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The Parent AppUnderstanding Families in the Digital Age$

Lynn Schofield Clark

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199899616

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199899616.001.0001

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Communication in Families

Communication in Families

Expressive Empowerment and Respectful Connectedness

(p.125) Chapter 6 Communication in Families
The Parent App

Lynn Schofield Clark

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter highlights the patterns of communication that existed within families before digital and mobile media technologies appeared and that continue to shape the uses of these technologies. It argues that there are differences in how parents understand the relationship of communication technologies to risk, with upper income families concerned about the risk of mediated leisure that might undermine educational and economic goals, some middle income families worried about the risks of a polluting cultural environment and failing schools, and lower income families worried about risks of even more decrepit social structures that create failed opportunities for their children. The chapter demonstrates that whereas media are implicated in the risks of upper income families’ goals, lower income families can instead sometimes view media as a means to meet familial goals such as finding ways to avoid neighborhood-related risks and seeking productive outlets for time.

Keywords:   expressive empowerment, respectful connectedness, concerted cultivation, concept-oriented family communication, social uses of media, the Weltons, the Grantmans, Nelsons, Polanskis, Cruz family

When seven-year-old Gemma Welton found that the backpack she’d inherited from her nineteen-year-old half sister contained a long-forgotten cell phone, she was thrilled. Gemma’s mother and father had told her that she wasn’t going to be allowed to have her own phone until an unspecified later time. And yet, once her half sister helped her locate the charger, here was an unclaimed and highly prized accessory that could be her very own, already loaded with several game applications and a working camera. Gemma’s mother, Tammy, was not nearly as enthused about this unexpected turn of events as Gemma. Attempting to argue her way out of allowing Gemma to keep the phone, Tammy exclaimed, “Gemma, you’re seven years old! You don’t need a cell phone!”

“Well, Mommy,” Gemma replied, “then when are you going to get me a cell phone?”

On impulse, Tammy declared: “You can have a cell phone when you can name for me five kids your age who have working cell phones.” Right away, Gemma named four. And shortly thereafter, she got to keep the phone.1

Tammy and her husband, Larry, upper-middle-class parents in a biracial family living in a suburban community in the greater Denver area, related this story with both laughter and some discomfort. They recognized immediately that they might have chosen to keep the cell phone from their younger daughter for a few more years. Turning more serious, Larry reflected on why he felt that this might have been a good idea. He noted that his main concern about cell phone use, when compared with other media, was that he found texting to be “so exclusionary.” You can see what a child’s watching on a computer or television screen, but texting is easier (p.126) to use in secret; it can be used to “completely circumvent others. And that’s a potentially ominous and negative thing,” he said. Tammy agreed. But after contemplating this for a moment, she observed that texting is not that different from the other forms of conversation between childhood peers to which they, as parents, don’t have access. The same could be said about Facebook and other social networking sites, she pointed out, “’cause they’re all about socializing without us.” Both parents then began recalling how much they had felt the need for greater independence when they were preadolescents and adolescents. Keeping secrets from adults was a big part of their own growing-up experiences, and they didn’t want to deny their children this same freedom. Yet something told them they should be concerned about this new turn of events.

Middle- and upper-middle-class parents like the Weltons have long been concerned about the role of media in family life.2 As noted earlier, in order to understand the changes in our lives together as families and the changes in our children’s lives that are related to the new media environment, we need to consider the characteristics of digital and mobile media and the new situations they introduce, as we have explored in the previous sections of this book. We have pondered the risks that parents fear are related to characteristics of digital and mobile media, as well as what young people themselves say about these media. We now need to consider the patterns of communication that existed within families before these technologies appeared and that continue to shape the uses of these technologies.

This chapter focuses on the factors that shape parents’ perspectives on the risks and opportunities afforded by digital and mobile media. Here I delve more deeply into two different approaches: what I have termed the ethic of expressive empowerment and the ethic of respectful connection. In the next chapter I explore how these differing ethics relate to the ways that parents attempt to mediate the media in their family’s lives, or how they attempt to mitigate the risks and maximize the opportunities that digital and mobile media afford. In the third chapter of this section, I highlight the fact that families, and in particular mothers, might be best understood as making decisions about media use not in relation to a logical assessment of risks but in relation to what they take to be “good parenting,” which is an assessment that takes place in reference to values, emotions, and practicalities rather than solely in reference to rational decision making. We begin to get hints of how the ethics of expressive empowerment and respectful connectedness relate to assumptions of “good parenting” in this chapter, and the Weltons are an interesting example of how (p.127) some wealthy, upper-middle-class, and middle-class families embrace and articulate an ethic of expressive empowerment.

The Ethic of Expressive Empowerment

For the most part, digital and mobile media play a secondary role in the lives of the upper-middle-class Welton family. Tammy and Larry view their three daughters’ use of cell phones, it turns out, much the way they and other upper-middle-class parents view television and films, video gaming, commercially available music, and YouTube and Web-based surfing: these less desirable activities fall to the background as young people participate in what parents think of as preferred, and usually highly organized, activities. In the Welton family, these preferred activities include gymnastics, math tutoring, swim lessons, piano lessons, and soccer. Tammy and Larry Welton engage in a style of parenting that sociologist Annette Lareau has called “concerted cultivation.” This refers to a pattern of encouraging their children to be involved in organized activities meant to provide them with opportunities to develop their talents and enjoy the benefits of working as a team with their peers.3 Between school, participation in these activities, and the unstructured moments of interaction with peers that occur while their teenage daughter waits for transportation or their younger daughters are in after-school care, as well as in the more formally arranged play dates with other children, the Welton family has relatively little time for media-related pursuits.

The Weltons and other upper-middle-class parents like them are especially concerned to create empowering and expressive relationships with their daughters. In addition to facilitating highly programmed lives full of empowering activities, the Welton parents encourage their daughters to talk about their feelings and to share their ideas, both within their family and beyond it.4 This emphasis on encouraging children to voice their views is what, in part, led Tammy to change her mind and let her daughter Gemma keep a cell phone at age seven. After all, she and Larry reasoned, as children each of them had had opportunities to explore independence, and thus surely they owed Gemma the same.

The main challenge for parents like the Weltons in the digital age might be thought of as a question of balance. How are parents to balance the child’s right to explore her world and express herself with the parents’ responsibility to prepare and empower the child for the future? These are the questions that tend to guide parent decision making about digital and (p.128) mobile media; they shape what parents like the Weltons might seek in a Parent App.5

Developers have been on the lookout for ways in which parents’ concerns might be translated into technological applications that can assist parents in their desire to engage in the concerted cultivation style of parenting. While the Weltons installed the software program Net Nanny to filter and block inappropriate websites, other middle-class parents have turned to cell phones with GPS systems and free iPad apps such as iStudiez, which enables parents to help their children keep track of school assignments and due dates. In my own family, my thirteen-year-old son uses Smart Music software as a means of improving his viola skills while practicing. That program signals when he is playing out of tune or off tempo, obviating the need for a parent to provide direct supervision during sometimes squeaky sessions.

