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Smartphones, Social Media and Surveillance in Everyday Family Life

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Background: This paper reports from an on-going research project on Danish parents navigating the competing concerns and struggles around digitally-connected dangers and surveillance facilitated by devices, as well as their child’s privacy, in the context of a relatively liberal parenting culture. Contemporary parenting involves the challenges of negotiating the use of digital devices and the access they provide to social media and gaming environments (Mascheroni & Ólafsson, 2014). Parents mediate ever-changing norms within their own social circles with their children’s desires and expectations which are also continually informed by their peers (Haddon, 2013; Chaudron et. al., 2015; Livingstone et al. 2015; Dias et al., 2016). The smartphone, in particular, has become an object of anxiety for parents and is often debated in popular discourse (Chen, 2016; Baggini, 2017). The many doubts and fears connected with allowing children access to using smartphone apps and platforms naturally have to do with parents’ desire to protect their children from being hurt, abused or exploited in a digital environment perceived as increasingly perilous and difficult to control. At the same time, the smartphone can help parents look after children as it affords greater surveillance of the child’s movements and can ease safety concerns when they are away from home. As such, the negotiations around the use of smartphones in families speak to the ambiguities of surveillance as an instrument for both care and control which has been a key theoretical issue in social science research on surveillance practices and technologies since the foundational work of Michel Foucault (Foucault, 1977; Lyon, 2001).
Some scholars argue that new forms of family connectedness are facilitated by digital devices and social media (Jamieson, 2013; Wacjman, Bittman and Brown, 2008), with family members able to remain connected when not physically close. At the same time, these practices reconstitute family life in ways that complicate privacy (Lupton, Pedersen and Thomas, 2016; Hjorth and Pink, 2014; Sinanan and Hjorth, 2018). The forms of surveillance now taking place within close relationships such as those between family members, facilitated by social media, are participatory and have been termed ‘social surveillance’ (Marwick, 2012) or ‘intimate surveillance’ (Leaver, 2015). Leaver (2015) argues that surveillance practices used by parents to monitor their children are normalized by their embeddedness in contemporary networked culture and have become associated with ‘good’ and ‘responsible’ parenting ideals (Leaver, 2017). These participatory practices vary in the degrees in which they are voluntary, as they may be considered necessary for the everyday coordination of family life or there may be significant kinds of social obligations to do so, as connectivity is both normal, expected and largely unproblematic in contemporary social life (Van Dijck, 2013).
Objective: The paper seeks to examine the motivations, negotiations and implications of children’s smartphone access in the context of the family. The paper draws on the concept of ‘communicative affordances’, developed by Schrock (2015: 1235), who proposes a typology of affordances for smartphone devices (among other mobile media technologies) that considers their portability, availability, locatability and multimediality. We seek to identify the affordances of the smartphone which parents perceive, and the ways their perception of the smartphones’ capabilities and constraints shape their negotiations regarding access to the device in the family.Denmark offers an important case study for examining this issue as Danish children rank among the highest in the world for smartphone ownership (Mascheroni & Ólafsson, 2016). Parenting approaches and family relations surrounding children’s technology use in Denmark are also characterised by relatively liberal attitudes (Mascheroni & Ólafsson, 2014; Brito et al., 2017).
Methods: The paper investigates the use of smartphones and social media in intimate contexts of everyday life. It focuses on how children are engaged in self-monitoring, how they are surveilled, and how these practices are negotiated, resisted and subverted. Our study draws on empirical data from in-depth semi-structured interviews with 17 Danish families conducted in their homes during six months in 2017. The cases were selected consecutively via virtual snowball sampling via Facebook (Baltar and Brunet, 2012) on the basis of variation by geographic location and children's age. This resulted in a varied set of cases in relation to family structure (nuclear, divorced, blended), geographical context (urban, suburban or rural) and family stage (preschool children, school-children, teenagers). The focus of the interviews was on how the families use technologies to coordinate everyday life, practice care and stay connected and, in particular, on parents’ concerns and considerations in relation to equipping their children with smartphones. All but one interview were carried out in the families’ homes. This allowed for a rich, contextualised conversation about the technologies in the family environment.
Results: Analysis of our findings suggests that much of the social negotiation about smartphone use in families revolves around ways of dealing with the affordances, surveillance dynamics and intimacy issues connected with the use of digital devices. As smartphones increasingly become embedded in intimate spaces, including many of those deeply connected to family life, these negotiations become part of everyday parenting practice. We argue that attending to the affordances of these digital objects offers insight into the underlying logics in these family negotiations around the device. We further argue that, though parents do not articulate their practices as surveillance, using this framework can yield insight into contemporary forms of surveillance that operate in intimate spaces, such as the family.
Future Work: We are currently expanding the investigation to include more interviews with children and adolescents, both in home and school settings. Preliminary findings suggest that children are quite well-reflected about their use of smartphones and social media, and that their understanding of the concerns and dilemmas do not necessarily differ much from that of the adults. However, to unpack the children’s perspectives further, additional methodological approaches such as workshops should be applied. We anticipate that this will allow more nuances and viewpoints to be taken into account. A future perspective is, furthermore, to broaden the scope of this project to engage in comparative and collaborative research with international colleagues. This should also help explore to what extent practices and negotiations relating to smartphone and digital media use are situated and culturally embedded.
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StatusAccepteret/In press - 2020
Begivenhed11th International Conference on Social Media & Society - DePaul University, Chicago, USA
Varighed: 22 jul. 202024 jul. 2020
Konferencens nummer: 11


Konference11th International Conference on Social Media & Society
LokationDePaul University

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