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Parenting for a Digital FutureHow Hopes and Fears about Technology Shape Children's Lives$

Sonia Livingstone and Alicia Blum-Ross

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780190874698

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: July 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190874698.001.0001

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(p.1) 1 Expectations
Parenting for a Digital Future

Della Rocca

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

How should parents manage their children’s use of digital devices? Why do parents hope for so much from the digital world and yet fear it? The rights and wrongs of “digital parenting” are hotly contested within families, among policymakers, and in the media? To answer these questions, this chapter introduces fieldwork grounded in the day-to-day experiences of families. We argue that “digital parenting” has become a crucial means by which society explores pressing dilemmas over how to live, what constitutes well-being, and what a “good life” is. The chapter explores how parents look backward to their childhood to reflect on how they were parented, and then forward to the conditions in which their children might themselves parent in the future. We begin by positioning parenting conceptually in relation to theories of late modernity and the risk society, but find we must give more emphasis to the importance of established (if changing) social structures and persistent social inequalities. Throughout the book, we reveal how it is through their everyday practices that families navigate between present desires and material constraints. The chapter then introduces three distinct genres for “digital parenting”—embrace, balance, and resist—as a way of understanding the particular constellations of practices, values, and imaginaries that are threaded throughout the stories of individuals and families that follow.

Keywords:   digital parenting, risk society, future imaginaries, genres of practice, individualization, discourses of the digital

As we entered Lara and Pawel Mazur’s1 small flat in a comfortable London suburb, Lara began pouring out their disagreements over six-year-old Tomas’s digital media use, exclaiming how they’d been looking forward to discussing this with us. Lara, a college administrator originally from Brazil, was full of ideas to enable Tomas’s online opportunities—researching educational apps and guiding his search “to build his confidence and make him independent.” Pawel, a chef from Poland, was worried about online risks, especially after Tomas’s friends introduced him to a violent video game.

Lara wanted Tomas to learn about the ways of the world, saying, “my position is to talk to him about it when it’s happening. . . . I’m very open, maybe too open.” She was critical of “other mums” and, implicitly, of Pawel for his caution. Pawel, who had set passwords for everyone on the family laptop, offered a hesitant defense. He conceded:

We need to educate him how to use the internet so he can . . . make the right choices, but you need to be safe as well at the same time. I don’t want to control. I just want to be able to view it in case there’s something which I’m not able to control.

Tomas told us shyly that he loved football online and offline, along with video games and playing outdoors with the neighborhood children. His parents’ divergent approaches to digital technology were not lost on the six-year-old. Tomas observed that his dad didn’t always let him play his beloved FIFA when he’s “playing too much,” but mum usually “says yes.”2

How should parents manage digital devices and experiences, and what should they expect of them? Why are these questions so contested within families, among policymakers, and in the media? During the fieldwork for this book, anxious, (p.2) enthusiastic, defensive, or exhausted parents told us about their “parenting philosophy”3 and where they turned for inspiration or support. Some parents (by which we mean those in a primary domestic caregiving role for children4) were consumed with these questions, while others seemed less bothered—whether because they had greater concerns elsewhere or had managed, somehow, to avoid the swirling anxiety about all things digital. As with Lara and Pawel, mothers and fathers often differed in their concerns, and social class and ethnicity also differentiated families, yet not always in predictable ways. This diversity matters because it complicates and contests public and policymakers’ assumptions about the role of digital technologies in family life.

Lara and Pawel’s disagreement illustrates a point we will often return to throughout this book. Talk or actions that seem to concern children’s digital lives are, at heart, rooted in parents’ deeper hopes and fears for family life and their children’s futures. Building on research conducted over four years with parents, children, and educators, we explore the lives of families variously enjoying the pleasures and wrestling with the challenges of digital technologies. We argue that, as parents strive to understand the profound changes they are living through, digital dilemmas act as a lightning rod for contemporary contestations over values, identity, and responsibility.

Although parenting practices may seem mundane, parenthood is being powerfully renegotiated in increasingly individualized societies. Specifically, we will reveal throughout this book that it is through their everyday practices that families navigate between present desires and material constraints.5 In introducing the burgeoning field of “parenting culture studies,” Ellie Lee, Jan Macvarish, and Jennie Bristow observe:

What were once considered banal, relatively unimportant, private routines of everyday life for children and families (mealtimes, sleeping, playing, reading nursery rhymes and stories) have become the subject of intense (p.3) debates about the effects of parental activities for the next generation and society as a whole.6

Family, health, finances, education, social relations—these were once prescribed by traditional authorities but are becoming more a matter of choice, with individuals simultaneously empowered and burdened with new opportunities and risks. At the same time, individual choices have societal consequences, and politicians, educators, and policymakers are making intense efforts to manage parenting, even though it persistently escapes them.7 In short, parenting involves, on the one hand, a form of personal care for a child or children but, on the other, it involves practices that are cultural, social, and economic—and that makes parenting political. Thus we make an analytic distinction between the everyday actions of parents and the contested notion of “parenting”—a term that has only recently become popular in everyday discourse. Over and above a description of what parents do, “parenting” as a verb has become popular as a way of pointing to, even constructing, a set of demanding “tasks” for parents in late modernity. This charges parents with the moral obligation “to parent” well, always asking themselves if they meet the standards of “good parenting.”

While our fieldwork is grounded in the day-to-day experiences of families, our broader concern is how arguments about “parenting” have become a crucial means by which society explores pressing dilemmas over how to live, what constitutes well-being, and what “good life” to hope for. We position parenting in relation to theories of late modernity and the risk society, as discussed later in this chapter. As Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott observe, “greater parental investment in children occurs within what seems to be a less predictable and less safe world.”8 This investment concerns everyone—since “children are the future”—and society’s anxious calculations designed to optimize an uncertain future often turn the spotlight on children and childrearing.

(p.4) Parents’ exercise of their responsibilities therefore becomes everyone’s concern. So it is not accidental that the public stands at the ready to judge parents’ management of their children’s use of digital technologies. Being media scholars, we are intrigued that it is digital transformations that crystallize the dilemmas of modern life. And the combination of digital innovation—bringing uncertainty and complexity, and childrearing—being so crucial in its consequences, seems particularly explosive. Contradictory advice from others adds to the anxieties. A steady flow of mass media headlines exhort parents to learn digital skills or buy the latest gadget to keep up, yet also to closely monitor their children to avoid risks online and to limit time spent on “mindless” activities like gaming and social media. Although technological innovation is far from the only change defining the present age, our research has led us to observe, over and over again, how it provokes fundamental anxieties about agency, values, and (the loss of) tradition.

We invited the parents we spoke with to look backward to their childhood to reflect on how they were parented, and then forward to the conditions in which their children might themselves parent in the future. Many parents told us that digital technology represents the single most noticeable difference between their own childhood and that of their children—so of course it attracts their attention and concern. This is not to say that technological change is, truly, the top or only priority for our times, nor even that all parents really think this. Indeed, throughout this book we critically examine what problems are introduced by giving such attention to the digital and, therefore, what other, perhaps deeper, problems are obscured.

