Relationship status: It’s complicated

Parenting for a Digital Future: How Hopes and Fears about Technology Shape Children’s Lives, by Sonia Livingstone and Alicia Blum-Ross (Oxford University Press); reviewed by Dr Paul Marsden.

On Facebook, we’re free to set our relationship status to ‘it’s complicated’ if cookie-cutter boxes of being single or partnered don’t seem to fit. It turns out that ‘it’s complicated’ also sums up the relationship triangle between many parents, their children and digital technology. Parents don’t fall into neat stereotypes of embracingresisting or balancing their children’s use of digital technology. Instead, they self-navigate their own tentative, uncertain, but hopeful paths through a myriad of digital dilemmas. And for the most part, they do it alone without the help of organisations charged with supporting them.

This is the central finding of Parenting for a Digital Future by LSE psychologist Sonia Livingstone and anthropologist Alicia Blum-Ross. Drawing from in-depth interviews with a diverse selection of 73 London-based families, and validated by a 2017 national UK survey of 2032 parents, the book shuns stereotypes and busts myths about parenting practices in our increasingly digitalised lives. Notably, the book reveals how parents are largely immune to sensationalist media hysteria and moral panics over screen time, digital addiction and techno-dystopia. On balance, most parents see digital technology as an opportunity rather than a threat for their children.

If you are a parent or professional looking for practical guidelines for managing your child’s digital wellbeing, then this is not the book for you. On the contrary, the authors do a good job of dismissing one-size-fits-all rules, including the defunct ‘two-by-two’ mantra (no screens until the age of two, then no more than two hours a day). The book also debunks pernicious myths still circulating around digital technology being genuinely addictive or having deleterious effects on children’s wellbeing. Instead, the book offers a set of practical and positive recommendations for organisations and businesses, urging them to engage with parents and co-create better family-oriented solutions for improving digital literacy and inclusive digital access and support.

For psychologists, Parenting for a Digital Future also offers two particularly interesting insights into how we might think about digital technology in family life today. First, parents have hopes and fears about technology, and it is these hopes and fears that may be shaping children’s lives as much as the technology itself. Airing and addressing parents’ aspirations and anxieties around technology may be a useful first step to remedying digital problems and conflicts at home. Second, whilst digital activity – especially screen time – may seem to be a source of strife for many families today, this may be a symptom of underlying frustrations, worries and stress that have deeper socio-economic causes. The authors suggest that family flashpoints around digital technology can be a proxy for expressing hard-to-talk-about and hard-to-articulate issues around financial insecurity, social change and inequalities. The potential lesson here is to probe deeper than surface symptoms that scapegoat and demonise technology, and instead look for underlying causes.

Digital technology is like any other technology – it’s either a benefit or a hazard. Parenting for a Digital Future shows how it can be both. But most of all, this is a book that offers a hopeful, inclusive and human-centric vision of a digital future where all parents are empowered by technology to help their children thrive.

- Reviewed by Dr Paul Marsden (CPsychol)

Parenting for a Digital Future (accompanying blog)

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