what she calls the “deep acting” and “surface acting” of emotions is especially relevant to how we might think about the emotional work of communication technologies.  She characterizes “surface acting” as the self-conscious decisionmaking that happens when we feel what she calls “the pinch” between what we actually feel and what we think we should feel.  This is when we consciously choose to act in a certain way that may not reflect our real emotions, but that are appropriate for the given situation.  One single mom my research team interviewed illustrated this type of surface acting when she admitted to us that she felt angry, disappointed, and frustrated that her son, a high school dropout, was home playing games all day while she was at work. But in addition to these frustrations, she also harbored a fear that he’d end up like many of the other men in their impoverished neighborhood: unemployed, or involved in drugs. So, she did emotional work by engaging in surface acting: she feigned interest in his games and offered to enroll him in classes where he could learn computer programming. She did this because she felt that showing him her true feelings were counterproductive, because she wanted to encourage him to figure out on his own that it’d be better for him if he chose to do something with his life rather than playing games all the time.

The “deep acting” that Hochschild discusses contrasts with surface acting.    “Deep acting” involves the kind of acting that seems to people to be spontaneous.  It’s the “natural” response – or it seems natural, although Hochschild’s point is that it’s a response that’s learned through culture and hence is still a way we have learned to act.  Deep acting therefore has connections with how parents want to see themselves as parents, caregivers, individuals, friends, or members of society.  Sometimes, these various roles raise contradictions.  Parents in our interviews didn’t talk about the “deep acting” they did, but it was observable in how they talked about what they chose to do.  And thus deep acting also involved a form of emotional work, a kind of cost/benefit analysis in which parents engaged when it came to digital media, such as: Will I feel more guilt and shame if I have a dirty house, or if I have a kid who’s watching tv by himself all afternoon?  Will I feel happier if I give in to my daughter in order to avoid this conflict over whether or not she can have the cell phone on at dinner, or will I feel happier if I hold my ground on the cell phone because then I can feel like I helped her more in the long run by establishing and maintaining boundaries?

All of the parents involved in my study engaged in “deep acting,” which is another way of saying that they acted out of strong beliefs they hold about parenting that, in turn, generate strong emotions for them.  These emotionally laden beliefs about parenting and authority shaped how they managed conflicts, enforced rules, or encouraged positive uses when it came to digital and mobile media.

But although everyone engaged in deep acting, a number of parents in my study also engaged in “surface acting” when it came to various aspects of communication technologies, attempting to think through how they wanted to act on their emotions when it came to their teens’ and preteens’ digital and mobile media use.  At first I was quite surprised by this self-consciousness.  However, being a self-conscious parent is touted throughout self-help literature for parents:  “think and then respond,” engage in “love and logic.” Notice that this doesn’t assume that people are rational, but rather it assumes that they are guided by emotions and must self-consciously adopt a rational position.

The emotional work of communication technologies: a new research agenda

Several new research projects are starting to address themselves to the emotional work that new media are generating. In her new book, Sherry Turkle notes the phenomenon of being “alone together:” the idea that middle class parents and young people can now find themselves in the same room, but connected to different people and situations because of media.  They also find that their situations are always constantly interruptible. This, Turkle argues, can be a source of disconnect among family members.  It also produces a situation that requires what I’m calling emotional work, and thus generates some worthwhile questions to explore. Are parents more easily interrupted, their attention taken off their kids more than ever before, as Turkle argues?  Or, as historian Stephen Mintz and critic Henry Giroux have argued, are kids more carefully attended to, one might even say under surveillance, more now than ever before?  Or perhaps both are happening at the same time? Another question we might ask from a more applied perspective is: How do parents work to overcome the promises of nirvana that are offered continually as the phone or laptop signals that we’ve just gotten an new email or text message? Do they engage in surface acting? What kind of ‘deep acting’ commitments are strong enough to override this temptation?  As people whose relationships are always potentially mediated and multi-context, parents and young people must figure out new ways to manage the constant possibility of interruption, and several interesting research projects would explore how they do this emotional work.


Goffman argued that bounded interactions between people were where we could best observe the social machinations of society.  I argue here that Hochschild brings this to the realm of everyday life and specifically to the power relations and negotiations with those who are closest to us, those with whom we perform emotional work in order to maintain relationships.

In today’s dynamic context, with the constant potential for interruptibility and for multiple co-present mediated situations, I suggest that as media scholars we need to be considering how people are negotiating their closest relationships in and through media by considering both the surface acting people do in and through media in the name of preserving their relationships, and the ways that the deep acting they do informs the choices they make about media. I have suggested that Hochschild’s attention to micro-situations and our attention to the role of views about media within them can help to correct for the tendency for us to both limit our study of emotions to how individuals respond to media content, and to limit our study of families to the rational intentions of parents of young children.  I believe that it is important to make room for a genuine focus on emotions as they direct our approaches to the oversight of young peoples’ media practices.  But this is just a first step in taking seriously the role of emotions in how we incorporate media into our collective and individual lives. We can come to better understand the conflicting emotional responses different stakeholders have when it comes to the role of media within our families, our societies, and our world.  Studies of the emotional work of communication technologies, therefore, promise to offer us insights not only into how parent/child relationships are mediated, but into how all kinds of relationships are mediated.  Only in this way can we speak to the concerns about media that lie not only in peoples’ minds, but in their hearts, as well.