Professor Sonia Livingstone on parenting for a digital future

Professor Sonia Livingstone of the London School of Economics and Political Science spoke with The Chronicle about her new book with Alicia Blum-Ross, Parenting for a Digital Future: How Hopes and Fears about Technology Shape Children’s Lives.

Tell us about your new book.

There are so many anxieties about digital parenting! These have been building over recent years as the family home has become more and more full of digital devices. Life during COVID-19 seems to make these anxieties even more intense. Our book is about how parents approach the digital world, and what they hope for the children’s digital future. Families are living through a time of significant change and often the technology in the children’s hands seems to encapsulate parents’ hopes and fears for their children’s future. In our research, we really wanted to capture the diversity of family lives, recognizing that some families are wealthy but many are poorer, that some are creative and others geeky though some are neither, and that some have children with special educational needs and disabilities while others face different challenges. Our book is about how they cope and how society could help them better, with some inspiring stories and practical insights along the way.

What inspired you to write this book?

I’ve been researching children’s perspectives on the digital world for years now, tracking their often enthusiastic embrace of all things technological, and tracing the implications for parents, educators, and society. But in the last few years I’ve really become aware of how little researchers and policymakers hear directly from parents. It’s as if we only talk to parents to find out about the children, rather than also to understand parents and their perspectives and concerns. A policy-maker once complained to me that parents are so difficult, so hard to reach. And when I talk to educators I often hear, implicitly, that parents are somehow the problem for their children. So this made me want to hear from parents directly. After all, they have an impossible task – they have to make decisions now that may affect their children’s lives in 10, 20 or more years. When I ask parents how they imagine their children’s lives in 2030 or 2040 they look at me blankly. Or they tell me about a dystopian science fiction future in which technology has taken over. So I began interviewing parents about how they imagined the digital future, and what consequences that has for their parenting today.

What types of challenges do parents and other caregivers face currently? Are these unique to the current COVID-19 pandemic?

One challenge parents face generally is that their usual sources of support are less effective in relation to digital technology. For example, while parents often turn to their own parents for advice on child rearing, they say they cannot do this when it comes to digital technologies. Another challenge is that most of the advice they receive concerns screen time, and expects them always to be policing their child’s digital activities, as if monitoring and restricting their child is all they can do. Our research found that screen time rules cause more conflict in the home than almost anything else. Both of these challenges are exacerbated during COVID-19, when parents are even more isolated, families are even more reliant on the Internet, and it is ever more crucial that parents and children find ways together to decide, not just how long to spend online, but which are valuable activities, which are really educational apps, and what the risks are of different kinds of social media.

What messages does this book have for organizations that serve children and families, such as mentoring programs?

Even though I know organizations that serve children and families do often have an explicit way of including parents, I still heard many times from parents that they don’t feel sufficiently welcome or listened to. Parents generally know most about the specific needs of their child, and they are also keen that their own distinctive family values are recognized by the organizations that provide for their children. Frankly, we interviewed lots of parents who themselves need some mentoring and support, and their emotional needs and anxieties are likely to be even greater under present circumstances. Given the amount of attention that digital technology is now occupied in families’ lives, there are likely to be many positive digital opportunities, often under-explored, that can help build relationships and identities, and our book provides examples of how this can work.

Parenting for a Digital Future: How Hopes and Fears about Technology Shape Children’s Lives by Sonia Livingstone and Alicia Blum-Ross is available for purchase from Oxford University Press and Amazon.

To hear Professor Livingstone’s TED Talk about her new book, click here.