There are more than half a million apps for the Apple iPhone and close to that number for Android phones, and apps meant to appeal to toddlers and preschoolers are both the most popular and the category that has experienced the fastest growth, according to a 2012 study.6 These technologies help provide parents with a sense that their children’s media use is being supervised, limited, or appropriately harnessed for educational purposes. Such media should be used primarily for educational or at least for age-appropriate purposes, according to the Weltons, and only when other, more worthwhile activities aren’t available. Middle- and upper-middle-class parents also utilize references to media as the basis for discussions that help older children understand their parents’ views about the world, or to learn about their preteen and teen children’s interests.7 These parents often see mobile, digital, and entertainment media as useful in contributing to the expressive relationships between parents and children that middle- and upper-middle-class parents tend to value, and as something they can use or curtail in the interest of their children’s empowerment. In these families, digital and mobile media can be viewed as helpful in facilitating a middle-class family life in which communication is both empowering and expressive. But these media also facilitate efficient communication in the increasingly busy lives of these families, as well as communication that can be narcissistic, because these media can encourage a preexisting emphasis on self-expression and individual rights, as we will see.

Families like the Weltons live in a cultural milieu that embraces an ethic of expressive empowerment. Among families like these, good parenting is associated with raising children who are self-confident, caring, self-reliant, honest, and capable of expressing their views and emotions while exercising (p.129) self-control, as first described in chapter 1.8 Families like the Grantmans, to be introduced shortly, live in a cultural milieu that embraces an ethic of respectful connectedness. For them, good parenting is associated with raising children who are loyal, respectful, patriotic, and caring toward both their families and their communities. A good sense of humor, leadership, and resilience in the face of adversity are highly prized in these families as well.9

Communication researchers Stephen Chaffee, Jack McLeod, and Dennis Wackman outlined parallel differences in family communication patterns in 1973, when they argued that some families tend to be concept-oriented, encouraging children to express ideas, whereas others tend to be socio-oriented, emphasizing the importance of getting along with others.10 Roger Silverstone and Eric Hirsch made similar observations about differing patterns of family communication, explicitly relating patterns to economic differences and suggesting that perhaps better-off families embraced concept-oriented approaches, whereas those less well-off embraced socio-oriented approaches.11 The patterns of family communication related to digital and mobile media that I observed in my study echo and expand upon these earlier findings, as they also draw upon recent research in cultural sociology on family life and economic difference.12 All of this is to say that differences are not emerging because of digital and mobile media; rather, there are patterns that existed before these latest media appeared on the scene, and these patterns give shape to the approaches parents consider appropriate as they address themselves to the new situations digital and mobile media introduce.

Communication researcher James Lull laid the groundwork for relating family communication patterns to uses of communication technology in his study of the social uses of television. He noted that socio-oriented families used television for “social” purposes such as initiating conversations between parents and children, reinforcing values, and providing family togetherness time. In contrast, concept-oriented families found almost no redeeming values in television viewing, and instead of seeing television time as togetherness time, they viewed television as a problem that needed to be regulated through the parental expression of authority.13 Some of these same patterns emerge when we look at how families deal with the new situations brought about through digital and mobile media. To illustrate some of the differences in how families approach digital and mobile media use in relation to what they deem to be good parenting, we turn to a story that offers some contrasts with the Welton family’s ethic of expressive empowerment.

(p.130) The Ethic of Respectful Connectedness

Several hundred miles away from the Welton family, in a cramped apartment in urban San Francisco, Avis Grantman sits watching her favorite television program with her fifteen-year-old daughter, Nina Lane. There is one mobile phone in the room and Avis and Nina share it, although, as usual, it is next to Avis. Many afternoons and weekends pass this way at the Grantman home. As Dr. Bobby Jones of the Bobby Jones Gospel program begins introducing his program and guests, Avis, a woman of African American and Native American descent, turns to Nina and excitedly tells her to call her twenty-one-year-old sister Jasmine, who lives across town. “It’s a gospel celebration!” Avis exclaims as she turns up the volume. Recounting the occasion later, Avis explained, “I get really pumped up and excited and it lifts me up,” adding that she wanted to share the experience with Jasmine, who also enjoys the program’s music. Avis notes that she and Jasmine frequently watch and talk on the phone until the singing begins, at which point they say a quick goodbye and hang up until the next commercial break.

Nina adds, “Then they get on during commercials and say, ‘Did you see what he did?’”

“Mm-hmm!” Avis agrees enthusiastically. “The girl the other day was no more than six or seven and she was belting out that song, so I called my daughter and said, “‘Did you hear that?’”

Avis and Nina also frequently interact while watching television programs and movies. “We like to make fun of the ads,” Nina says, and Avis nods, fondly recalling an insurance advertisement they’d found especially funny.14

Like most of the parents interviewed for this book, Avis has concerns about how the Internet and the cell phone might be a source of risk for her fifteen-year-old daughter. But those concerns are fairly far down on the list of things she worries about. Avis would not be comfortable referring to her family as “poor” or even “working-class,” as she has a stable (if low) income, she completed college, and she does not work in a blue-collar job. Avis and other families like hers might prefer to think of themselves as “would-be middle-class,” as they set their sights on achieving a financial stability that at times seems quite distant and at other times seems just beyond their grasp.15 But financial stability isn’t the only thing that concerns Avis.

Nina, a high achiever at her school, lost seven friends and neighbors in drug-related violence the previous year. Avis is determined to have Nina see that she is not destined to suffer the same fate as those around her. Following the same ethic of concerted cultivation that drives middle-class (p.131) mothers such as Tammy Welton to enroll their children in activities that may help them in their path to achievement, Avis takes Nina to several activities during the week and tries to serve as her advocate at school. When Avis asked about computers at Nina’s school, she learned that there was a special program for those with digital aptitude. So Avis petitioned the school to allow Nina to enroll in an advanced computer programming course, even though the Grantmans do not have a computer in their home and Nina had little experience with them. Realizing that she couldn’t give Nina much direction in the area of computers, Avis relies mostly on her older daughters, Jasmine and Shironna, to help Nina learn to navigate the Internet and use the computer. Nina’s mother also seeks out opportunities for Nina to pursue a connection with her Native American heritage. She arranged for Nina to get a scholarship to attend a camp where Nina learned some traditions and met others of her heritage, developing friendships that Nina continues in a Native American youth program through the city of San Francisco and through social networking sites.

Nina experiences Avis’ advocacy as an expression of her mother’s respect and high hopes for her, and she is clearly devoted to her mother. Still, with their tight finances, Nina is somewhat limited as to the organized activities in which she can engage outside of school. Her mother works long hours as an HIV prevention educator in a community-based outreach center that is within walking distance of their apartment. At the end of the school day, as Nina waits for her mother to return home from work, she often spends time on the phone with friends, and sometimes even shares a television program with a friend much as her mother and older sister frequently do.

Less advantaged and would-be middle-class parents view television, music, movies, gaming, and other mediated entertainment as sources of bad influence, just as middle-class parents do. These media are not seen as a desirable or “natural” part of growing up.16 Parents like Avis Grantman consider technologies such as laptops and tablets potentially useful for their educational benefits, but feel that they too could encourage time wasting or be a source of bad influence. Still, in contrast to middle-class families who feel that they could or should be doing something “better” with their time than watching television or talking on the phone, families like the Grantmans often associate television and cell phones with “family time,” as was the case with Avis, Nina, and her older daughter’s telephone-mediated viewing of Avis’ favorite gospel program. Even when television isn’t a part of family togetherness but rather something to do while waiting for others to come home, it is an activity that’s safe compared to many other alternatives.17 It’s (p.132) a regular source of entertainment, an excuse to stay away from less desirable activities, and a respite from the pressures of life. When Avis said that she often encouraged Nina to use their shared cell phone to seek out her friends in the evening hours, she admitted half jokingly that part of the reason was that “then the TV is all mine!”