Pawel’s hope of keeping control was something we heard repeatedly in our fieldwork, as was Lara’s optimism about digital opportunities. Lara told us excitedly, “The big policy that is happening—and all the mums are concerned—they are going to learn this semester how to do coding.”9 Asked, “Are [the mums] worried or are they excited?,” Lara replied, now agreeing with her husband:

They seem a little bit puzzled by it and so that’s something that is happening now and you can’t avoid, you know, government policy and their IT classes, (p.5) and they will go down that way whether you want it or not. So it’s good to have some structure or some tools.

The school’s new plan to teach coding made Lara fatalistic:

There are lots of new things coming up and I think the speed, I doubt that the parents will be able to follow, I don’t know, so I’m just hoping for the best.

Pawel sought to cope by taking on a new digital burden:

I need to stay on top of it so I know what he’s able and capable of doing on the computer before I let him loose. . . . [So] I’m going to have to learn about coding.

It wasn’t long before “liberal” Lara was calling for stronger government regulation of the media, given the safety and commercial threats that surrounded Tomas. But doubting that this would be effective, she too felt tasked with risk management. Lara and Pawel poured their few resources—primarily their energy and determination—into educating their son to succeed in what they saw as, and what we will argue to be, a risky and uncertain world. Like many parents we interviewed, they were convinced that, though only six, his personal choices were already portentous, for his future was at stake.

Between a remembered past and an imagined future

Who can anticipate the world 20 years hence? Or know the consequences of today’s childrearing for tomorrow’s adults? While such questions are as old as humanity, they become particularly pressing at times of rapid social change, especially in an increasingly individualized and competitive society. Of the many changes shaping today’s society, the widespread embrace of digital technology is clearly one. As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) puts it:

The children entering education in 2018 will be young adults in 2030. Schools can prepare them for jobs that have not yet been created, for (p.6) technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve problems that have not yet been anticipated.10

This gives a new and distinctive edge to age-old questions about parenting. How can parents prepare their children to be adults in 2030 or 2040? Or for jobs that haven’t been invented yet? How can they anticipate the digital skills needed to thrive in the future when technological transformations and the future labor market are unpredictable? How can they support their development as citizens at a time of information overload, “fake news,” and “hacked” elections? Or, faced with “technological progress and demographic changes,” spare them a future of being “trapped in insecure, low-value, low-pay employment—or worse, forced out of work altogether”?11 In short, how can parents promote children’s agency and well-being in a digital world that parents themselves struggle to understand or manage?12

The years between a child’s infancy and adulthood are symbolically laden with many hopes and fears. Our premise in this book is that parents’ actions in the present are shaped not only by immediate needs or desires but also, importantly, by memories of the past and visions of the future. Although it is understandable that parents look back to their own childhoods, parenting is inherently future oriented. Each act of parenting has a double meaning—as an intervention in the present and an effort to bring about a particular future, even if this future cannot be fully named and the path to achieving it is uncertain. The sociology of time argues that, in negotiating their “projected futures,”13 people find themselves, as Vincanne Adams, Michelle Murphy, and Adele Clarke put it, constantly “tacking back and forth between futures, pasts and presents, framing templates for producing the future.”14 For most, the (p.7) time span of this imaginative recollection and projection stretches back to people’s grandparents and forward to their grandchildren. Thus, a window of around a century bounds the timeframe in which change is experienced and decisions are made. When we asked parents to reflect on their own biographies, we often saw how they engaged intensively in making the imaginative, if hazardous, leap from their known past into their “future talk,” in which they tried to divine their child’s unknown and unknowable future.15

In describing their daily lives, including their own guilty pleasures, marital tensions, judgments of others, and anxieties about their children’s futures, parents inevitably reflected wider cultural narratives. These narratives, we found, are often fixated on how technological innovation marks both change from the past and prospects for the future. Parents read the daily headlines about “internet addiction,” along with advice about limiting screen time, in parenting magazines or the popular press. They empathize with romantic accounts of “free range” childhoods and are terrified by predictions of people replaced by robots or life-changing decisions made by artificial—not human—intelligence. So when it comes to assessing what’s best for their children, parents are—like everyone else—influenced by popular imagery.

Middle-class Lena Houben16 reluctantly left a job in academia to be around more for her children, but, like some other stay-at-home mothers, she then felt isolated, uncertain of her standing in the world, struggling with a “constant sense of being afloat on a sea of hysteria.”17 She spoke of feeling overwhelmed by the “tsunami” of devices in her home, which provoked her to look back to how her own parents had managed her TV viewing when she herself was a child:

My parents were very strict and I couldn’t watch what everyone else was watching; I couldn’t join in the discussions. I started to realize that [my daughter] Miriam was probably going to survive without my being excessively protective, so I needed to kind of let go a little bit and let her experiment. That was fine when she was still 11, but it’s snowballing, and we’ve suddenly ended up with three devices in a very short space of time. All my anxiety has come back.

(p.8) Recalling her own frustration as a child was what had led her to try to be more relaxed in her parenting. But, she ruefully observed, keeping her anxiety at bay had proved impossible, so she imposed strict rules on Miriam’s internet use—tracked through use of a Google spreadsheet—to “control” its effects. Yet a purely resistant strategy was too limited: Miriam was also learning to code at school using Scratch, which Lena thought was positive, aware of the official view that coding is vital for a digital future:

It’s the new Latin isn’t it? It’s like, if you couldn’t read or write 600 years ago, you were on the outside, you were a peasant. So in the new world you should know how to use HTML or you should be able to construct your own website, you should know some of the tools; you shouldn’t just be a passive user.

Like other parents, Lena told us how she remembered a childhood of making your own entertainment or playing outside in the fresh air, while the future provoked talk of a sci-fi world of high-tech jobs, constant surveillance, and everyone separated by their personal screens. She added:

In comparison to when I was growing up it feels like a brand-new thing that no previous generation of parents has had to deal with. . . . I am the last generation of people who didn’t grow up plugged in.18

Interpreting the present so as to “shape new futures” is a highly imaginative activity.19 Not purely personal—this is socially negotiated, politically contested, and heavily mediated. Robin Mansell draws on Charles Taylor’s idea that “social imaginaries are widely shared understandings that have achieved general legitimacy” but argues that society is conflicted in its social imaginaries of the internet, generally prioritizing its economic drivers and market logic yet retaining hopes for “a sharing culture in an information commons.”20 A related case can be made for imagining a better future, where, again, a host of competing expert claims and predictions fight for legitimacy in the public imagination.

