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Navigating Smartphone Anxieties Within The Family: Affordances, Surveillance and Intimacy

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Contemporary parenting involves the challenges of negotiating access to digital devices and networked technologies (Mascheroni & Ólafsson, 2014). Parents mediate ever-changing norms within their own social circles, with their children’s desires and expectations, also 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 the ‘milestone’ of access debated in popular discourse (Jensen, 2010; Chen, 2016; Baggini, 2017). At the same as parents feel concerned for the potential dangers a smartphone may introduce for their children, the device may also afford greater surveillance of the child’s movements and ease safety concerns when they are away from home. This paper seeks to examine the motivations, negotiations and implications of a child’s smartphone access for children in the context of the family through the concept of affordances, to consider the ways the intersecting capacities of the smartphone contribute to this form of participatory surveillance.
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 focus of the interviews was how the families use technologies to coordinate everyday life, practice care and stay connected, and in particular parents’ concerns and considerations in relation to equipping their children with smartphones. 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). Denmark offers an important case study for examining these underlying anxieties for parents surrounding smartphone ownership for children 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). We seek to examine how Danish parents navigate 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.
The smartphone is a hybrid device that brings together elements of the mobile phone, laptop, and personal organiser (Hjorth, Burgess and Richardson, 2012; Schrock, 2015). In addition to functions traditionally associated with phones, these devices allow access to the internet, to social media, and to a variety of applications (apps) that can perform a vast array of different functions and open up the potential of the device (Goggin, 2009). The smartphone has also been at the centre of concerns around the intrusion of digital technologies into human interaction (see for example: Turkle, 2015), with concerns about their interference in the parent-child relationship particularly heightened (Radesky et al. 2014; McDaniel and Radesky, 2018). The capacity of the smartphone to draw attention away from face-to-face social interaction is, for many, seen as a challenge existing social practices (Mascheroni and Vincent, 2016; Ling, 2012; Ling and McEwen, 2010). However, some scholars argue that new forms of family connectedness are facilitated by information communication technologies (ICTs) 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, have been termed ‘social surveillance’ (Marwick, 2012) or ‘intimate surveillance’ (Leaver, 2015). Leaver (2015) argues that intimate surveillance, surveilling practices undertake by parents to monitor their children, are normalised by their embeddedness in contemporary networked culture and have become associated with ‘good’ and ‘responsible’ parenting ideals (Leaver, 2017). Though, as Clark (2013) parenting today is characterised by anxieties around child safety, particularly online, as well as pressures to be vigilant with regard to appropriate exposure to digital technologies.
At the same time, parents are concerned about their child’s safety when using connected devices and their privacy, they identified the capacities of the smartphone to facilitate parental surveillance. In this paper we examine these forms of surveillance, understanding parents’ desires to mobilise the capacities of the smartphone to observe their child’s movements or to allow the child to be more ‘reachable’ outside the home as a form of participatory surveillance. In doing so, this allows us to conceptualise the ways in which many contemporary forms of surveillance operate through participation in micro-level practices which, in the moment appear fairly insignificant, but when collected together, yield large amounts of data (Anonymous, 2013). These participatory practices vary in the degrees in which they are voluntary, as they may be considered 'indispensable' for the everyday coordination of family life or there may be significant kinds of social obligations to do so, as we have discussed with regards to the contemporary social conditions in which connectivity is both normal, expected and largely unproblematic (Van Dijck, 2013).
Focusing on the affordances of the smartphone considers both what the materiality of the object inclines towards and how this interacts with the social conditions it is used within. The term comes from the work of ecological psychologist James Gibson (1986) who coined it to explain what the environment or an object offers a human or another animal, specifically with respect to the capacity for action that it affords. Gibson’s notion of affordances conceptualises both what is made possible and what possibilities are closed off by certain material arrangements, though contemporary interpretations of the term have been influenced by the work of design scholar Donald Norman (1990) and sociologist Ian Hutchby (2001), who both have integrated an understanding of the users perceptions of the affordances into the theory. More recently, Davis and Chouinard (2016) have argued that affordances must be understood not only in terms of their perceivability to subjects, but they also situate affordances in relation to the social conditions of the subject. We also draw 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.
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.

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Original languageEnglish
Publication yearOct 2019
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2019
EventThe 69th Annual International Communication Association conference - Washington, D.C., United States
Duration: 24 May 201928 May 2019
Conference number: 69


ConferenceThe 69th Annual International Communication Association conference
CountryUnited States
CityWashington, D.C.
Internet address

    Research areas

  • Surveillance, Families, Trust, Care, Social media, Mobile phones

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