Raising Children in the Digital Age: An Interview with Lynn Schofield Clark (Part One)

A few posts back, I shared with you my interview with art historian Amy F. Ogata, author of Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America. Ogata was nice enough to discuss with me her thoughts on the ways contemporary ideas about the digital child might have been informed by the thinking of the postwar era. Today, I want to push us to think even further about the nature of childhood and parenting in the digital age. My interviewee is Lynn Scofield Clark, author of the 2013 book, The Parent App: Understanding Families in the Digital Age.

The Parent App builds upon a rich tradition of work on the intersection of media and the family, going back to early work in this space by writers such as James Lull, Roger Silverstone, and Ellen Seiter, as well as more recent work by scholars such as Sonia Livingstone in the UK or the Digital Youth Project in the United States. Clark is clearly familiar with this literature,  but she also pushes well beyond it — not simply because of her central focus on digital and mobile technologies, but also because she is so attentive to the shifting conditions — economic, social, technological — which impact the lives of American families today. There is an admirable balance here between the broad view — an account of significant shifts in the relations between work and family — and a more focused attention to the specific narratives of the individual families she describes.

She has a particularly nuanced concern for notions of class, as they operate on much more ambiguous terms in Amercan culture than in the British tradition that informs her work. She helps us to understand how the choices which parents make about their children’s access and use of new media technologies are strongly shaped by class — in the literal sense, in terms of access to technologies, time, space, and cultural capital  and in the more figurative sense, in terms of very different ideologies of parenting that determine what value families attach to different kinds of activities within and beyond the home.

She is a gifted ethnographic storyteller: each segment offers a vivid portrait of the people involved, the choices they are making, the impact of the those choices on their lives, and the contexts within which these choices get made.  She does an admirable job here at moving between descriptive and normative agendas, being clear about her own stakes as a mother in researching and understanding how decisions get made about media in the context of family lives.  She makes it clear that some of the choices parents make clash with her own norms and expectations as a mother, but she looks at each of her subjects with sufficient sympathy and empathy that she can explain why these choices make sense to them, and she also observes that stricter regulation does not always result in estrangement between parents and children.

All told, this is important work, especially at a time when a growing number of scholars in the Digital Media and Learning field are seeking to understand the learning ecology — the ways that informal and participatory learning opportunities outside of school may become part of a “connected learning” system that supports children’s educational growth. She clearly understands the stakes behind this work, but she also brings a healthy dose of realism to the conversation, noting that even middle class parents who may buy into the ideology of participatory learning often do not devote much time to enhancing or contributing to these kinds of opportunities for their off-spring. She also offers us some insights into why lower income families suffer from diminished opportunities — not simply because of constraints on resources, but also due to hostility from others in their immediate environment towards certain goals or norms  they might associate with social striving and upward mobility. Clark finds that even professional, college education, upper middle class parents often lack the skills and knowledge to meaningfully mentor their sons and daughters about their online lives; she finds that even in close families youth often involve themselves in activities behind their parent’s backs, circumventing rules designed to protect them from exposure to risks. She suggests that parents still look upon their relationship to new media primarily in terms of regulating exposure, limiting time, and managing risks, much more than creating and sustaining opportunities.

What do you mean here by “parent app?” How does the title speak to parents’ expectations about the ways that digital and mobile media devices are impacting their relationship with their children?

I used the phrase “the parent app” in a tongue-in-cheek way, as in, “wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were an app that could provide parents with an answer to every possible dilemma that emerges in relation to parenting and technology?!”

The title also plays with the film title, “The Parent Trap,” in that I found that parents do often feel trapped, or at least overwhelmed, by the fact that they think that their children are growing up in a digital culture that they may not fully understand and to which they think they have limited access. This parental anxiety drives us as parents to want some neat-and-tidy way to address technologies in family life. So, I used the title to signal that mine *wasn’t* going to be a straightforward “advice” book, because I really believe that every parenting situation is unique and therefore I think it would be impossible to create such a book, let alone an app, that would address what is a constantly changing situation.

What I wanted to create was a book that was more like the kinds of conversations I participate in with parents and, less officially, with research friends, when we share stories and try to make sense of what they mean for our unique situations and dilemmas. So, the book itself is very story-driven in terms of its approach. My hope is that the stories help parents consider their own situations and to then build our own “apps.”

Throughout the book, you are attentive not only to what teens and adults say about their relations to and through these media, but also the contexts in which your interviews were conducted. In what ways did both teens and parents use the interview process to deliver messages to other family members?

We all live in such busy times that in U.S. families, it’s pretty easy to focus on the immediacies in our conversations with one another. The interviews for this book gave parents and young people a chance to sit together and discuss something important, and that in itself often made for a positive experience. The interview experience allowed parents to reinforce the message of how important it is to value the time we can spend listening to one another. Of course, this means that the parents who feel “too busy” to talk with their children didn’t participate in the interviews, and I believe that this skewed the sample somewhat. But it also gave the study a chance to explore what happens when those families that do prioritize being together actually focus attention on the sometimes-contentious issues that arise in relation to digital and mobile media.

Risk is a central theme running through the book. How do parents and youth understand the “risks” of networked communications in different ways? Why are we as a culture so often pre-occupied by these risks and so often disinterested in the potential value of teens online lives?

In the U.S. we live in a culture of fear, as sociologist Barry Glassner has argued. In my book I discuss the role that the news media have played in relation to appealing to this fear, which in turn contributes to our sense of risk. TV news in particular highlights unusual yet poignant occurrences that their viewers will find troubling – they have to do this because they need to appeal to the lucrative audience of young parents in the 25 – 40 age category in order to stay on the air. So stories about children and Internet-related concerns, while important, receive attention that tends to magnify the sense of risk in a manner that’s disproportionate to the actual risk.

I found that even though parents and teens voiced many of the same fears about potential risks that you see in the news, young people in their teens and preteens tended to recognize and know how to avoid the most-publicized risks, such as predators and encounters with strangers. The preteens and teens in my study were concerned about risks that they related to identity: what you might call dissing, drama, and disregard (or being ignored). This is consistent with a lot of research that’s been done by Pew Internet & Microsoft’s danah boyd (who spoke of “drama” as a word teens prefer to describe what adults might call cyberbullying).

I think you’re right, Henry, that many parents are pre-occupied with potential risks and less interested than they might be in the value of their teens’ online experiences. Parents tend to see safety as their first order of business, so I guess that orientation isn’t surprising. Yet as digital and mobile media become more integrated into family life, parents are coming to see the benefits of such media, particularly in relation to parental goals of enhancing family connection in a time that’s characterized by our sense that we’re busier than ever.

Lynn Schofield Clark is Associate Professor, Director of the Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media, and Interim Chair of the Media, Film, and Journalism Studies department at the University of Denver.  In addition to co-parenting two teens, she is author of The Parent App: Understanding Families in a Digital Age (Oxford U Press, 2012), From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural (Oxford U Press, 2005), and co-author with Stewart Hoover, Diane Alters, Joe Champ, and Lee Hood of Media, Home, and Family (Routledge, 2004).  She teaches qualitative research methods and journalism courses, and is currently involved in a community engaged youth participatory action study of news and story-sharing among high school aged recent immigrants to the U.S..