I did not plan to write about COVID-19. There have been so many texts at this point on the different trails of destruction the pandemic will leave behind, and how it will change things forever. But then again, looking back in history, writers will probably be right. So, maybe I can at least use COVID-19 as a reminder about how other, less brutal events, work to change the ideas and practices of healthcare?
While out on a walk the other day, I was listening to show ‘The Philosophical Room’ that is airing on Swedish public radio. Being an arena for popular philosophical discussion and debate, they were touching on the subject of COVID-19. More particularly, the two invited philosophers were talking about a conflict of values that the pandemic could pose in Swedish healthcare. The main topic of the discussion was how to prioritise different patients due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
I am the first to admit that my use of COVID-19 as an example is a bit over the top. Having said that, I believe that COVID-19 really is a timely example on how the ideas and practices of healthcare are rearticulated – however often by less dramatic events. In Sweden and other countries, there are policies about what healthcare should be to individuals as well as society as a whole. Swedish healthcare, is guided by three pivotal principles on ethics.
Just like the philosophers on the show described to listeners, these are applied to assure the equality between different groups in society; aged, classed, gendered, etc. More specifically, all individual (Swedish) subjects are given equal value through these principles and thus, all patients have the legal right to get good care. What the guests on the radio show added though, was that due to the potential influx of patients because of COVID-19, what healthcare is and should be to subjects, might have to be renegotiated. Should younger people be cared for on the expense of elders? Or should doctors, based on utilitarian ideas, be saved instead of other groups that in the context of the pandemic, appear to be less important for society?
In the last decades, there has been a general move towards personalisation, individualisation and marketisation in western healthcare. Nordic welfare states like Sweden are no exceptions. However, when listening to the radio show, the forecasts of COVID-19’s effects, we are presented with a different discourse on healthcare. In the shows’ discussion, the philosophical underpinnings of healthcare were moved from an individualistic understanding of health and care, to a more collective approach – making care, health and ultimately death, more of a communal effort.
This ideological probing is not only evident among professional philosophers on radio shows, but also in media more generally. Both Swedish and Australian news media have regular pieces on how healthcare should be managed in times of COVID-19, often with collective calls to ‘flatten the curve!’ and sometimes with nationalistic under tones.
That phenomena like healthcare are renegotiated is not a new idea. It is a basic theoretical tenet in social constructivist ontologies that cultural phenomena are continually rearticulated, but also that the social is inherently political. What healthcare ‘is’, and correspondingly, how it is enacted in policy, organisations, among professionals and patients, varies depending on ideological, historical and material conditions. What COVID-19 can help remind us, and what I hope will help make my use of the pandemic as an example seem more sensible, is the constructed and ideological character of healthcare.
More importantly though, given the potential consequences for elders and non-doctors, the pandemic could also help restate what we know from other ideological turns, like personalisation, individualisation and marketisation – that they tend to have very tangible effects for everyday users. So while COVID-19 might change things forever, it is still important to peruse less dramatic renegotiations, and explore how they affect different groups in healthcare.
Jens Lindberg is a Research Fellow at the Department of Social Work, Umeå University, Sweden. His research interests are welfare organisations, sexual violence and digitalisation. He is a visiting researcher at the Vitalities Lab. However, due to the massive bush fires in south east Australia followed by the global outbreak of COVID-19, his research visit has turned into a year of self-isolation.
Like many people around the world, all of us in the Vitalities Lab have been adjusting to the ever-changing ‘new normal’. We’re all currently working from home using a range of tools to keep in touch and connected during this time of isolation (you can read about our digital workspace.) Since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, it has impacted so many aspects of daily life.
During this time of significant disruption to academic work, there has also been a lot of amazing collaboration. Deborah created a ‘Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic’ – a crowdsourced resource which has received worldwide use (recently translated into French!) and compiles creative ideas about how to do qualitative research in physically distanced ways. In addition, Deborah also compiled some COVID-related open-access resources for social researchers.