Whereas families like the Weltons emphasize idea sharing, in families like the Grantmans, conversations tend to focus on establishing and reinforcing connectedness, as illustrated in the conversation Avis and her older daughter shared about their common appreciation of gospel music.18 They enjoy conversations about dramatic events, and media often provide the fodder for these discussions. They share interpretations of how others respond to dramatic events in relation to their own ideas of what is good or bad, smart or silly. Children like Nina are expected to participate in or at least be present for these discussions, and to spend time and often share media with their siblings and parents. Although her sisters and mother are all hopeful that Nina will use education to help her find a path to greater financial security and fewer stresses than Avis and her older daughters have encountered, they also all share a level of suspicion toward the schools and after-school programs in their area, as such programs could easily be closed down or fail them in other ways. As a result, they feel a sense of deep connection and loyalty to their family members and close friends, and a sense of isolation and distance from those beyond their immediate circles.19 In spite of their potential problems, communication media such as cell phones as well as television, music, and sometimes even gaming often play a key role in maintaining these strong bonds between family and close friends, keeping their circles tight-knit—and largely isolated.

Middle- and upper-middle-class readers of the preceding paragraph are likely to have some reservations about the story of the Grantmans. Most parenting experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend limiting media use or “screen time” to no more than two hours a day.20 Study after study demonstrates that there is a relationship between high media use and negative outcomes for children.21 It will sound to some, then, as if by sharing the Grantmans’ story I am providing a justification for seeing value in how some families engage in more media consumption than others. Yet this book has not suggested that increased immersion in entertainment media experiences is a positive development for young people individually, or for childhood in general. By presenting the stories of how less advantaged families approach digital, mobile, and entertainment media in ways that differ from the approaches of middle- and upper-middle-class families, however, the book aims to widen the discussion about how we (p.133) might understand the role of media in the changing lives of U.S. families. In this sense, I am intentionally following sociologist Annette Lareau’s approach in her book Unequal Childhoods, which successfully enables readers to consider why less advantaged families embrace what middle-class readers might otherwise consider to be an “inferior” approach to parenting.22 This is also why, in this section of the book, I have replaced the language of parenting styles (over- and underparenting, or authoritarian, permissive, authoritative, and neglectful) with the language of an ethic of family communication. I use the term “ethic” as a way of recognizing that there are always reasons and guiding principles that provide orientation for the choices parents and their children make. Talk of parenting “styles” tends to imply that some styles are better than others (it’s better to be authoritative than permissive, for instance, or better to be balanced than either under- or overinvolved). In contrast, a focus on an ethic encourages us to consider the positives and negatives of differing approaches. It also encourages us to think about how our choices relate to what might be called the cultural toolkit that we bring to our parenting tasks.

Like the middle-class Weltons, Avis Grantman and other would-be middle-class and less advantaged parents want to help their children achieve. They too believe in the importance of empowerment. But because they often couldn’t count on concerted cultivation opportunities, they felt that the best way to encourage their children’s development was through creating a relationship with their children that was respectful and connected. Avis, a recovering drug addict whose early life had been defined by abuse and life in a series of foster households, talks fervently about wanting to be a role model for her daughters. She wants to teach her daughters self-respect by being present in their lives, which she sees as a means of protecting them from the bad decisions around them, as daughter Nina notes:

See, some people’s parents are either on dope or they work so much that they can’t be in their kids’ lives. That’s when they go out to the streets looking for friends and trying to be popular and stuff. When I was being brought up my mom say, “Don’t listen to nobody that’s going to tell you to do something that is going to hurt you.”

Parents like Avis Grantman want the respect of their children, and in turn they want to be able to trust their children to do the right thing and make good decisions. Trust, rather than rights, often came up as a theme in discussions between parents and children from would-be middle-class and less advantaged families, particularly when it came to digital and (p.134) mobile media. Trust came up in middle-class families as well, but in would-be middle-class and less advantaged families, parents believe that they have a great deal more at stake and their children have a great deal more to lose when this trust is broken, which may be why it was such a common theme in discussions about the risks and opportunities of digital and mobile media. Additionally, siblings and extended family members often act as trusted resources for parents in less advantaged families. Parents like Avis Grantman frequently work in jobs that don’t require them to use BlackBerrys or iPhones to check their email and voice mail. They tend to have much less knowledge about digital media and the Internet than their children do, so they rely on close friends or family members as advisors and assistants in their parenting efforts.23 These connections are key to how parents like Avis Grantman manage the unknowns in their children’s experiences with digital and mobile media.

The challenge of the digital age for parents like Avis Grantman, therefore, is also one of balance, as it is for middle-class parents, but of a different order. Parents in less advantaged and would-be middle-class households need to find a balance between their lack of knowledge and experience in a digitally saturated world and their desire to help their children. They wonder how they can help foster a relationship of trust with their children when their children are living large swaths of their days within an environment the parents do not find trustworthy. Like middle-class parents, these parents also see that digital and mobile media represent access to opportunities and risks. Yet as they think about the present safety of their children and their future prospects, they believe relationships of respect and connectedness will help their young people weather the inevitable storms they will encounter in their lives. These relationships of respect and connectedness are largely limited to their own immediate circles. As a result, among the would-be middle class and the less advantaged, digital and mobile media are helping to facilitate an experience of family life in which communication is respectful and connected but can also be isolated and isolating.

Relating the Ethic of Expressive Empowerment to the Risk Society

“I don’t think either of us is very concerned about media,” Larry Welton responds when asked about how he and his wife, Tammy, supervise the use of digital, mobile, and traditional media by their daughters. His words echo the dismissive way in which the well-heeled “concept-oriented” parents of (p.135) Lull’s study discussed television. The Welton parents are less concerned about media per se than about leisure time in general. “It’s not like we’re overly cautious,” he continues. “It’s just that TV or computer, they’re the less ideal way to spend our time. I’d rather they get involved with things themselves rather than expecting to be entertained by the media.”

Like many other middle-class parents interviewed, Larry Welton associates media with passive consumption and with what he considers to be idle socializing. He prefers that his children find something productive they love to do with their free time. He relates this to his hopes that they will one day find work that is both meaningful and enjoyable. Tammy adds: “You have to be able to enjoy what you’re doing, ’cause once you enjoy it, you will succeed, and as you succeed, it just continues to progress.” For the Weltons, who do not watch much television, even the few television programs they do enjoy reflect this desire for personal empowerment and fulfillment through work. “They love Project Runway,” a program that purports to anoint future career success for the most talented among would-be fashion designers, Tammy says of her nineteen-year-old daughter and her two seven-year-old daughters. “They love the whole challenge of the project of each episode!”

This prompts Larry to tell a cautionary tale about a friend of his who has been miserable in his job as a lawyer due to what Larry sees as a lack of passion. This friend’s parents had, according to Larry, limited his options, expecting the friend to be either a lawyer or engineer. Larry, who owns a successful marketing consulting company, then begins to reflect on the children from his first marriage. He wants to ensure that his children with Tammy are better prepared for a fulfilling career than the children from his first marriage were, he says, expressing sadness that his son and daughter from his first marriage never pursued college. They were passive in their approach to their work lives, Larry felt, due to a lack of interest in schooling. At this point, Larry’s story takes an interesting turn. Rather than talking about whether the children from his first marriage found something they enjoyed and were passionate about, he says that he regrets that he didn’t do more to inculcate a love of reading in his children. In this part of his story, then, the key to success no longer is tied to having a passion for doing something you enjoy; rather, Larry has linked success differently, so that it now lies in doing well within the framework of schooling. Dropping his earlier reference to passion and enjoyment, Larry seems to be suggesting that education is an important route to a desirable career path. “I feel like education is the great divider,” he says, “and I worry about the future for that reason.” In lamenting that the children from his first marriage (p.136) didn’t like school, Larry essentially questions whether their schooling had somehow failed them.