Since there is no easy answer to parents’ questions about whether or how use of digital technologies will bring about a better future, parents become (p.9) absorbed in hedging their bets against guessed-at outcomes. At mundane moments throughout the day, anxious parents read the runes to figure out which of their child’s behaviors may yield future benefits or harms, which newly sparked interests could chart a profitable path to adulthood, which missed opportunities will later be regretted, and which easily overlooked problems signal trouble to come. Parents’ memories of their own childhoods are hazy, if not downright nostalgic, and when they compare them with their children’s it is precisely the absence then and presence now of multiple digital devices in their homes and pockets that mark the difference, separating adults from their own childhoods and articulating their private struggles for control.

By marking the difference, digital technologies also mark out a key terrain, sometimes a battlefield, for the negotiations of domestic life. Whether they also make a difference is a separate question, one we return to in the concluding chapter.

Embrace, balance, resist

The latest media technologies have always raised people’s hopes and fears, necessitating shifts in family practices and public policy. At best seen as time wasting and at worst as spreading licentiousness and violence,21 when TV first arrived there were also fears that it would have a “devastating effect on family relationships and the efficient functioning of the household” and that it would ruin children’s eyes and brains or even cause cancer.22 At the same time, society’s investment in and optimism regarding technology is unremitting, with persistent hopes that it will transform children’s educational prospects by creating new opportunities and, by reducing barriers to inclusion, democratize access. Notwithstanding that social scientists have long argued over whether such potential will be realized, and for whom, debates over the latest digital technologies recapitulate similar hyperbole.23 On the one hand, smartphones have “ruined a generation” and social media have (p.10) “ended conversation.”24 On the other, parents are called on to help their children gain the “21st-century skills” highlighted by think tanks, needed by employers, and promoted by governments—or risk being left behind.25

Lizzie Coriam,26 mother of Emily (age six) and Toby (age five), was very anxious about safety and violence online, and so kept a close eye on her children. She captured the dilemma facing many parents in telling us:

I don’t want to be judged as a mother who doesn’t take the time to do art and craft, to sit down and read, to go on nature walks, to, you know, so . . . that’s why I say, I’m careful about how long they can go on the computer for. Some people do judge parents. . . . I am very conflicted though, because they have a lot of cousins in South Africa who are earning a lot of money in the IT field, so I also feel, should it be something that we actively encourage? I don’t know. . . . That’s what I’m conflicted about. I mean I don’t want them to be behind the rest. I do sometimes think, maybe we should learn more, so that they can learn faster and be ahead of the game.

Understanding how parents respond to these polarized visions is a central motivation of this book. We met many parents trying to chart their own course in accordance with their values and preferences, with lots of or little support, and some facing very particular challenges. For some, digital technologies offer support to counter these visions; for others, the challenges go far beyond what technology can or cannot provide.

Contra Tolstoy’s famous statement that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” we found complexity and ambivalence in all our families.27 So, this book will not support the public discourse of widespread family alienation, with parents and children supposedly “plugged in” to their personal screens to the exclusion of togetherness, discipline, or morality.28 Indeed, we repudiate this discourse as itself adding to the burden of judgment that parents face every day, just as we have been glad to observe how parents, in diverse ways, try to renegotiate the false (p.11) position they are put in when simultaneously exhorted to keep up with digital developments and criticized for too much “screen time.”

But we do endorse concerns about inequality, finding that parental investment in educational technologies and resources fails to erase enduring socioeconomic differences, and in some ways exacerbates them.29 Indeed, we will show that the many promises made for digital opportunities are fragile, so often broken that can be read as compounding the hidden (or not so hidden) injuries of class.30 At the same time we adopt an intersectional approach, attending throughout to the interrelations among class, gender, ethnicity, disability and other factors in shaping families’ resources, imaginaries and outcomes. As will become clear, “privilege and oppression do not follow simple, additive models, but rather are personally interpreted in relation to shifting, contextual variables.”31

Reflecting on the experiences of parents of babies and of teens, those living in multi-million-pound homes or in social housing, we identify three distinct genres for “digital parenting.” By genres we mean clusters of practices made meaningful by particular values, beliefs, and imaginaries (social, digital and future), in ways that are not always conscious or coherent.32 These genres are:

  • embrace, in which parents seek out digital technologies for themselves or their children to ease family life or to gain valued professional skills or, for some, “future ready” identities and lifestyles;

  • balance, in which parents try to hedge their bets by encouraging some digital practices and not others, often ad hoc, weighing opportunities and risks salient in the present or future;

  • resist, in which parents articulate their efforts as attempting, at least some of the time, to stem the seemingly unstoppable incursion of digital technology into family life.

(p.12) For some, resisting is a way of responding when it seems that technology presents a problem for their particular child, in response to an incident or behavior. Yet resistance is sometimes less reactive than value driven, reflecting a desire to prioritize other activities or futures or as a way of resisting social pressures and commercialism.

Threaded throughout this book, these genres provide a way of reconciling commonality and diversity among families. They remind us that although their individual circumstances lead parents to respond to the technological and the social in diverse, even opposed, ways, nonetheless common patterns can be discerned and analyzed. For example, embedded in Lara’s and Pawel’s hopes and concerns are distinctive values toward and practices around digital technologies that are both echoed and contested by others. On the one hand, although they were often exhausted by daily travel and work, Lara and Pawel were trying hard to manage Tomas’s daily screen time, limiting it to an hour or so. On the other hand, since the family had no relatives in the country, Pawel had tried to get Tomas to Skype his grandparents. But it hadn’t really worked; the grandparents weren’t comfortable with the technology and, since he barely knew them and did not speak Polish, Tomas wasn’t comfortable with them.33

Technology symbolized both their fears and their hopes, but that didn’t make it easy to negotiate or manage. Lara was more eager to embrace the new opportunities opened up by technology, while Pawel resisted by seeking continuity with traditional values. Yet their orientations were far from static. Pawel resisted before finding a reluctant balance. Lara embraced but then found herself resisting. Each negotiated with and adjusted around the other in an unfolding dynamic that helped them, over time, accommodate to what they increasingly saw as inevitable. As Lara commented, “everything is permeated by media and computers, in all kinds of work, really, so there is no way to avoid it.”

Lena Houben balanced with anxious ambivalence. She worried that too much screen time would affect Miriam’s “hand–eye coordination and her fine motor skills. . . . [T]he way she expresses herself might atrophy.” This mattered because, despite her concerns, Lena encouraged her daughter to blog her poetry, and this gave rise to some conflict with Miriam’s father, Avery Dahl, who had recently returned to work in media production after a period of unemployment that tested the middle-class family’s finances. Avery feared (p.13) that Miriam’s “juvenilia” could damage her future “brand,” while Lena valued her blog as the beginning of an archive of future benefit. Notwithstanding its uncertain outcomes, Avery was “more front-foot on new technology,” telling us, “I want the kids to be as fluent in the grammar of coding as they can while their minds are still plastic,” and worrying about a digital future in which “a gulf will open up . . . between those who can and those who can’t,” perhaps because although the family had now gained financial stability, its previous precariousness wasn’t forgotten.