Despite the pandemic, things are busy at the Lab and we’re working on lots of different projects – many now adapted for the new COVID world we’re living in. A list of our current projects is below:
‘Australians’ Experiences of the COVID-19 Crisis: A Social Research Study’ (Deborah Lupton and Sophie Lewis)
Special section of Health Sociology Review on Sociology and COVID-19 (edited by Deborah Lupton)
The Coronavirus Crisis: Social Perspectives – an edited book by Deborah Lupton with Karen Willis to be published by Routledge
‘Living with Personal Data: Australians’ Experiences and Practices’ (Deborah Lupton, Ash Watson and Mike Michael) – one new focus of this project is people’s experiences of using digital devices in the home under lockdown conditions
‘Reading Zines: A Cultural Sociological Study’ (Ash Watson and Andy Bennett) – including changes in creative practices and community during COVID-19
‘Mapping Queer Histories, Designing Queer Community: A Sociological Study of Queering the Map’ (Ash Watson, Emma Kirby, Brady Robards, Brendan Churchill, Lucas LaRochelle)
Entangled Sporting Bodies: A Lively Introduction to Feminist New Materialisms: a book in progress by Marianne with Holly Thorpe and Julie Brice from University of Waikato
‘Movement and Meaning during COVID-19: Australians’ Experiences of Physical Activity and Uses of Space and Place during the COVID Crisis’. (Marianne Clark)
‘Lipsyncing for our Lives?: TikTok, Health and (Mis)information during the COVID-19 Pandemic’ (Clare Southerton)
‘Digital Parenting and the Deployment and Disruption of Shame Online’ (Marianne Clark, Clare Southerton and Vicki Harman)
‘Time in the Time of Corona’ – a collaborative writing project (Ash Waston, Marianne Clark, Clare Southerton and Katrine Melgaard Kjær)
Watson, A. (2020) Moths. Baby Teeth Journal. [Poetry]
In February Ash co-ran an invited workshop ‘Affect, Knowledge and Embodiment: A Critical Feminist Arts/Research Workshop’ at the University of Melbourne with Dr Laura Rodriguez Castro and Samantha Trayhurn – you can read more about this workshop on our blog.
The Lab was also fortunate enough to host a workshop from a visiting PhD student Natalie Nesvaderani from Cornell University on ‘Decolonizing Visual Methods with Displaced and Refugee Youth’ on 9th March. You can read more about Natalie’s work here.
On 10th March Marianne and Clare ran a movement-based workshop at UNSW called ‘Moving Data Workshop: Exploring the Sensory Dimensions of Research Practice’, involving creative and physical activities.
On the 1st April Deborah was an invited speaker for a webinar for QSR International on the topic of ‘Conducting Qualitative Fieldwork During COVID-19’ (slides available online).
Ash was a panellist in a HDR seminar focusing on online interviews and focus groups, which was hosted online by the Centre for Social Research in Health and Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW on April 22.
Deborah was also the speaker for a webinar on ‘More-than-Human Methods and Theories for COVID Worlds’ at Griffith University’s Centre for Social and Cultural Research.
Oprah Magazine quoted Deborah in an article on femtech in the May issue 2020.
The Vitalities Lab is led by SHARP Professor Deborah Lupton, Centre for Social Research in Health and Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Sydney. Team members are Dr Ashleigh Watson, Dr Clare Southerton and Dr Marianne Clark. Further details here
Over the past few weeks, the Vitalities Lab has gone digital. Working from home due to the COVID-19 lockdown, we’ve slid (not without friction) into new workweek routines — progressing existing research projects, commencing new data collection, and collaborating in our analysis and writing.
Like many are doing with family, friends, and colleagues, we video-call twice per week to update each other on our projects, brainstorm new developments and problem solve hurdles. We’re primarily engaged in research across topics of people’s understandings of personal data and technology use, health information sharing on viral digital platforms like TikTok, and current barriers and facilitators of physical activity and movement. To keep existing projects running and kick our new ones off, we’ve shifted our data collection online, for instance conducting ethnographic interviews via ‘digital home tours’ and doing ‘lively’ observation of fast-moving digital platforms.
Our Faculty is using Microsoft Teams, to keep people up to date with quickly-changing information and service accessibility. As a Lab, we’re also using Slack, to keep in touch more regularly and informally — sharing articles, tweets, memes and videos that capture our attention throughout the day; checking in with each other and how we’re ‘really’ coping; and, perhaps most fruitfully, working together via simultaneous writing sessions.
