Marianne Clark, Vicki Harman and Clare Southerton
It has been said that we live in an ‘attention economy’, in which our attention is a commodity and the capacity to hold attention is a key value. Increasingly, technology has been blamed for bringing about this state, for distracting and re-orienting our attention to an ever expanding variety of digital devices and sources of digital information throughout the day such as smartphone notifications and the incessant flow of social media feeds. Within these panic inflected conversations, parents in particular have been singled out for critique when it comes to questions about how their attention is directed.
Giving your undivided attention to your child is often considered part of ‘good parenting’ – despite how unreasonable that may be. Parents have faced increasing scrutiny surrounding their use of technologies like smartphones and tablets, particularly while undertaking parenting duties. ‘Distracted parenting’ is often framed as a phenomenon largely caused both by digital technologies and parents who fail to control themselves (and their attention). Recently, a photograph taken at the Special Care Baby Unit (SCBU) Yeovil Hospital (UK), went viral after parents accused the hospital of shaming new parents. The image depicts a smartphone with a red cross over it and a cartoon baby with the text “Mummy & Daddy…Please look at ME when I am feeding, I am much more interesting than your phone!! Thankyou xxxxxx”. The plea for parents to focus on their children and not mobile phones has not been confined to the maternity ward. In England, some schools have gone as far as banning parents from using phones at the school gates with one reported as installing a sign on the school fence saying ‘Greet your child with a smile and not a mobile’. In Australia, public pools have put up signs urging parents to ‘Watch your child, not your mobile’ after concerns were raised about increased drowning risk due to distracted parents.
Undoubtedly digital technologies are becoming deeply intertwined with our daily routines, shaping our behaviours and emotions in complicated ways. Like many things, these technologies – and their impact on our lives – are not all ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ rather they bring with them an intricate mix of capacities and constraints. However, we are often tempted to categorise them in black and white terms. The signs described above are a case in point; they clearly identify parental use of digital technology, in this case a smartphone, as a ‘bad’ parenting behaviour, effectively equating technology use with inattentive parenting and the prioritising of technology over one’s child.
Although such messages are framed as addressed to all parents, researchers have highlighted how the cultural messages of intensive parenting are directed more keenly at mothers and their behaviours. From discussions about co-sleeping attachment, school homework, to feeding practices including mundane activities such as preparing lunchboxes the focus tends to concentrate on mothers and are generally internalised by them more acutely. This is a by-product of the culture of ‘intensive motherhood’, theorised by Sharon Hays in her 1996 book The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, that demands women demonstrate their maternal ‘goodness’ through a dizzying array of practices requiring an abundance of time and financial resources.
An understandable response to this social scrutiny – and to the signs described above admonishing parents about spending time on their screens – might be feelings of shame or guilt, which are often experienced by mothers as they negotiate the daily demands and complexities of intensive mothering. Another response might be a “sassy” display of embracing time-saving options like being an “Amazon Prime Mom” in a sort of refusal of this idealised and labour-intensive version of motherhood. In each of these cases, the social expectations of mothers go unchecked and women are left to figure out how to navigate and respond to these pressures. Therefore, we propose an alternative take on parental use of technology that (we hope) is less quick to assign blame and reorients the focus back to the broader conditions of parenthood and care giving. Specifically, we ask, what is it that digital technologies might ‘do’ for parents? What do they make possible – or not – for those juggling busy schedules, multiple obligations and also trying to perform good parenting?
Research suggests mothers often adopt and use technologies (i.e., self-tracking devices, mobile apps, blogs, online parenting communities) as part of their efforts to comply with ideals of intensive motherhood. For example, these technologies are taken up by women in order to participate in fitness regimes so they can be ‘healthy’ mothers for their children, to seek out information about best parenting practices, to organise and schedule various healthcare appointments and children’s extra-curricular activities, and to conduct research about the health and development of their children. In these ways, digital technologies are in fact being used in such a way that intensifies women’s attentions to the parenting project. Importantly, this counters the narratives of inattention suggested by the sign described above.
Additionally, and what risks being overlooked in simplified understandings of technology as perpetuating problems of inattention, is the capacity of some technologies to connect and enable communication. Parenthood can be isolating, it can be difficult and frustrating and lonely at times. Online forums, social media platforms and even communication apps play an important role in the way that we all – not just parents – connect and communicate with people and communities. The ability to form relationships and make connections with others in similar situations may be particularly important for parents and digital technologies, such as smartphones, may be key to enabling these connections in what is an increasingly digitally mediated world. However, it is also important to note that recent research has shown that parents also seek refuge from judgement in online spaces where they may also face judgement and exclusion from doing things differently to the group.
Considering this, we are reminded again that digital technologies and their associated practices cannot be understand in simple terms but require us to consider the context in which they are embedded. While not always clearly apparent, there are often structural and cultural issues that shape how and why parents turn to technologies. For example, smartphones may be a way of accessing information and support about how to feed young children in social contexts in which funding for children and family support services is constantly under threat. Another structural issue is the sky-high cost of childcare in many countries and the cultural expectations that parents (mothers) will still be there for their children despite working in the paid labour force. Parents may have to send urgent work emails from their smartphones while tending to their children, because work increasingly happens outside of formal working spaces and formal working hours. This is particularly true for those parents who seek flexible jobs in efforts to balance the responsibilities – and financial obligations – of childcare as well as paid employment.
Overall then, instead of associating technology use with ‘bad’ or inattentive parenting, we can consider different angles to the context in which parents are scolded and told to reduce or abstain from technology use. We might think of the ways technology actually supports parenting practices by providing parents with information and support, enabling social connection, and allowing the integration of work and family life. We can also acknowledge how digital technologies can also be a source of stress and exclusion. As a result, we may not be able to make any categorical or evaluative conclusions about parent’s technology use, but instead recognise the complexity and nuance of the situation. In turn perhaps we can rethink those messages being put up in hospitals and schools that are presented as acting “in the name of the children” but don’t account for the messy reality of contemporary parents’ lives, aspirations, obligations and connections.