Thus, our genres of “embrace,” “balance,” and “resist” refer to culturally-shared constellations of practices, values, and imaginaries rather than the neat classification of individuals or families. Often we saw parents at one time embrace, at another resist, when seeking a balance that works for their family. Each genre brings its own anxiety, as parents ask themselves: Did I get it right? Will it pay off? Embracing means positioning oneself ahead of the curve, and so one may feel exposed, acting before the social norms and resources are in place to offer support. Balancing is an active and effortful process, like standing on a rolling log. Not simply a compromise, it invites constant self-questioning and adjustment: Is this right? How can I tell? Resisting may mean worrying about missing out professionally or personally, or that one is going out on a limb, taking a risk by not doing what everyone else seems to be doing.

Insofar as parenting practices are constantly judged as being in advance of, lagging behind, or settling at what appears to be the emerging norm, these genres embed a normative gaze that can isolate parents from each other, as each watches and evaluates the other before determining his or her own approach. This is especially fraught in relation to digital technologies, where little precedent exists and parents must work things out afresh. Lena described her effort to find other like-minded parents at the playground:

Asking what other people did and sharing information was so fraught, I just didn’t want any part of it. I think that’s why I’ve ended up feeling very isolated; I just felt I had walked into a pit of quicksand and you couldn’t take a step without someone criticizing or judging what you were doing with your child. It means that you’re very much on your own.34

(p.14) Whether or not they interpret digital technologies with anxiety, we found that many parents greeted these questions with a deeply felt sense of personal responsibility and judgment of one another. Parents evaluate and judge one another on this basis—one parent is judged as lazy or too permissive with “screen time,” another as too rigid and restrictive and the children therefore left out or left behind. Parental autonomy—celebrated in late modern societies in the West—brings diversity that we recognize in our book to counter homogenizing accounts of “parents” or “parenting.”35 But autonomy and diversity carry a cost for the individual, as parents realize that decisions made now may cost their child dearly in the future, and a cost to the collective, for when norms weaken and individuals feel threatened, mutual judgment and even shaming can emerge. It is no wonder that, invited to discuss their children, parents were all too keen to open the door to us and spill out their concerns or conclusions over digital technologies and what they have chosen to embrace, balance, or resist.

Changing times, changing families

The parental attention focused on digital technologies, including whether to embrace, balance, or resist them, leads us to ask how far this is merited and how far it obscures other, perhaps more intractable, problems. Lara and Pawel were keen to share their digital doubts and conflicts, but their interview was also telling for what else it reveals. As globalization theorist Arjun Appadurai put it, we are living through long-term shifts in the flow of money, people, technology, media, and ideas, and their entwined histories are generating unpredictable consequences. The lives of families like Lara and Pawel’s are evidence of this, shaped by migration, insecure work, fragile forms of community, and uncertain resources. For Lara and Pawel, parenting intensifies the need to negotiate everything afresh in bridging their different continents, languages, and cultures, and this task is not eased by the precariousness of juggling family life in a demanding and expensive global city, with their own parents far away. As they try to give their son the opportunities they themselves had as children, it seems significant that they see the digital as offering a means by which they can pursue their ambitions for him.

(p.15) Lena’s and Avery’s struggles, by contrast, invite a gendered lens, with Lena an educated woman undermined by having to give up her career and public standing, a woman who easily doubted herself. While Lena supported her children’s pathway to a digital future, she castigated herself for failing to keep up, saying:

I kind of set off in life with lots of advantages . . . but I know that over the course of my lifetime I’ve slipped back down to the status of peasant, in terms of modern technologies.

Perhaps Lena focused on the digital because society tells her that, more than her career or marriage, this is something she can and should control.

Other families face other challenges, being preoccupied by family breakdown, illness or poverty, or caring for children with special educational needs or disabilities. Most obviously, all our families lived in London, which, like other global cities, sociologist Saskia Sassen characterizes as being situated at the dense intersection of multiple cross-border dynamics and tensions. This contributes to a sense of creative opportunity yet also instability, intense inequality, and an ambivalent relation to place, especially for its transnational and hypermobile population. Moreover, as Sassen writes:

The concept of the global city brings a strong emphasis on the networked economy because of the nature of the industries that tend to be located there: finance and specialized services, the new multimedia sectors, and telecommunications services.36

By comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom, London is distinctive in its proportion of multicultural and multilingual families for the job creation opportunities it offers—especially in the technology sector—and for its recent and substantial improvements in school achievement, contributing to some degree of social mobility.37 It is also noteworthy for its socioeconomic struggles as families search for creative, interesting, or just practical work (p.16) opportunities in the city, squeezing into homes they can’t quite afford to live in a “better” neighborhood, nearer the “good” school.

More generally, family life is being reconfigured by these and other transformations—in family life, sexuality, work, religious affiliation, education systems, migration patterns, and more.38 The result is new tensions between tradition and innovation, significantly as a result of the globalized flows of people and ideas, in turn reconfiguring the relations among the generations. Of particular significance, economic changes mean that children now growing up in the West are the first generation in living memory forecast to be less prosperous than their own parents. While for postwar generations the overall rate of intergenerational social mobility has been stable, as John Goldthorpe explains:

Younger generations of men and women now face less favourable mobility prospects than did their parents—or their grandparents: that is, are less likely to experience upward mobility and more likely to experience downward mobility.39

This is because although educational opportunities have expanded in recent decades, job outcomes have become more uncertain. Workplaces are increasingly flexible yet also increasingly demanding, permeable, and insecure.40 Young people experience extended adolescence compared with postwar generations, with more years spent in education and delayed entry into the workforce or independent living. Combined with a similarly extended period of retirement and advances in health for an increasingly aging population, many parents are “sandwiched” between caring responsibilities.41

Since World War II especially, the West has seen “a democratisation of the private sphere,” as Anthony Giddens puts it.42 He argues that intimate relations are ever less defined according to kinship, obligation, or religion and ever more dependent on the intrinsic quality of what he termed the (p.17) pure relationship—no longer dictated by traditional inequalities in power but, rather, “reflexively organized, in an open fashion, and on a continuous basis.”43 As a result, expectations of family life have expanded considerably, although the means of achieving them are more uncertain. While Giddens is more interested in the refashioning of gender relations, Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim observes more generally that:

The character of everyday family life is gradually changing: people used to be able to rely upon well-functioning rules and models, but now . . . more and more things must be negotiated, planned, personally brought about.44

In particular, she argues that as children observe how their parents engage in endless “acrobatics of balancing and coordinating,”45 they are themselves socialized into an individualized culture. This in turn enables a recognition of children’s agency. But while children have gained the right to “determine and regulate the conditions of their association,”46 parents have gained the responsibility to involve them in key decisions, even becoming accountable to their children in a relationship founded ever less on asserting authority and ever more on building mutual respect. This last is proving difficult for parents in relation to digital technologies.