We three postdocs (Ash, Clare and Marianne) do a number of pomodoros throughout the week, typically when we’re writing: we chat about what we’re working on and what we’re trying to achieve; we start the timer together and work on our separate tasks until the timer beeps; and we check in again afterwards, sharing in our progress and — more importantly — our roadblocks and dead-ends. Rinse and repeat.
With another colleague from the IT University of Copenhagen, Katrine Meldgaard Kjær — who recently visited the Vitalities Lab in Sydney, but had to return home early due to the pandemic — we have also been collaborating on some writing in a shared Google Doc. Together we’re free-writing through our current experiences, feelings, challenges and wants as COVID-19 unfolds — anything that strikes us, and feels good to write down. Our writing blurs together in this document. We don’t label our entries or have a set plan for when and what to write. It’s morphing into a collective/collaborative/cathartic/creative piece that documents our changing experiences of this time.
Between the twinned discourses of productivity and pushback dominating academic Twitter at this time, it’s obvious how such panopticonic technology disciplines us to continue to produce despite the circumstances. Aware of this, we are trying to make use of these technologies in ways that resist the ‘and punish’ part of this Foucauldian setup.
Even though we’re usually focused on separate tasks, these have relatively quickly helped us (re)establish the sense of being part of a team that we’re used to, working in a shared office space or just being on campus around other people. And this feels especially valuable as ECRs, as we’re translating the skills of being a student or junior staffer in a cohort to learning on the job greater independence as researchers, and the value of work community.
We really want to stress that, for us, the value of these things is much more than how they facilitate ~productivity~ (the keyword of choice for many of these digital workplace tools). What they help us cultivate is co-presence: in Clare’s choice words, sometimes it’s accountability but sometimes it’s just not being someone working alone on their couch in their pjs. These are small things that, on reflection, would have made a lot of difference to the isolating and adrift stretches of being a PhD student and early ECR — they’re certainly helping us through now.
While perhaps not as essential as pasta or toilet paper, fitness gear such as skipping ropes and yoga mats are flying off store shelves during the Covid-19 crisis. A recent personal search led to countless niche online-fitness stores before finally locating a moderately-priced skipping rope available for purchase. It had a few more bells and whistles than I needed, but I clicked ‘purchase’ in a panic before it disappeared from my cart. This phenomenon is a result of current social distancing guidelines that are prompting both committed fitness enthusiasts and those looking to work off pent-up energy to find new ways, and spaces, in which to move. While this can seem like a relatively trivial concern in the face of a pandemic, social response to the altered and restricted opportunities for exercise is fascinating to observe. Indeed, physical activity is an enduring mainstay of popular and public health discourse and its physical and mental health benefits are well established. Fitness is also the darling of social media platforms where the latest Pilates/Barre/HITT workouts are often celebrated alongside images of buff bodies. However, these conversations don’t always capture the multiple meanings bodily movement can hold for people and often overlook the complex social and economic conditions that enable or constrain participation.
Currently, outdoor exercise remains a permissible activity in New South Wales as long as social distancing guidelines are complied with. In fact, governing bodies and expert voices emphasise the importance of remaining active for both our physical and mental health and provide tips on keeping active even in times of pandemic. However, usual options for participation are limited. Currently in Australia community centres and fitness facilities, which often act as important social spaces, are closed. So are many public parks and outdoor gyms. Incidental activity we may usually accrue from walking or cycling to work, the bus stop or to the local shops has also been dramatically decreased.
As a result, our relationships with movement, bodies (our own and those of others) and space and place are changing. In some cases, this is prompting creative new engagements with space and the outdoors. Anecdotal conversations with colleagues, friends, and family suggest both avid exercisers and ‘newbies’ alike are seeking and creating new opportunities to move. For some this entails makeshift gyms in garages and backyards if they are fortunate enough to have them. Others have dusted off bikes with oil-parched chains and taken to zooming around traffic-calmed streets. Others pace their neighbourhood streets or brave the occasional run, veering around others’ bodies in new choreographies of space. For many, these movement opportunities are important ways to break up the day and provide a form of emotional and physical reprieve from the omni-present worries of these times.