He also expresses pride in the fact that Tammy closely monitors her daughters’ educational efforts. He and Tammy have enrolled their younger girls in structured opportunities such as music lessons and sports that they hope will both develop desirable skills and give the girls opportunities to experience enjoyment and passion through their participation in these activities. Larry clearly sees a link between participation in these concerted cultivation activities and his children’s prospects for success. “We want to get them to pay attention to what they enjoy, but not be heavy-handed and say, ‘I think you should do such-and-such,’” Larry says.

“Aside from going to college,” Tammy quickly adds.

For the Weltons, a rewarding job is also the kind of presumably well-paying job one gets only if one has a college education. As another middle-class father said, in what was perhaps the most obvious statement of class distinction, “I hope they end up in some profession that is somewhat prestigious, in that they can feel proud of themselves and enjoy work and not be checking in at the factory every day.” Enjoyable middle-class work, then, allows for autonomy in the workplace, which is a hallmark of professional-managerial positions that are better-paying than many other potentially “enjoyable” professions.24

Like the Weltons, Kevin and Freda Nelson encourage their children to pursue a host of enriching activities.25 Eleven-year-old Casey Nelson plays four instruments and writes creative stories after school; fifteen-year-old Eddie also plays an instrument, is on a soccer team, and excels at math. Both children have mobile phones, which their parents consider a necessity given the various arrangements involved in transporting Eddie and Casey to and from activities. Like the Weltons, these children have few restrictions about their mobile phone usage, in part, their parents explain, because they want Casey and Eddie to learn to make “good decisions” regarding their use of time. Like Tammy and Larry Welton, Freda frames their family’s approach to television as one of good choices:

We’d rather do other things. We just haven’t made it [television] a central part of our lives…. Casey will spend hours writing stories, for example. That’s fun for her—more so than watching television. She can use PowerPoint and make presentations out of them.

But computer time for PowerPoint presentations is somewhat infrequent, as neither watching television nor playing around on the laptop (p.137) fits easily into the lives of these busy young people. Children in the Nelson family, like the Welton children, are encouraged to engage in empowering activities apart from the family, and to turn off their mobiles and talk with their parents over dinner on the infrequent evenings when they are all in their home together. The Nelson family rarely spends time together watching television or movies. According to Casey and Eddie, this is in part because of their different media preferences, but also because their parents “work too hard,” as both of their jobs require long hours and, in Freda’s case, trips that often take her away from home for a week or longer.

For the Nelsons, television is both a source of problems as well as the solution to the risk the family experiences in relation to their own family economy. In a strange irony, Kevin Nelson, who professes to hate television, works as a software engineer in a plant that manufactures high-end television sets. He and Freda, who works as a scientist in a government research center, decided against cable television for their own family. They employ a system of parental controls that enable them to limit viewing time and to block programs that they believe are inappropriate for Casey and Eddie. Kevin doesn’t find his work personally rewarding because he believes that television fosters commercialism and greed. But in his critique of television, he feels out of step with his co-workers, many of whom he describes as “hard-core TV junkies.” According to Kevin, the ideal job for him would instead be one that fosters intellectual curiosity and benefits from his strong sense of duty by allowing him to contribute to others in society. Television, in contrast, is “not constructive to society.” And yet at the same time, Kevin Nelson got his job and has kept it because he feels that it is important to support his family. By shoring up his family’s financial security, he seeks to buffer his family from risk; financial security trumps all other concerns about rewarding, enjoyable, or constructive work. The Nelsons do not seem to be alone in their decision to pursue financial security, as they live in an upscale neighborhood where most of the homes have more than 3,000 square feet of living space. Eddie Nelson attends a large high school renowned for its excellent scores in the state’s accountability tests; close to 95 percent of the graduating class attends college. Their neighborhood is 95 percent white and is one of the highest-income neighborhoods in the area. As Kevin says about his hopes for his children, “I hope they find something they love to do because work takes up so much of our lives.” Echoing his father’s wishes, fifteen-year-old Eddie Nelson aims, not surprisingly, to find a job that will be “rewarding” and “make money too.”

(p.138) As the economy has shifted and as enjoyable professions that offer a living wage have become more rare in the United States, a job that is both fulfilling and lucrative has become less of a reality for most people—even those who, like the Welton and Nelson parents, seem to be on the right path toward getting one. Leisure, including not only mediated leisure but also a range of non-career-enhancing activities, can be seen as something that potentially can undermine one’s prospects for enjoyable, personally rewarding, and lucrative work. Middle-class families therefore associate leisure with the risks of what Barbara Ehrenreich describes as falling out of the middle class.26 Engaging in too much media use can therefore be a problem in a middle-class culture in which people vie for employment opportunities in the ever-diminishing pool of remunerative, if not always rewarding, work.

The Polanskis and the Risks of Childhood

In contrast to the rather unselfconscious ways in which the Nelsons and Weltons place a great deal of hope in the idea that their children’s education and participation in extracurricular activities may eventually lead them to work that is rewarding and fulfilling, Jim Polanski is very conscious of the risks and uncertainties related to his daughter and son’s education. Despite good grades and hard work in school, his son, Blake, graduated from their area’s regional high school with no significant scholarship offers, and the Polanski family has few resources to help him pursue college. Jim and his wife, Sarah, both of European American heritage, grew up in a struggling rural area and have worked hard at their jobs in shipping and livestock in that same area. But they lost money when a family-owned farm business went under a few years back, and they are still working to recover their losses.27 They are members of the would-be middle class, for they believe that as soon as they get back on their feet financially, they will have a secure financial life like the one they knew before. Unfortunately for Blake and Katie, that move to the comfortable middle class probably will not happen while they are still living as dependents in their parents’ home.

Blake, who at eighteen is demoralized by the fact that his choices include going into debt or relying on his already overburdened parents to help finance his education, has decided to take a year off from school before going on to college. Blake’s mother attributes his decision to “burnout.” She worries about how Blake’s decision will affect his younger (p.139) sister, Katie, who is also a high-achieving student and is facing graduation in two years.

Like many families whose incomes make it difficult to sustain what they think of as a middle-class lifestyle, the Polanskis want to maintain oversight with regard to their children’s uses of digital, mobile, and traditional media, although sometimes this is difficult given their somewhat inflexible work schedules. Like the Weltons and Nelsons, the Polanskis say they do not have many rules governing their children’s media use, a point to which we will return in a moment. Rather than viewing media use as a “waste of time,” as the Nelson and Welton families do, the Polanskis think of entertainment media as a form of what Jim Polanski terms “cultural pollution.” The Polanski parents describe themselves as part of a “tight-knit” family living in a once-rural area that has been turning into developed neighborhoods thanks to new construction. The Polanskis are very interested in creating a family culture that will envelop their children in a loving environment in which they, as parents, serve as the protectors of their children against the wider backdrop of a corrupt culture.