Parenting in the risk society

Scholars of contemporary family life describe the rising anxiety and “intensified” logics by which parents seek to manage bringing up their children under conditions of risk, uncertainty, and rapid social change.47 In parallel, there are growing warnings of a crisis in childhood.48 As several recent academic and popular depictions of family life have explored, some parents respond to (p.18) the societal demands on them by seeking to protect their children by wrapping them in “cotton wool,” acting like “tiger moms,” “helicoptering” to protect them from harm, or using technology as a “digital tether.”49 Others adopt drastically different strategies, hoping to inoculate their children against danger precisely by exposing them to it, building resilience through philosophies like “free range” parenting.50 Technology offers new challenges to this careful calibration and new forms of visibility for it—not least by fueling the shaming debates that rage in social media parenting groups though also by promising new ways to “optimize” children’s outcomes.51

But technology represents just one of many challenges facing today’s parents. In an individualized, and increasingly neo-liberal society, with welfare safety nets being rolled back or privatized, people are tasked—whether empowered or burdened—with making decisions under conditions of radical uncertainty and contradictory expert advice. The contemporary constellation of real and perceived threats coalesces, in Ulrich Beck’s term, into a “risk society” in which, by contrast with natural threats, “risk may be defined as a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself.”52 In the face of manifold risks, parents are newly “responsibilized” for their actions and the consequences that flow from them, engendering an increasing sense of insecurity and anxiety. As Beck and Beck-Gernsheim observe, this burden, including its unequal costs and outcomes, is not the accidental consequence of socioeconomic changes but, rather, a matter of political ideology (they call this “institutionalized individualism”) in a competitive, “sink or swim” culture in which social support is contracting.53 For Frank Furedi, modern parenting is increasingly “paranoid” in part because “being at risk is treated as if it has become a permanent condition that exists separately from any particular problem.”54 In response, the family itself is changing: Philip Webb describes this as a transformation “from a site of affect to be protected from the vagaries of the outside world [to] a modern, transactional institution.”55 However, as will become clear, we (p.19) recognize the pressures families are under but do not fully agree with Furedi or Webb in their bleak prognosis for family life.

Although parenting anxieties are often dubbed “middle class,” we will show that diverse parents are, to a greater or lesser degree, engulfed in today’s parenting culture, striving for involvement and vigilance within the family and, ultimately, seeking to shape the present so as to optimize their child’s future in a risk society.56 We critique as classed the idea that only for the middle classes is parenting culture a source of fascination and anxiety. Middle-class parents may be more vocal about their anxieties, but we will argue that, precisely because parents hold themselves (and are held by others) as responsible for fostering children’s future life chances, the “individualization” of parenting in the risk society also affects disadvantaged families.57 At the same time, our fieldwork leads us to question the more extreme claims in the public sphere about parental anxiety, both because we found such diversity among families and because, for many, what we might call their “parenting philosophy” offered them some reassurance.

We can illustrate these arguments by reference to Anna Michaels, who became a single mother when still a teenager.58 Having grown up in a conservative Christian West Indian family in South London, Anna both reacted against and reproduced the demands that had been placed on her as a child. She described herself with some pride as a “pushy parent” of 13-year-old Derrick and 10-year-old Dionne, saying, “I’m a single young mum and I’m a gay young mum so I’m under a lot of categories of negativity to society.” Although often struggling for money, she declared that she wanted her children to “have the best . . . [but] I don’t want them to think that the best is owed to them.” Anna thus worked to counter what she described as the stereotype of “poor families” or “single parents” as irresponsible. By the way that she refused the position allotted her by society, she illustrated both the uncertain promises and the demands of trying to overcome her difficult circumstances in the risk society by her focus on learning, including with digital technologies.

(p.20) Anna fashioned her home as a learning environment, supporting her children’s homework by buying all the books, giving them quizzes, acting as the teacher, and creating a strict daily timetable, as well as enabling their particular interests: Dionne danced competitively; Derrick did army cadets and taekwondo. Each choice was made after careful consideration of the pros and cons, to steer the children as much away from danger as toward a productive future. As a working mother, she was concerned that if they didn’t attend classes, “they would be on the streets, looking after themselves.” She added, “There’s a lot of gang violence around here, I’m worried about it for my son. . . . He’s doing good. He’s on the straight and narrow for now.” For Derrick, a Black teenage boy living in an area where others his age had experienced violence, the risks were real, leading Anna also to welcome his interest in computers and gaming, as this kept him safely at home when not otherwise occupied. She told us proudly how she let him take apart her old phone, saying he likes “dissecting stuff. He just wanted to know how it works.”

As with many other families, the challenges Anna faced were multiple, and it is within this context that she judged that digital transformations could contribute. Her hopes—as we also saw with many other families—led her to equip the home with a mix of technologies, encourage her son’s geeky experimentation, and seek to build a bridge between learning at home and at school. In this respect, although she was not so critical of the school as an institution, Anna’s lay theory of learning echoes the theory of “connected learning” developed by the MacArthur Foundation–funded Connected Learning Research Network, of which this project is part.59 However, Anna’s approach was one more of balance than of embracing technology, her enthusiasm tempered because Dionne had had “a horrible time,” as Anna put it, when she had been cyberbullied by an elementary school classmate. As Anna reflected ruefully, when telling us how angry she had been, “You can’t change how technology is moving. You have to adapt to it, but you also have to have the mentality to adapt to it.”

In some sense, Anna had embraced the culture of reflexive modernity in which, alongside the risks of inequality, insecurity, and alienation, comes the potential for self-definition—in her case, this including the chance to counter the negative expectations imposed on her by society. Many contemporary (p.21) social and technological changes are opening up new hopes for social mobility, flexible working, reimagined lifestyles, and self-chosen values, as well as new routes by which these may be achieved. Anna’s reflections on her life suggested that she had carved out a more open identity for herself, and that she also attempted to do this for her children based on their individual needs and strengths. Rejecting the strictures of her own upbringing and those of a society that views young, Black, gay single mothers in terms of their deficits rather than strengths, she created her own “parenting philosophy,” which reframed these experiences as a resource, not a hindrance.60 Although she had taken on the burden of self-discipline, she had done so to avoid society’s potentially punitive “policing” of either herself or her children.61 In terms of our three genres of parenting in the digital age, she often embraced technology, describing herself as an “Apple junkie,” but she balanced her embrace with some hedging. Reflecting on her efforts to prepare Derrick and Dionne for independence, she said, “Technology is the future, but technology is not reliable. You should be able to read and write, not technology doing everything for you. Do it yourself.”