Zumba, Zoom and The Virtual Fitness Wave
Perhaps unsurprisingly, digital spaces have also emerged as imperative for those looking to replace their favourite bootcamp class or simply looking for distraction. A cacophony of online offerings have taken over the interwebs, ranging from beginner dance classes, a plethora of yoga and Pilates classes offered by well-intended individual instructors and boutique studios, and sleekly-produced boot camp classes offered by industry heavy hitters such as Les Mills. And it’s not just adults being targeted, online phenomomon Joe Wicks has been making waves in the UK with his high-energy and fun-loving approach to physical activity for kids who find themselves unable to run off steam in the school yard or Phys. Ed. class, with parents often joining in. Additionally, digital platforms such as Zoom are providing a lifeline for people like professional dancers and athletes, for whom maintaining physical conditioning is key to their livelihood.
There is much to applaud in these efforts. The lack of paywalls on many virtual fitness classes means people who may not otherwise have access due to the prohibitive costs of gym memberships have one barrier removed. Online offerings may also provide an outlet for those with fitness expertise and instruction skills to contribute to a community of sorts. Taking part in ‘new’ forms of movement might facilitate enjoyable physical experiences and allow people to notice new bodily capacities and expressions — perhaps those parents jumping around with Joe Wicks or creating TikTok dances with their kids will be pleasantly surprised by how good it feels to exert.
However, the influx of online resources also presents questions about who these resources do and do not benefit. Additionally, while the vast array of online options can be helpful for those already familiar with a yoga mat and with a penchant for burpees, they can also feel a little overwhelming. Many of us are working from home right now and the energetic demands of caring for family members, maintaining some semblance of normalcy in daily routines, and trying to remain productive and emotionally well in such precarious times means we don’t always have the time or energy to exercise. Nor do we necessarily need something to add to our ‘to do’ list. Furthermore, not everyone wants to tune into online boot camps: some may take greater solace in artistic endeavours, gardening or video games if they have the time and means to do so.
Importantly, our movement experiences and opportunities are always shaped by factors such as where we live, our financial resources and circumstance, work, parenting and care obligations, and our bodily abilities and capacities to name a few. These varying conditions are what create health inequities and mean it is always easier for some people to be active — and therefore to access the associated physical and mental health benefits — than others. Such issues of equity come into greater focus in the conditions of Covid-19. For example, many Australians do not have reliable access to the internet, to enjoyable or safe outdoor spaces to move in, and/or may experience precarious or unsafe living conditions that Covid-19 social distancing conditions only intensify. While the conditions of Covid-19 place barriers and constraints on the lives of many, these are not felt or distributed equally. In some ways, this zeal for everyone to get and remain active for wellbeing assumes that everyone CAN be active, and risks minimizing the very real and devastating reasons for which they cannot.
Indeed, the importance of movement for our mental health seems to be in clearer focus than ever, and this offers many positives: we may begin to think more carefully about what getting up and moving does for our relationships with others, our neighbourhoods and environments as well as our moods. We may begin to expand the broader social dialogue around physical activity that tends to frame it as something we do to reduce health risks and built aesthetic bodies and instead notice in new ways how our bodies benefit from movement; how moving more or less impacts the way we feel and how those experiences aren’t always best explained through – nor can they reduced to — discourses of health and beauty.
However, in our current zeal to promote – and perform – various forms of exercise to maintain wellbeing, it’s important to consider how the vast messaging around fitness and physical activity acknowledges (or fails to acknowledge) the diversity of conditions in which people are living. This is particularly important in times of crisis when mental and physical health are already precarious. In times when nothing is at it was, we, (researchers, pedagogues, journalists, social media influencers, physical educators and fitness instructors ) have an opportunity, perhaps a responsibility, to think how the very taken for granted ways we often think about health and exercise, and the social evaluations often attached to these behaviour, might be shifted. For example, we might ask:
How can we — especially those working in the area of health and physical activity promotion — elaborate our thinking to recognize the specific ways barriers to physical activity play out in people’s daily lives and shape their embodied experiences of health?
How might virtual and online offerings address some of these barriers and what barriers remain?