Parental protection and a warm family environment are only part of the environment in which Blake and Katie Polanski are growing up. Even though Blake attended a high school that was, by state standards, just barely acceptable, he felt tremendous pressure to succeed in school. “You’ve got to go to the best college, you’ve got to get the best grades,” he says. Academic excellence needs to be accompanied by excellence in other areas as well, whether that includes sports, music, the arts, or something else. Blake doesn’t feel like he fit in amidst this school culture oriented to individual empowerment, though; in fact, he and his family tend to see the school as a victim of the same cultural corruption that they want to combat within their family life. Drawing a connection between this pressure to succeed and an ethic of individualism that he resists and equates with self-centeredness, Blake says, “Everyone’s just so worried about their own business and what their future is going to be that it’s just like I can’t worry about the next person. I’m worrying about myself … It’s like tooth and nail. They’re just going for like the best.”

Blake associates this desire to be the best with the sense of entitlement he sees among his peers. The culture of high achievement in Blake’s high school encourages placing one’s own rights above the rights or rules of others. Echoing his father’s conservative political viewpoints, Blake also uses this language of rights to resist what he feels is the incursion of “political correctness” in his school: “It seems like kids have so many rights nowadays. Everyone has so many rights, and everyone has to be so (p.140) free that no one’s really free because you can’t really say anything now. You don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, so it’s like ‘let kids be who they are,’ and they just run amok.”

It isn’t clear that the kids about whom you couldn’t “say anything” are the same ones who were “running amok” and who showed little care and respect for others. The point, from Blake’s perspective, was that the pressure to succeed and the orientation toward individual empowerment are not serving all students and may not have been the best approach for him; after all, even success by the school’s own standards was not enough to guarantee Blake access to the “best” universities. Part of the problem, according to the Polanski family, was that the school didn’t support a range of career goals or a wider set of cultural values beyond individualism and achievement. Between the unrelenting pressure, the limited career options supported, the rights that were claimed by those both more and less advantaged than he was, and the failed promises, “they took the fun out of education,” Blake’s father, Jim, says, sighing.

Neither Jim nor Sarah views their work as a rewarding job or a “career.” As Sarah puts it bluntly, “I just work for the benefits and the money. I don’t get any rewards from my job.”

“It’s not like a rewarding job,” Jim similarly says of his work, “I just focus on this group at home as far as influencing or anything like that.” Indeed, Jim and Sarah both agree that their priorities lie in spending time together as a family and supporting their children. Their daughter, Katie, feels and appreciates this support: “They work real hard to help me or Blake. We have whatever we need, I guess. Like they’ll do anything. I mean, if one of us needs twenty dollars, then they’ll give it to us. I guess they provide a lot for us, and they work real hard.”

Sarah and Jim Polanski say they don’t mind working “real hard”; as Jim notes, he wants his children to know “what a good day’s work is,” a phrase that he uses in conjunction with his days growing up on a farm. “If they want to go to college and get into something they really like, I’m all for that,” Sarah says; “I just want them to enjoy it and not end up like us.” Like the Nelsons and the Weltons, the Polanskis hope that their children will find enjoyable work, and like Kevin Nelson, they too hope that it will be more enjoyable than their own work situations. However, the Polanskis do not put their faith in either the school system or the extracurricular activities their children pursue, in large part because such structures do not seem to be supporting them in the ways that they would like. Instead, they embrace a fairly traditional set of beliefs about religion as well as about age and gender roles within the family.

(p.141) The family’s approach to digital, mobile, and traditional media, then, plays out in relation to the assumption that children need to respect the authority of their parents. It also grows out of a perceived need to protect family members’ personal safety, but they clearly see this task as within the traditional role of parental authority. Jim Polanski, for instance, explains that he and Sarah waited until just the year before to purchase two “starter” cell phone plans for Blake, who is eighteen, and sixteen-year-old Katie. “We consider them a safety kind of thing,” explains Jim. “That’s why they have them. If she’s ever in a position that she’s not comfortable with, I want her to be able to let me know and I’ll come get her. He was that way too,” Jim adds, suggesting that Blake’s cell phone has helped his parents to feel that Blake can call anytime he needs to be removed from a situation of discomfort. Dangers are part of the environment beyond the family, the Polanskis believe—as do many parents. The mobile phone, though, rather than being viewed as a portal to those dangers, is instead seen as a means by which parents can retain their influence and connection with their children as the children gain more independence. This expression of a need to protect their children’s safety and the desire to continue to influence their children were striking given Katie’s age, and, even more so, given Blake’s age. Most middle- and upper-middle-class parents with teenagers seem to believe that their children have already gained good decision-making skills, and they are thus less concerned with continuing to influence their children than with figuring out how to manage consequences when children stray from what they and their parents would agree is good common sense.

True to the family’s dependence on the father’s authority, in the Polanski family the parents, and specifically the father, decided upon and purchased the cell phone plan for the two teens, even though in some middle-class and less advantaged families, older teens purchase their own cell phone plans with money they have saved up.28 In this family, Jim and Sarah Polanski’s decision to continue paying for Blake’s mobile phone is seen as natural and done with the best interests of Blake and Katie in mind: it is done to extend the family’s circle of protection as Blake and Katie more frequently come to interact with the outside world. Thus the decision reflects the fact that these parents see themselves as mitigating what they interpret as risks.

Jim notes that they do not have any restrictions regarding either time or content that might come up online. They use Internet filtering software and periodically check their children’s phones, “but after that we go on the basis that we trust what we taught them. They’ll know if they are in the (p.142) wrong location. Now, do I sometimes check where the websites are? Yeah. But otherwise … there are no rules.” After Katie interjects that she has “nothing to hide,” her father continues, noting that “the only other restraint is that at ten p.m. she shuts down whatever. I don’t care what. She’s still going to school, and at ten, everything’s lights out. But otherwise, no, if she wants to be on the computer for two hours and we don’t need it or I don’t need it,” she can continue to use it. Thus, one other practice that might also be considered a rule is this: if one of the parents needs to use the family computer when Katie is on it, the policy is “Katie, get off,” as her parents laughingly acknowledge. As her mother explains, “I mean if she’s doing a project at school, then we won’t.” But if she’s on Facebook, “that’s just messing around.” The implicit understanding in the family is that parents have the ultimate authority over how the computer is to be used and that Blake and Katie are to conduct themselves in a manner that maintains their parents’ trust. Katie and Blake do not raise any objections to this understanding.

When asked about the risks they see related to the online realm, the Polanski parents discuss the need for cultivating in Blake and Katie a sense of discernment that will enable them to navigate a “culturally polluted” environment. To help in this task, Blake is a part of an “accountability group” through his church that gathers young people together once a week, and on another evening he attends the church’s larger youth meeting. He rarely communicates with the people in either of these groups via cell phone, text, or IM, he says, preferring instead to communicate face-to-face. He isn’t always confident about his relationships with his peers, however, because he feels that his commitment to his conservative Christian faith is stronger than that of his friends. “Some of them you can totally tell that they’re kind of on the same page as where I’d be; some are kind of wishy-washy,” he explains. This sense of questioning his friends in light of their different perspectives also informs the way in which Blake uses digital technologies. Whereas other young people talk about seeking the advice of their friends online, Blake and Katie approach the Internet as a place where they can encounter different authoritative sources. Neither of them maintains a profile on a social networking site such as Facebook or Twitter; they use the Internet as a resource to reinforce the values of the religion in which they have grown up. This is especially evident in a story Blake relates about his process of locating a college to attend.

Blake spent several days searching the Internet for information on colleges that would help him in his goal of becoming a missionary. The website of the first school he viewed, which was in the local area, indicated (p.143) that the school was “too expensive.” Then, he cast the net wider, searching in “one of those college finder search things” on “Christian colleges” and “missionary colleges,” and found a place that we’ll call Missionary College. In the college website’s emphasis on “godly character” and in online testimonials from directors of several conservative Christian organizations, Blake recognized the rhetoric of his own family’s viewpoints.29 “I just kind of saw this and was like, whoa. I just had a good feeling about it right away,” he says.