Although Anna appeared sanguine about a digital future, critical scholarship is concerned about the risks—especially to disadvantaged families—of so individualized and effortful a strategy.62 Thus we as researchers must not only hear her optimism but also set this in a wider context of structural inequality and low social mobility (see Chapter 3). Similarly, although parents readily retell the media’s stories about the supposed failings of the younger generation, it is important that we recognize these for their tendency to fuel moral panics about “others.” After all, recent decades have seen long-term improvements in children’s well-being and, even their educational achievements, notwithstanding with the advent of digital technologies during that period.63

In the risk society parents are the first in line for blame and shame, and the first to blame themselves if things go wrong, or if their children “fall behind.” Everyday parenting actions are imbued with a sense of consequence, causing parents to adopt what Ana Villalobos calls “security strategies” in which they assume the responsibility for trying to “make things better” for their children64 despite the fact that many of the great social shifts (p.22) that contribute to their children’s future insecurity are far beyond their control. Technology has become simultaneously a threat to children’s security and a promised route to ensuring it.

In Lena Houben’s family, both parents and their 12-year-old daughter Miriam were pursuing a digital future, yet the accompanying risks brought anxiety and discord. Having forbidden her daughter to upload anything to YouTube, Lena Houben was livid when Miriam shared a video of herself in the style of popular vlogger Zoella65 without her mother’s knowledge. Miriam’s father agreed with Lena’s decision but nonetheless embraced YouTube as “the most astonishing resource. . . . It’s something that I never envisaged and the fact that it exists is a kind of wonder that I now just take for granted.” Yet although she was fiercely protective of Miriam, especially after “some boys from her school found [the second YouTube video the mother and daughter had made together] and started putting up abusive emails,” Lena had herself turned to technology, writing a blog about her experiences as a mother, in particular, her unwanted departure from academia, her life balancing work and mothering, and “how hard it is to be a parent.”66

To help parents navigate the twin challenges of optimizing opportunities while minimizing risks in the digital age, parenting advice is proliferating in the mainstream and social media, generated by policymakers, educators, health professionals, and an emerging category of “parenting experts.”67 Indeed, parents hardly lack for advice on their “sacred” task of parenting.68 Arguably the considerable growth in government-sponsored and commercially motivated parenting advice and “interventions” is designed to fill the gap created by the withdrawal of institutional and community supports in the risk society, guiding or, as critics would say, surveilling and supervising parents in what one might consider their private lives.69 Some of it invokes moral panics, scapegoating digital technologies as the supposed cause of (p.23) today’s childhood ills and scapegoating the people who use them “addictively.”70 Some is commercially motivated, selling the latest gadgets and services purportedly in families’ best interests, promoting visions of a digital future that are highly normative and aspirationally middle class.

Although these popular visions of “the problem” are compelling, they do not help parents with their immediate, practical puzzles: When should my child have a smartphone? How much is too much to share on social media? What will using a tablet do to my baby’s brain? What is coding and should we sign up for a class? Even more problematic, much advice is disciplinary in tone—full of injunctions that leave parents feeling burdened and judged. Much of it also underestimates parents’ growing expertise with technology, treating parents as know-nothings or offering bland or simplistic rules (e.g., limit screen time, install filters, keep devices in a family room) that fail to address the diverse realities of modern family life, in which parents are under increasing pressure and public services to support families are in decline. And little of it helps parents look beyond the digital: their problems may have quite different causes, but alternative coping strategies—individual or collective—are easily overlooked in the popular focus on the digital.

Overview of this book

The title of this book is something of a provocation. Ideally we would put “parenting” and “digital future” in scare quotes throughout, for it is the contestation that surrounds them and the lived realities shaped by this contestation that we examine. Indeed, although speaking of “parents” is relatively straightforward, “parenting” as a verb (and an active intervention) has only emerged recently, referring not just to the task of bringing up children but to a personal, cultural, and even ideological “project” in its own right.71 In this book, we aim simultaneously for a close focus on parenting experiences and a wider, critical lens on the society in which parenting is situated. Relatedly, although we heard plenty about the impacts of digital technologies on family (p.24) life, we try to avoid a technologically determinist account of contemporary parenting dilemmas, even as we explore the impact of such accounts when promoted in the public sphere and by policymakers. Our main argument, then, is that digital dilemmas crystallize deep-seated anxieties that stem from the many and varied challenges facing families.72 These include but go far beyond digital challenges. Since these challenges are unequally distributed, families’ responses to digital dilemmas, and the forms of support they need, vary accordingly. As we also show, parents’ responses often confound popular expectations, and this in itself matters insofar as popular expectations—typically expressed as criticism of parents—tend not only to undermine parents but also to guide policymakers.

Whatever their struggles—whether rooted in structural or interpersonal difficulties—the decades-long project of bringing up a child challenges parents in ways that may be helped or hindered by the fact that they are living through a period of unprecedented digital innovation. By “the digital” we refer to much more than the influx of digital devices and content in our everyday lives to include society’s increasing reliance on complex digital infrastructures composed of proprietary and extensively networked systems, which in turn are stimulating the emergence of innovative but precarious forms of work and living.73 However transformative history may ultimately judge this to be, for parents it is undoubtedly deeply significant and problematic in the here and now. We interviewed many parents who felt they were, individually, charting new territory in parenting in a digital age. Insofar as the digital has become a site in which today’s personal, public, and political struggles are staged, we ask what distinctive character this gives the struggle of modern parenting, both as parents themselves see it and as seen by a society constantly speaking for and about parents.

To research this book, we explored the parenting practices, values, and imaginaries of 73 families in London in 2015 and 2016, supported by a survey of 2,000 parents across the United Kingdom in late 2017. We recruited families with dependent children (younger than age 18) who were highly diverse in socioeconomic status, family composition, ethnicity, and age of children, as explained in the appendix. In an effort to listen to (p.25) parents’ own voices and experiences, we conducted some intensely emotional interviews, a process itself telling about the experience of parenting in the digital age. Parents told us how they attempt to optimize their imagined future by establishing family values and practices designed to improve their child’s life chances, drawing on diverse and highly unequal resources to do so.74 Within this effort, “the digital” seems to offer a distinct pathway, with children tasked to carry society’s hopes into the future, even though such efforts to control the future in turn generate new risks—both in the present and for the future, compounding adult anxieties about today’s children and tomorrow’s adults.75

We also sought out parents who, in one way or another, had confronted the idea of a “digital future” with distinct purposes or from a distinct perspective, meeting them at school parents’ evenings, at children’s centers, through parenting organizations, or through their children’s after-school programs—including code clubs and media arts or digital “making” programs. We included families with children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEN)—both because they are so often excluded and because many interviewees expressed heightened hopes and concerns fears about what digital media might offer their children or saw digital media as a much-needed workaround for social or economic inclusion in the future. We also included self-proclaimed “geeky” parents, along with parents that blogged about their parenting, some with hundreds of thousands of followers and others with just a handful.

