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

Another core theme running through the book has to do with different experiences and expectations about media depending on the economic class background of parents. How would you characterize those differences?

I describe two different ethics that guide family approaches to digital and mobile media: an ethic of respectful connectedness, and an ethic of expressive empowerment. I’m really building on a lot of work in sociology of the family in this area (see, e.g., Annette Lareau and Allison Pugh as well as Roger Silverstone, each of whom looks at how family economics shape everyday experiences). The term “ethic” is meant to signal that there are guiding principles that help parents and young people determine a course of action in relation to communication practices. I use the phrase “Ethic of expressive empowerment” to refer to those families that seek to use the media for education and self-development, and the phrase “Ethic of respectful connectedness” to refer to those families that want to use media in ways that honor parents and reinforce family and cultural ties.

The differences are most stark at the extremes. The ethic of expressive empowerment can lead parents to think of their children as in need of constant guidance and oversight. When parents assume that they need to ensure the most empowering activities and the most appropriate forms of expression for their children at all times, they can rather easily slip into using technologies for covert helicopter parenting.

On the other hand, parents who are very concerned about the ways that technology use might undermine respect for parents can be drawn to a sort of “tough love” approach, using their children’s social networking accounts to engage in publicly humiliating their children as a means of demanding respect, or being quite restrictive and “strict” about technology use.

Most parents fall between these two extremes, but each approach seems in some ways related to class-based ways of thinking about risk and technology. Upper income families in my study worried that their child might miss some opportunity that would secure their ability to compete in the increasingly merciless economic environment, and this drives the desire to oversee appropriate uses of time spent with technologies (and hence also supports covert helicopter parenting). Lower income families worry about their children’s futures as well, but because many in my study had experienced the failures of society’s institutions, they place more trust in close relations – which is why undermining respect for one’s closest family members can be so threatening (and why engaging in a “tough love” response of public humiliation or strong restrictions on technology seems appropriate).

I wanted to outline these different approaches not so much to tie one or another specifically to class, but to highlight the idea that not all families have the same concerns about how technologies are playing a role in the lives of their young people. I think that many of us in education tend to embrace an ethic of expressive empowerment and so we see the positive potential in technologies. But I wanted offer some clues as to how counselors, educators, and parent advocates might discuss technology and its risks in family life in relation to differing ethics that frame a family’s course of action.


You try to challenge and complicate prevailing myths about cyber-bullying. What advice do you have for parents who are concerned that their children may be being bullied?

First of all, parents need to resist the urge to jump in and “save” the child. Ultimately, our goal as parents is to raise children who have resilience. We parents need to see ourselves as resources who can help our children solve their own problems. We do this when we talk with them about different strategies of response and tell our own stories of how we respond when we feel bullied or harassed.

Of course, some incidents escalate beyond what a young person might be able to address on his or her own.

I’ve been doing another study specifically on cyberbullying among teens, and one of the things I’ve found is that teens don’t like the term “cyberbullying.” “That’s what happens to younger kids,” as several high school students told me. They prefer the term cyberharrassment, which suggests the seriousness of the issue.

And so I also really like Common Sense Media’s approach to cyberbullying and in my book I echo what they suggest. It’s important for parents to encourage their children to stand up, not just stand by when they witness such harassment, and it’s equally important for those who are victimized to seek sources of support so that they are standing with others in response to the perpetrator.

You acknowledge throughout the book that some of your findings push against your own values as a parent. What would be some examples where you were forced to question your own assumptions about good parenting?

Even though I think of myself as someone who loves to spend time with my children, writing this book made me realize that this often comes into conflict with my sense that part of being a good parent is balancing work and home life appropriately. When it comes to children, there’s really no balancing or multitasking, there’s just the attention you can focus on one thing or another at any given time. In other words, if I really want to spend time with my children, I’ve got to put away my laptop and phone. And I’ve also decided to be much more intentional about spending time doing media-related things with them. Fortunately, we all like the Just Dance 2 DVD we received from a grandparent over the holidays!

In your discussion of teen’s online play with identity, you introduce the concept of “interpretive reproduction.” Can you explain this concept and discuss what it helps us to see about teen’s strategies for using social media?

Sociologist William Corsaro introduces the term “interpretive reproduction” as a way of challenging our tendency as adults to think about children in terms of “socialization,” or in terms of what they will become in the future rather than in relation to what they are doing presently. The term “interpretive reproduction” describes the process that young people go through as they interpret and then innovate as participants in society. They’re not just internalizing and absorbing culture; they’re actively contributing to how it is changing, even as they’re doing so in relation to existing social processes. I used this term as I was trying to sort out what was “new” about the context of digital and mobile media in teen identity work, and what was pretty consistent with the way teens had been engaging in identity work for a long time.

I think the term helps to remind parents that parenting is a process that involves not only parental intentions but also the creativities of young people as they respond to their environments. As parents it’s easy to feel nervous about the fact that we can’t control a lot of what happens in new media environments. I think it’s helpful for parents to look for patterns that relate to what came before, so that we can see that young people are using these new media to address needs that have remained remarkably similar from their generation to ours. At the same time, for sociologists interested in the role of media in social change, it’s important to see that the innovations of young people do matter. They are contributors to culture, which is why it’s important to look at their practices not just in relation to parental intentions but also in relation to how the collective uses of technologies among all generations are changing our social lives.

 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..