Raising Children in the Digital Age: An Interview with Lynn Scofield Clark (Part Three)

Your book is full of evocative phrases and concepts. One of my favorite is that of “emotional downsizing.” When and where does “emotional downsizing” occur and what does it tell us about the context in which contemporary parenting occurs?

I used the term “emotional downsizing” to talk about parental expectations regarding family life and how media fit into these expectations. This comes up in a specific example about a mother who talks about how she wishes that her family could do more activities together, but they don’t due to the time pressures they face (the parents have demanding jobs and the teen and preteen children have school, activities, and for the younger child, time in child care rather than at home). The mother wished that they could engage in different kinds of activities together – like hiking or playing board games together – that would require them to be “unplugged.” Yet sometimes, the pressures of everyday life meant that she needed to lower her expectations about what was realistic and possible. This is how “movie night,” while not a preferred activity for this mom (and for many of the parents I interviewed), became nevertheless a positive instance of “family time.” Doing something together, even if it’s a less parentally approved activity, is still worthwhile and sometimes it’s the best we can do in what can be an exhausting schedule of family life. Parents therefore lower their expectations of an “ideal” family activity, or engage in emotional downsizing, coming to see the up side of engaging in mediated activities together.

Incidentally I discovered after writing my book that I use this term in a way that differs from sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s use of it, although I refer to her work on family life throughout my book (e.g., I use her term “emotion work” to talk about what parents go through when justifying the decisions they make in relation to emotions rather than rational decision-making). In her book The Time Bind, Hochschild uses the phrase “emotional downsizing” to refer to what happens when parents assume that their children need them less than they do, which is followed by “emotional outsourcing,” or leaving children in the supervision of hired caregivers. I observed both of these, but I wanted to highlight how television, movies, YouTube sharing and other mediated leisure activities – often discussed as less desirable than other activities – come to be part of something that family members view positively as “family time.”

At a time when many of us are writing about the values of “connected learning,” your book offers a “reality check.” What kinds of obstacles or challenges do you see in trying to create richer educational opportunities for youth through the informal learning sector or for connecting what takes place in the home with school-based learning?

That is a great question. U.S. families across the economic spectrum are so busy these days, whether that’s due to work and activities in the best of situations, or due to the chronic health issues, doctor’s visits, and inconvenient transportation and work schedules that tend to be part of the most challenging family experiences. I love the ideas involved in connected learning: the interest-powered, peer-supported, and academically oriented learning principles and the production-centered, openly networked, and shared purpose design principles. But I do see two key issues.

First, both parents and young people need to see how connected learning is in the interests of the young people themselves. This is obviously the point of developing case studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of learning in places like Quest2Learn and the Digital Youth Network. These will demonstrate that connected learning helps young people develop skills and literacies they will need to survive in education and beyond.

But secondly, both parents and young people need to see how connected learning is consistent with their goals as a family. How can programs of connected learning give parents opportunities to share their values and life experiences with their children? How can programs of connected learning help young people to feel that their experiences and perspectives are valued by their parents? Of course, connected learning isn’t a “program” so much as an approach, but parents may need to see specific programs in order to recognize how it is that their child’s school wants them to engage and will value their life experiences and familial goals in the process. I think that embracing a family-centric approach will move “connected learning” out of the headspace of “homework” or “youth after school activities” and into the space that I think the connected learning innovators want to go, which involves strengthening bridges between home and school life.

While the book is primarily descriptive of a range of different models of parenting in the digital age, you end with some normative advice about the ways parents might improve upon the quality of experiences they have with digital and mobile technologies. What philosophical commitments govern this advice for you?

I wanted to avoid giving very specific advice about hours spent in front of screens or with mobile devices. Instead, going back to your first question, I wanted parents to be able to think about the “parent app” that best fit their own situation and needs. For me, I think my primary philosophical commitments are to the inherent worth and dignity of every person and to the interconnectedness of all people and living beings of nature. I believe that we each need relationships of trust, mutuality, and compassion to survive, and we each have responsibilities to act in ways that foster those relationships. Maybe this is especially so in our primary relationships with our families. So I wanted to end the book with some suggestions rooted in the idea that all of us share a desire for meaningful relationships of mutuality and respect. I have a longer list in the conclusion, so here’s the edited version:

1. Be clear and fair about expectations regarding digital and mobile media, but be willing to change as children grow older and their needs change
2. Model the behavior you want, which includes prioritizing time together
3. Let children take the lead in teaching you about their media lives

But I also didn’t want to lose sight of the fact that for a lot of people, our experiences are related to and limited by not just what we can choose to do, but our cultural and social environment. So, I wanted to propose that collectively parents can work with others to shape an environment that better meets our desires for trust, mutuality, and compassion.

Thus, in relation to the bigger picture:
1. Change the situation for young people
2. Change the media to change the culture

As I write at the end of the book, the digital and mobile media that are so much a part of our lives may seem inevitable, but the particular forms they take and the organizational patterns governing the industries that make and distribute them are not. It is up to us to choose how these media will fit into our collective lives and how they will shape the lives of our children and families in the future.

 

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..