Having contextualized and focused our inquiry in the present chapter, in Chapter 2 we use the frame of a single day to reveal the multiple ways in which parents move between and among our genres of digital parenting within the day. Through negotiating the now-mediated activities of getting up, homework, family time, and bedtime, parents articulated their values not only about digital technologies but also, importantly, about family life. We contrast public policy that, problematically, exhorts parents to police their children’s “screen time” with parents’ efforts to sustain a more “democratic” mode of family life that respects their children’s interests in digital technologies. Eschewing the myth of parents as unremittingly digitally ignorant, we (p.26) reveal how their own interest in and hopes for digital technologies lead them to seek new modes of parenting, surprisingly often focused on shared digital pleasures.

Chapter 3 contrasts the experiences of families living in very different circumstances. It is not only privileged families but also, indeed, families from across the social spectrum that now invest in the kinds of “concerted cultivation” practices by which parents try to realize the future they imagine for their children. This includes practices that embrace the digital. Recognizing the distinctive intersections of cultural and economic capital that exist in a global city like London leads us to qualify sociologists’ standard linear classifications of households. The position of educated but low-income families emerges as particularly interesting insofar as they seek creative or alternative ways of engaging with digital technologies. We then trace how class nonetheless remains important in differentiating parenting practices and, therefore, in shaping the unequal opportunities enabled by digital technology.

In Chapter 4 we turn to families that have most actively “voted with their feet” to embrace the idea of a digital future, by considering self-declared “geeky” children and parents. Although these families are in some ways exceptional, their lives reveal the considerable emotional, financial, and time investment required by the premise—avidly promoted by both the public and private sectors—that the future is digital. But the outcomes remain unknown and are, arguably, riskier than more traditional routes in terms of their long-term outcomes. Families accept these terms, we suggest, insofar as they see the adoption of a “geeky” identity as offering them a plausible pathway to overcome some unique biographical challenges. However, we avoid celebrating them, since their future is unknown: they may but may not benefit from being in the vanguard.

Parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities often experience an intensified struggle to balance the risks of digital technologies while embracing the opportunities. Chapter 5 argues that, rather than being the exception, these families illustrate more intensely the dilemmas of the digital age felt in varying degrees by many families. These dilemmas, we note, arise from parents’ efforts to chart individualized pathways under conditions of heightened uncertainty and risk, often alongside reduced structural support. Digital technologies, in short, seem to suggest a clear path toward a socially sanctioned and innovative future, along with some creative workarounds to resolve a lack of domestic resources or capacity. However, (p.27) the hopes raised by digital technologies for some of the families discussed in this chapter may turn out to be false, and the provision of better state services would surely serve them better.

Recognizing that it is the promise of digital learning for a digital future that leads many families to invest in digital technologies along with digital skills and learning opportunities, Chapter 6 explores parents’ practical efforts to realize this promise. These efforts span the main learning sites of children’s lives—home, school, and extracurricular activities. Since extracurricular activities combine the resources, flexibility, and expertise to experiment with digital learning, our fieldwork contrasts the values and imaginaries of three extracurricular learning sites, bringing together the voices of educators and parents to understand how each conceives of the learning potential associated with digital technologies. Somewhat unexpectedly, although our chosen learning sites vary considerably in resources, each tends to underplay the importance of parents in scaffolding children’s digital interests and, through a series of seemingly minor but significant barriers, acts to disconnect parents from their children’s learning.

We conclude in Chapter 7 that parents are caught in a pincer movement in late modernity. They are, on the one hand, more burdened with responsibilities, given the erosion of state support and an increasingly uncertain socio-economic future, and, on the other, charged with respecting the agency of their child, leaving much to negotiate in today’s “democratic” families. In seeking to manage the often-fraught dilemmas of their lives, parents find themselves looking back to their childhood and forward to an imagined and often-digital future. Through the generational stories that parents tell, often echoed and amplified by public and media discourses, digital technology comes to crystallize parents’ deeper hopes and fears. This leads parents variously to embrace, balance, or resist technology in ways that shape—beneficially and problematically—both their family’s present and their children’s future.

While managing digital risks and opportunities is often challenging, parents’ face an even greater challenge linked to the inherent uncertainties of the future. Not only must they determine—often on their own—whether to embrace, balance, or resist the digital even though little is (or can be) known of the consequences of digital decisions. But also the digital has become the terrain for enacting generational changes of multiple kinds—migration, social mobility, family breakdown, economic insecurity, and more. Through everyday digital (p.28) decisions, parents negotiate authority, values, and identity with their children and, indeed, with their own parents, in person, or in their memory. Given that contemporary lives are characterized by risk and inequality, the outcomes for families vary considerably. Reflecting on these findings, and on what parents told us of their concerns, we end with recommendations for action for the key organizations tasked with improving families’ lives and their futures, digital and otherwise.


(1) Family 33.

(2) FIFA stands for Fédération Internationale de Football Association. Tomas was playing a video game based on association football (EA Sports, 2018).

(3) By “parenting philosophy,” Lynn Schofield Clark (2013) refers to the way parents share their life stories, cautionary tales, and tried-and-tested experiences with their children as a way of communicating their values.

(4) Recognizing that not all children and young people live in homes with biological parents, by “parenting” we refer to diverse forms of caregiving including, for example, by older siblings, grandparents, or foster parents. Gillies (2008); Webb (2011).

(5) As John Postill (2010) explains, the concept of practice has been variously defined and debated, a minimal definition being “ ‘arrays of activity’ in which the human body is the nexus,” thereby drawing attention to the unfolding and unequal negotiation between the strategies of powerful organizations and the tactics of ordinary people located in everyday contexts of time, space and social relations.

(7) Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim (2002) observe: “On the one hand, individualization means the disintegration of previously existing social forms—for example, the increasing fragility of such categories as class and social status, gender roles, family, neighbourhood etc. [. . . on the other hand] new demands, controls and constraints are being imposed on individuals” (p. 2). See also Jessop (2002).

(8) Jackson & Scott (1999, p. 89). It can also be argued that late modernity’s dis-embedding from tradition and re-embedding in new forms of commitment to (relatively fragile or even risky) identities or communities (Beck, Giddens, & Lash, 1994; Giddens, 1999) brings both opportunities and risks for children’s socialization and life chances (James, 2013; Livingstone, 2009).

(9) During our research, the UK Universities minister, Sam Gyimah, said: “A world-class pipeline of digital skills is essential to the UK’s ability to shape our future” (Department for Education, 2018). Funding for a series of computer programming (“coding”) initiatives from the early years onward followed (e.g., Dredge, 2014). Of course, schools have taught computer programming since the 1970s, but today’s renewed investment in coding is receiving widespread public attention.

(10) OECD (2018, p. 2). The Institute for the Future for Dell Technologies (2017) agrees: “Emerging technologies will . . . intersect with powerful demographic, economic, and cultural forces to upend the conditions of everyday life and reshape how many live and work in 2030” (p. 1). See also UK Digital Skills Taskforce (2014) and Nesta (2019). For critical perspectives, see P. Brown, Lauder, & Ashton (2012, p. 75); Prince’s Trust (2018).