Blake notes that his parents have been supportive of his decision, although he also adds: “People have been like, ‘Well, make sure you’re checking all your options, type of thing, and, you know, don’t close your doors.’ I’m kind of a stubborn person, so I’m kind of narrow-sighted. So, I’m like, ‘No, this is it,’ so I kind of run full-headed at it”—a statement perhaps indicating that some people in his life have questioned his decision to attend a narrowly focused, unaccredited program that trains fewer than ninety students on its “campus” of a few buildings in the suburbs of a small midwestern city. Consistent with Blake and Katie’s parents’ view that young people must learn to protect themselves from the negative influences of the outside world, Blake chose a college based on rhetoric that encapsulates a worldview he recognizes as consistent with his own.

As we can see in the case of the Polanskis, family members utilize some communication media to meet their personal and familial goals and to mitigate risk, and how they manage this has a great deal to do with how they conceptualize authority relationships within their family and beyond it.30

The ways in which risk is mitigated thus differs quite a bit between the Polanski parents and the Nelsons and Weltons. Whereas the Nelsons and the Weltons are concerned about education and the proper use of leisure time—as such pursuits are instrumental to attaining an enjoyable job—the Polanskis, who see these pursuits as ineffective in furthering their aspirations, emphasize the importance of raising their children with the values that they themselves embrace. These values include respect for authority and family connections, and thus share some similarities with the less advantaged and would-be middle-class families. However, the Polanskis’ values are also shaped by and articulated in relation to their involvement in a conservative Protestant church.

Why Blake and Katie’s father wishes to present the family as one of “no rules,” then, is an interesting question, given that some would consider the use of Internet filtering software, occasional checking of phones (p.144) and website histories, and a 10:00 p.m. “unplugged” policy to be rules. Children in this family are expected to respect the authority of their parents and risk punishment if they fail to do so, and neither Katie nor Blake questions their father’s right to supervise their media use, just as they did not question the fact that he bought their mobile phones and supervised their use. Perhaps because strictness has fallen out of favor even among religious families with a fairly traditional approach to gender and parental authority, it seems important to the Polanskis to stress that “policies,” rather than rules, govern their family’s media use, and that maintaining trust, rather than avoiding punishment, is the goal of parent-child relationships.31

The Polanskis thus come across as both more traditional and in some ways more connected than members of the middle-class Nelson and Welton families. In many ways, the inflexibility of the Polanskis’ work situations necessitates these mobile phone connections. Like the Nelsons and Weltons, the Polanskis believe that they are in professions they have chosen at least in part out of necessity. They want their children to have better opportunities and better choices in the work world than they themselves have had, but they have experienced both the failed promise of higher education and an inherent conflict between the drive for individual achievement and their own family’s emphasis on respect for relationships. Rather than worrying about the effects of digital, mobile, and traditional media in displacing more preferable activities, therefore, the Polanskis worry about the heightened risk that they associate with the dangers lurking outside their tight-knit family and their religious community, coupled with concerns about the stalled opportunities of the anxious would-be middle class. From their perspective, leisure isn’t the problem; the problem lies in the “polluted” cultural environment and in the structured inequities that have made college unattainable and any hopes for earning a living wage without college seem unrealistic. For the Polanskis, these anxieties are articulated in relation to the failings of Blake and Katie’s school, the disdain for what they see as others’ determination to secure their own economic foothold at the expense of all else, and their sense that traditional religious values can provide a better societal environment than what they see as the dominant culture’s emphasis on individual empowerment.

Whereas Blake and Katie might be able to pursue higher education in the future, other families see such opportunities as almost completely beyond their grasp. Digital, mobile, and traditional media play a role in how these families navigate what they see as their children’s experiences with risk, as is the case in the story of the Cruz family.

(p.145) More Media, More Risks: Judy and Dave Cruz

Judy Cruz, a Latina single parent who lives with her youngest child in subsidized housing, describes her fifteen-year-old son, Dave, as “very intelligent” and with a taste for the finer things in life.32 As such, she has high hopes that he might make a decent living one day. He has been thinking about joining the Marines or the Air Force so that he can earn a college degree and pursue his dream of becoming a computer game developer.

Dave’s father died when he was much younger, and as a single-parent family living on Judy’s meager disability payments, the Cruzes doesn’t have much money for leisure activities or special programs that can help Dave pursue his dreams. But Judy doesn’t necessarily see this as a problem: “If you just hang out with your son or daughter, or you watch TV with them, just do normal things with them, talk with them, go for walks … that’s what’s remembered the most,” she says. Like the Polanskis and the Grantmans, Judy Cruz wants to ensure that Dave grows up in a home in which he feels loved and cared for. Like Avis Grantman, Judy doesn’t express a great deal of anxiety about Dave’s extensive media use; instead, she is glad that Dave chooses to do things in the house that involve media, since that means that he isn’t choosing to do something else, like the irresponsible and excessive drinking she says some of his friends are known to do. “In a way I kind of programmed him to sit here instead of being over there all negative,” she says, adding that she also avoids alcohol so as to provide him with a positive role model.

Dave Cruz is an avid game player and aspires to be a game designer someday. Judy encourages this interest. As they say in an interview:


  • He knows a lot about them. I was explaining to him that that would be a good field for him to get into.
  • Dave:

  • I love computers.
  • Interviewer:

  • Where did you learn so much about them?
  • Dave:

  • Just people. My friends, mostly. I would usually go down to their house and they would have games like Doom and all them other games that I like.
  • Dave likes to download and play games “all day.” He first started learning how to create computer games from a friend when he was nine years old, although it sounds like he and this friend have done more playing than creating. They continue to hang out and play games together quite a bit, as Dave shares enthusiastically: “[My friend] sits there 24/7 and just stays (p.146) there [in front of the screen]. All summer that’s all he did. He can just type eighty words a minute. He’s real quick. He’s fast on the computer. He wants to develop his own games.”

    But had his friend actually created his own games or taught Dave how to do it? Well, his friend is working on it, Dave says. And so is Dave; or at least, he says, he could be working on it, as there are computer classes offered in his high school, which has a high proportion of low-income students. But those classes are “boring,” in his view, mostly focused on developing keyboarding skills and typing up essays. Dave got in trouble when the classroom monitors found that he was trying to download information about games or downloading the games themselves. “I’d be bored half the time and then I would just go and play putt-putt golf online. All they teach is how to type,” he complains. “I want to learn how to do other stuff.”

    Finding out how to do “other stuff” isn’t always easy because their lower-income neighborhood is “behind the times,” as Judy says, although Dave is not very interested in after-school activities, anyway. “I would get too bored in after-school activities,” he says.

    But isn’t he bored sitting at home? the interviewer asks him. He isn’t, he replies, because he can always watch television. When the interviewer asks if he’s ever looked into some of the courses that might teach him game design, he replies, “I haven’t had the time.” Self-motivation doesn’t seem to be Dave’s strong suit, although it’s also easy to see a disconnect between his stated interest in computer game development and the lack of people in his social network who might support the cultivation of his interest beyond game playing.33

    Whereas parents like the Weltons might consider it helpful to have filtering software to monitor online activities, Judy Cruz has a different take. “We’re monitored on everything we do, we’re watched,” she says. “Now they’re going to come out with these little gadgets where people can use their phones to see where you are…. There’s no more privacy anymore, and that’s very frustrating.” Apparently Judy feels Dave deserves to have some privacy. But Judy Cruz also feels that the amount of fantasy in the games her son likes to play could be a problem. “They’re presenting fantasy,” she says. “That doesn’t help them with their vocabulary or their expectations. They use slang words all the time and I think that has a lot to do with computers,” she adds.