(12) There’s no doubt such questions are on parents’ minds. Cameron, middle-class father of two (Family 48), told us, “I think there will be jobs around now that won’t be around in 20 years.” He elaborated, “I’d like to see them embrace technology and work in something that’s always developing and changing and you’re always required. You’re always needed.” Supposedly, children are even more enthusiastic for a digital career than their parents. Or as The Independent’s headline of January 23, 2018, read, “Children of Britain’s ‘Digital Generation’ Aiming for Careers in Technology, Study Shows Ambitions to Become Next YouTube Star or Software Developer at Odds with Parents’ Preferences.” A survey reported in HR Review (January 3, 2019) even suggests that one in five UK children wants to be a social media influencer.

(16) Family 6.

(22) Lynn Spigel (1992) describes the adoption of TV as a space of “family togetherness” and yet popular media also presented this “new machine as a kind of modern Frankenstein that threatened to turn against its creator and disrupt traditional patterns of family life” (p. 9). See also Marvin (1988).

(25) Institute for the Future for Dell Technologies (2017); Nesta (2017); Qualtrough (2018); Tkachuk (2018); UNESCO (2015). A typical statement from the European Commission’s Digital Agency warns: “There is an urgent need to boost digital competences in Europe and to improve the uptake of technologies in education” (European Commission, 2018).

(26) Family 31.

(32) We build on research on cultural (and to some degree ideological) genres of participation that “specify particular but recognisable social and semiotic conventions for generating, interpreting, and engaging with embedded practices with and through media” (Livingstone & Lunt, 2013, p. 80; see also Ito et al., 2010).

(34) Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels (2005) argue that motherhood is seemingly celebrated on the surface yet bears a castigating set of standards: “The new momism is a highly romanticized and yet demanding view of motherhood in which the standards for success are impossible to meet” (p. 4).

(35) We find it problematic that both academic and popular talk of “parenting” tend to treat all parents as the same, obscuring very real differences in resources that parents can call upon (Cooper, 2014; LeVine & LeVine, 2016).

(37) The UK Office for National Statistics (2016) shows that a markedly higher proportion of the London population are migrants compared to the UK population. Further, “the capital provides more opportunities for its residents—including its poorest ones—to progress than elsewhere” (Sutton Trust, 2017, p. iv), although the most deprived still struggle (Boston Consulting Group, 2017).

(38) Cunningham (2006); Livingstone (2009, 2018); Parker & Livingston (2018). Hill & Tisdall (1997) note, “the idea of family is to some degree a fluid one, with a mix of concepts at its core—direct biological relatedness, parental caring role, long-term cohabitation, permanent belonging” (p. 66).

(39) Goldthorpe (2016, p. 96). On US parents’ anxieties about not reproducing their socioeconomic status for their children, see Cooke (2018).

(43) Giddens (1991, p. 91); Reese & Lipsitt (1978). Contrary to a romantic vision of family as a buffer against, or isolated from, the outside world, Giddens (1991) argues that the “pure relationship” is “thoroughly permeated by mediated influences coming from large-scale, abstract systems” (p. 7). These systems—policy, welfare, economy, media—may not (indeed, often do not) work in families’ interests, nor are they equal in their effects, partly because the resources of the reflexive self are themselves stratified by social class (Threadgold & Nilan, 2009).

(47) Nelson (2010). Sharon Hays (1998) suggests that these dominant and accepted logics of intense parental input are naturalized, not given.

(50) Tracey Jensen (2016) claims resilience has been co-opted as a neo-liberal strategy in which individual families are expected to “bounce back,” deflecting critical attention from problematic social structures (Hoffman, 2010; Kohn, 2016; Nelson, 2010; Rimini, Howard, & Ghersengorin, 2016; Steiner & Bronstein, 2017). See W. Davies (2014) on the rise of neo-liberalism in Western societies.

(57) Clark (2013); Lareau, Adia Evans, & Yee (2016). It must be said, we were not helped in building this argument by theories of late modernity and the risk society, parenting culture studies, and the new sociology of childhood. Although all have shaped our thinking, they do not fully address problems of social inequality, especially social class (Beck, 1992; Furedi, 1997; Hoffman, 2010; E. Lee et al., 2014; Livingstone & Haddon, 2017). We develop this point in Chapter 3, where we find we must give more emphasis to the importance of established (if changing) social structures and persistent social inequalities.

(58) Family 22.

(59) The Connected Learning Research Network hypothesizes that learning is enabled when it is interest led, peer supported, collaborative, and production oriented. Youth-centered and sociocultural in its approach, connected learning research and practice critiques traditional schooling insofar as this tends to be curriculum rather than interest led, and test rather than practice focused, establishing hierarchical relations between teachers and students, treated individually, within the closed world of the school. See Ito et al. (2013, 2020).

(60) On how LGBT parents were seen as “deficit” parents until recently, a perception that Anna explicitly resists, see Goldberg (2010); Herek (2010).

(64) Cooper (2014); Lareau (2011); Villalobos (2010, 2014).

(65) Zoe Sugg (AKA Zoella) is a famous English YouTuber who creates beauty, fashion and lifestyle vlogging content.

(66) Having included some parent bloggers in our project, we were intrigued at this effort to build an online community of peer support (Roberts, 2018).

(67) Furedi (2008); Hulbert (2003, p. 361). Christina Hardyment (2007) outlines the history of parenting advice, explaining how it has always been contradictory and has its own agendas.

(69) See Daly, Ruxton, & Schuurman (2016); Dermott & Pomati (2015); Nelson (2010); Villalobos (2010); Barassi (2017); Macvarish (2016). These critics argue that such trends are reframing parenting away from the “relational bond characterised by love and care” toward a “job requiring particular skills and expertise, which must be taught by formally qualified professionals” (Gillies, 2008, p. 1080). See also Annette Lareau (2011) on discourses of “scientific motherhood,” and Furedi (2008) and Faircloth & Murray (2014) on the rise of parenting experts.

(70) Note that the theory of moral panics (Critcher, 2003) emphasizes that anxieties about technological harms center on working-class families disproportionately, so their expression is not just a claim about media effects but, more importantly, a (mis-) judgment about how “other people” lack standards and need to be disciplined.

(71) In introducing their volume on “parenting culture studies,” Ellie Lee and colleagues report a dramatic rise in recent decades in books about “parenting” (as opposed to “parents,” where interest has been steadier), a rise visible in both academic and popular publishing (E. Lee et al., 2014).

(73) Lievrouw & Livingstone (2009), Lundby (2009). This reliance has reached the point where Jim Steyer, child advocate and founder of Common Sense Media, argues that the media itself has become children’s “other parent” (Steyer, 2002).

(74) Giddens (1999) calls this “colonising” the future.

(75) Hoover and Clark (2008) discuss how parents see parenting and, particularly, parenting with media as something for which they are specifically “accountable,” such that their accounts are always “inflected with their assumptions about proper and desirable parental behavior in relation to the media” (p. 5).