    Dave Cruz knows that he wants to do something with his life that will please both him and his mother. But even at fifteen, there are signs that he will have a difficult time overcoming his lack of interest in school and his (p.147) inability to find people in his social network who can help him.34 Like many less advantaged single parents, Judy Cruz is frequently exhausted. Her debilitating illness keeps her in the house most days; she “likes to keep to herself” anyway, as she explains.

    The Nelson and Welton families would probably view digital media as one more obstacle that was getting in the way of a better path for Dave Cruz’s life, as media such as video games help reinforce a passive approach and distract from the pursuit of more productive goals. As is clear in the stories of Dave Cruz, the Polanski family, and the families introduced in chapter 3, parents worry that the options outside their homes are not likely to be clearly under their—or anyone’s—supervision. Thus, the digital and mobile media that are a part of these young people’s lives could be viewed as giving them something to do in a world in which there are limited constructive options and many opportunities to involve themselves in self-destructive activities. Perhaps, then, media use is a good way to prevent worse habits. In the case of Dave Cruz, heightened risk led his mother to see the benefit of more, not less, media use.

    Digital media also seem to serve another purpose in the financially stretched Cruz family: game playing could lead to game design, thus enabling Dave to overcome the risks of alcoholism, gang participation, depression, and underemployment that surround him. Perhaps he is simply justifying his immersion in game playing, but Dave and his mother hold out hope that he can learn something online that can lead to what the Nelson and Welton families might call enjoyable or rewarding career choices later. It is clear, however, that what is lacking to some extent is a network that could help Dave establish linkages between his passions and the skills and credentials that would be necessary for him to pursue them.

    Dave Cruz’s interest in computers and in gaming could be cultivated in important and affirming ways if he was given the opportunity to participate in a school that fostered his creativity.35 Unfortunately for Dave, most schools in the United States have been forced to emphasize standardization, thus leaving thoughtful experiments in game design as pedagogy to select charter schools.36 At this point, individualized learning is largely the province of school systems that can afford better student-to-teacher ratios and creative enrichment opportunities, and the school system that the Cruzes live in is not able to afford these options.37

    The stories of the Cruz and Polanski families serve as reminders that many of the well-publicized risks related to the online realm seem less relevant to the majority of U.S. young people than the risks associated with failing schools and a shifting economic structure. What parents need (p.148) more than education about the risks of the online world is a reduction in the risks related to society’s structural failings. When the structures to support parents in their efforts aren’t there, their jobs as parents are made significantly more difficult due to the risky environments in which their children are growing up and over which they have little control.


    The Polanski and Cruz families have experiences that are vastly different in many ways. Yet both of these families are confronting the challenge of raising children in a risk society in ways that differ from those of the middle- and upper-middle-class Nelson and Welton families, and both are embracing an ethic of respectful connectedness. The middle- and upper-middle-class families worry that too much time spent in unproductive leisure and socializing might undermine their children’s prospects for a fulfilling life, as defined in relation to enjoyable and well-compensated work. Kevin Nelson, for instance, does not question the fact that some enjoyable jobs are less lucrative than others. He also does not question the idea that work is the thing around which people should organize the enjoyment they get out of life. He doesn’t consider the idea that some might seek and find fulfillment outside work rather than in work; an adult who values helping people, enjoys engaging in outdoor activities, or prefers spending as much time as possible with family might choose a job that allows him or her to pursue those interests. Digital, mobile, and traditional media, though, certainly offer the wrong kind of enjoyment or passion, in middle- and upper-middle-class parents’ minds; consumption of media is believed to encourage passivity, and incessant use of mobile devices leads to too much unproductive socializing. These uses of communication technologies detract from time that could be spent in what middle- and upper-middle-class parents consider more productive pursuits. Parents like the Weltons and Nelsons are seeking a Parent App that will help them limit the time their children spend in what they consider unproductive or less valuable activities related to digital and mobile media, or that will enable them to harness these technologies to help their children achieve excellence in education.

    Families like the Polanskis view middle-class families like the Weltons and Nelsons as too concerned with careers, sometimes at the expense of their relationships with family members, and too willing to let their children’s right to expression mean that they can “run amok.” In the would-be (p.149) middle-class Polanski family, “hard work” is understood in the context of sacrifices parents make for their children, suggesting an orientation toward a family’s overall best interests that is consistent with an ethic of respectful connectedness. The Polanskis view the desire to find work that is enjoyable as a luxury related to seeking pleasure, and they seem to relate this to the culturally polluted environment that they view as fostering worldviews different from their own. The Polanskis are seeking a Parent App that will inculcate a shared worldview among family members and thus reinforce family connectedness. Like the middle-class families, they too want to avoid some things related to mobile phones and the Internet, but they also seek and find in these technologies reinforcement for their ways of seeing the world and a means by which to strengthen their family connections.

    The Cruz family worries less about cultural pollution or time wasting than about the risks associated with poverty and disadvantage. Thus, the Parent App they seek is perhaps less related to the technology and more related to the structured inequities they face in everyday life. In addition to concerns about relatively high dropout rates among high school students and higher-than-average rates of incarceration, Judy Cruz worries that digital and mobile media could serve as one more avenue for surveillance and control. Like the Polanskis, the Cruz family has encountered difficulties in locating schools and enrichment programs that would help them address their needs, reinforcing a sense that support comes best and most reliably from family members and close friends. To the extent that digital, mobile, and traditional media enable Judy and Dave to remain in close contact with each other and away from what they perceive as the risks of their immediate environment, these media are not sources of risk so much as they are potential mitigators of what the Cruzes perceive to be far more critical and immediate risk. Whereas the Nelsons and Weltons mitigate risk by seeing that their children are enrolled in top schools and in empowering extracurricular activities, the Polanskis and the Cruzes seek to embrace an ethic of respectful connectedness, relying upon those in their immediate circle for support and help in the face of risk.

    It’s important to point out that both middle-class families and less advantaged ones have found in digital, mobile, and traditional media some sources of support for their familial goals.38 Accordingly, experts are beginning to recognize that the Internet and mobile phones may actually be protective of youth rather than contributing to an increase in risk.39 After all, they can be a source of hope and enjoyment that can foster bonds of friendship, as seen with David Cruz; they can become a source of conversation that helps parents speak with their children about what (p.150) they value, as observed in the Polanski family; and perhaps most important, they can provide means by which parents and young people can remain in touch through challenging times. Yet parents recognize that even with these benefits, it is their job as parents to mediate the media, which is the subject of the chapter that follows.


    (1) . Members of the Welton family were interviewed in 2008–9 by Robert Peaslee, then a research assistant in the Teens and the New Media @ Home project and the Media, Meaning, and Work project at the University of Colorado–Boulder.

    (2) . This is the basis of the media ecology school of thought, articulated most famously in Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994 [1964]). See also Joshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985); Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011). A significant number of scholars in the fields of media history, cultural studies, and the social construction of technology also contribute to understandings of media’s role in social change. See, e.g., Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); James Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society (New York: Routledge, 1988); Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (London: Fontana, 1974). Following Roger Silverstone, I am defining communication media as part of the “general texture of experience” in everyday life, as he uses that phrase. The media are conduits, languages, and environments, according to Silverstone, who argues that the study of media foregrounds how meanings move through and across time and space and how certain institutions participate in what he calls the “production of enchantment.” The definition of media can extend from the present-day smart mobile phone back to language itself. Thus while the phrase “communication media” does not refer only to what we think of as today’s contemporary mobile, digital, and entertainment media, it also includes these things. Roger Silverstone, Why Study the Media? (London: Sage, 1999).

    (3) . Annette Lareau, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

    (4) . Stephen Chaffee, Jack McLeod, and Dennis Wackman first outlined differences in family communication patterns in “Family Communication Patterns and Adolescent Political Participation,” in J. Dennis, ed., Socialization to Politics (New York: John Wiley, 1973). They argued that some families (particularly middle-class ones) tend to be concept-oriented, emphasizing the development of expressiveness, whereas other families are socio-oriented, emphasizing the importance of getting along with others. Lareau in Unequal Childhoods has also observed the importance within middle-class families of learning to express one’s views.

    (5) . On the risks and opportunities of digital media for children, see Sonia Livingstone, Children and the Internet: Great Expectations, Challenging Realities (London: Polity Press, 2009).

    (7) . Heather Horst, “Families,” in Mizuko Ito et al., Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out: Living and Learning with New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010).

    (8) . Laurence Steinberg, The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004).

    (10) . Chaffee, McLeod, and Wackman, “Family Communication Patterns and Adolescent Political Participation.”

    (11) . Roger Silverstone, David Morley, Andrea Dahlberg, and Sonia Livingstone, “Families, Technologies, and Consumption: The Household and Information and Communication Technologies,” CRICT discussion paper, Brunel University, 1989.

    (12) . See, e.g., the discussion in chapter 1 of the research of Annette Lareau, Allison Pugh, Margaret Nelson, and Wendy Griswold.

    (13) . James Lull, “Family Communication Patterns and the Social Uses of Television,” in Inside Family Viewing: Ethnographic Research on Television’s Audiences, 49–61 (London: Routledge, 1990). His first articulation of these differences is James Lull, “The Social Uses of Television,” Human Communication Research 6, 3 (1980): 197–209.

    (14) . Members of the Grantman-Lane family were first interviewed in 2004 by Monica Emerich, then a research assistant in the Teens and the New Media @ Home project and the Media, Meaning, and Work project at the University of Colorado–Boulder. Emerich is author of The Gospel of Sustainability: Media, Market and LOHAS (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011).

    (15) . I use the phrase “would-be middle class” in reference to the financial instability many experience as a measure of distance from middle-class culture. Sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich also discusses the underemployed and the “anxiously employed” as part of this would-be middle class. See Barbara Ehrenreich, “If There’s a War on the Middle Class, I’m Enlisting to Fight for It!” United Professionals, n.d., www.unitedprofessionals.org/tag/bait-and-switch (no longer available online).

    (16) . The views of would-be middle-class and less advantaged parents concerning communication media represent a source of ambivalence about the processes and accomplishment of “natural growth” in which parents of less means tend to trust. In this sense, the approach I am outlining here aims to build on Lareau’s theory of how working-class and poor parents trust in the “natural” processes of their child’s development.

    (17) . Lisa Tripp has also found that less advantaged Latino families view media as “safe” for unsupervised consumption. See Lisa Tripp, “The Computer Is Not for You to Be Looking Around, It Is for Schoolwork: Challenges for Digital Inclusion as Latino Immigrant Families Negotiate Children’s Access to the Internet,” New Media and Society 13, 4 (2011): 552–67.

    (18) . See Chaffee, McLeod, and Wackman, “Family Communication Patterns and Adolescent Political Participation.”

    (p.262) (19) . Lareau, Unequal Childhoods, has also noted the sense of “distance, distrust, and constraint” in the institutional experiences of less advantaged younger children and their families.

    (20) . Committee on Public Education, American Academy of Pediatrics, “Media Education.” Pediatrics 104, 2 (August 1999).

    (21) . See, e.g., Joanne Cantor and M. L. Mares, “The Effects of Television on Children and Family Emotional Well-Being,” in Jennings Bryant, ed., Television and the American Family, 2nd ed. (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2001); see also National Institute of Mental Health, Television and Behavior: Ten Years of Scientific Progress and Implications for the Eighties, vol. 1 (Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1982).

    (22) . Lareau, Unequal Childhoods.

    (23) . See, e.g., Lynn Schofield Clark, “Digital Media and the Generation Gap: Qualitative Research on U.S. Teens and Their Parents,” Information, Communication, and Society 12 (2009): 388–407.

    (24) . Leonard Beeghley, The Structure of Social Stratification in the United States (Boston: Pearson, 2004).

    (25) . The Nelson family members were interviewed in 2005 and 2006 by Monica Emerich, who served as a research associate at the University of Colorado.

    (26) . Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (New York: Pantheon, 1989).

    (27) . The Polanski family members were interviewed in 2005 by Curtis Coats, who served as a research associate at the University of Colorado.

    (29) . On one Missionary College blog about setting up businesses as a form of mission, a student writes of the “Ten Deadly Sins” of approaching a business as a mission. The seventh “deadly sin” is “the temptation of pride.” “Having people work for you can make you prideful,” the author wrote. “The antidote? A wife.” The author credits another writer for coining this joke, and then adds, “It’s funny because it’s true.” This is an obvious example of a conservative view of gender roles, as it assumes that the reader and businessperson is a male, and that the role of the female is to be supportive (or at least a check on the male’s pride). See http://blogs.globeservebusiness.com/business-as-mission (retrieved August 28, 2011).

    (30) . Many conservative Christians view the online environment as one that is culturally polluted; hence the need for “discernment” guided by a commitment to one’s own conservative Christianity. Blake himself acknowledged that he had often given in to the “temptation” of viewing pornography online—which in many ways reinforced his view that the online environment was one of danger and needed to be navigated with the help of the compass of conservative Christianity.

    (31) . This is consistent with the observations of W. Bradford Wilcox regarding what he terms “soft patriarchs” within conservative Christianity. See W. Bradford Wilcox, Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

    (p.263) (32) . Dave and Judy Cruz were interviewed by Scott Webber, who was a doctoral student at the University of Colorado in 2002.

    (33) . On the importance of weak social ties to one’s prospects for greater employment opportunities, see Mark S. Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” American Journal of Sociology 78, 6 (May 1973): 1360–80.

    (34) . This is the point that British sociologist Paul Willis made in the book Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).

    (35) . This is a central argument in Cathy N. Davidson, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (New York: Penguin, 2011). See also Brigid Barron, “Interest and Self-Sustained Learning as Catalysts of Development: A Learning Ecology Perspective,” Human Development 49 (2006): 193–224.

    (36) . In the Quest2Learn middle school, game design leads the curriculum. Reviewed in Stephanie Olsen, “Education: Video Games Mix Cool with Purpose,” New York Times, November 1, 2009. See also the Digital Youth Network, affiliated with the Chicago Public Libraries: http://digitalyouthnetwork.org (retrieved August 28, 2011).

    (37) . In an important study, Jean Anyon documented differences in educational approaches in working-class, middle-class, and affluent areas that demonstrated an emphasis on conformity and rote learning in less advantaged schools and creativity and individualized encouragement in the schools with more advantages. See Jean Anyon, “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work,” Journal of Education 162, 1 (Fall 1980).

    (39) . This is the primary point of David Finkelhor’s research, as discussed in the previous chapter.