How do we harness this time of overall disruption to imagine how such barriers might be addressed and to shake up our thinking about the meanings of physical activity beyond physical indices of health and the pursuit of aesthetic bodies?
Vitalities Lab team members have documented public spaces in their local areas (eastern suburbs of Sydney and inner south Canberra) to record their experiences of living in COVID worlds of physical isolation. These are the new ways of living and engaging with other humans, place, space and things in the highly restricted conditions of physical isolation to which we have had to adjust in recent weeks.
Over the past fortnight, I’ve put together a few open-access resources concerning what an initial agenda for COVID-related social research could be and research methods for conducting fieldwork in the COVID world.
With the rapid rise of short-form video-sharing platform TikTok, health professionals have started mobilising the popularity of the site to provide users insight into their work conditions as well as offer health advice. In the wake of the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis, social media has played a particularly central role in the spread of information, with the situation changing rapidly and events unfolding on a global scale. Health-related content on TikTok is diverse, ranging from everyday health issues, such as psychologists making ‘TikToks’ offering tips to deal with anxiety, to content that responds to emerging crises like COVID-19, with Italian doctors offering glimpses of their everyday lives and organisations like the Red Cross demonstrating proper hand hygiene. Despite ongoing controversies about misinformation, it’s important to acknowledge the positive potential for health information dissemination that TikTok presents, especially with reports suggesting that its popularity is increasing during the COVID-19 outbreak.
TikTok’s significant reach
There’s no doubt that Chinese-owned TikTok, known in China as Douyin, is now a major player on the global social media market. In January this year, it was the most downloaded (non-game) app worldwide across both the Apple App Store and Google Play. TikTok’s 800 million active monthly users create 15-second videos set to music, with lipsyncing and dancing being popular content. TikTok is oriented around humour and strongly focused on virality, with the app being characterised by a constant stream of prank videos and short, video punchlines. The app has significant potential to reach young people, with a largely preteen user base, especially given that recent reports in the US suggest many teens consider their internet use ‘near-constant’.
Health professionals take to TikTok
It might be surprising given the youthful nature of the platform, that doctors, nurses and health organisations are taking to TikTok to spread health messages. Yet, health-focused content on the app is popular, ranging from more-traditional informational content such as medical professionals using the short-form videos to explain specific concepts, conditions or practices. For example, a doctor might explain what to expect at your first pap smear exam or a mental health worker might offer a tool to help deal with impulses to self-harm. These demonstrations would rely on short explanations and perhaps be set to music in keeping with the usual style on the platform. While the health professionals on TikTok do draw on their authority as qualified medical practitioners, often appearing in their scrubs, stethoscopes slung around their necks, or in other distinctive workplace attire, the style of many informative TikToks are informal, often taking the format of ‘did you know?’.
The platform-specific conditions of TikTok, oriented around play and virality have facilitated the development of a genre of health-focused TikToks that are funny and informational. These videos might feature doctors and nurses offering behind-the-scenes views of their work in hospitals, highlighting the more light-hearted aspects of their often emotionally and physically demanding work. For example, medical staff have filmed videos of themselves dancing in various parts of the hospitals they work in or made videos mocking the most unreasonable requests patients have made while in their care.
COVID-19: potential and controversies
As the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has unfolded, TikTok has been criticised for failing to control misinformation in videos about the outbreak on its app, with some videos uploaded featuring users fraudulently posing as doctors or COVID-19 patients, or spread conspiracy theories about the virus. In response, TikTok has partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO) to produce content with experts from the organisation for the platform. The WHO verified TikTok account shares informational TikToks and runs live streams to answer questions about the virus. The social media giant also pledged $10 million (USD) to the WHO to help fight the spread of COVID-19. TikTok also joined forces with Microsoft and Facebook to help the WHO with a global hackathon to try to find software solutions for the pandemic. Alongside this partnership, other organisations like the Red Cross and the UN have recently joined the platform to share COVID-19 related health advice with videos on handwashing and tips for staying healthy at home.
TikTok viral trends have also played a role in the dissemination of health information and encouraging social distancing measures as COVID-19 has become a global crisis. TikTok enlisted one of their most popular content creators, Charli D’Amelio – a fifteen-year-old with more than 41 million followers on the site – to create a viral dance to encourage her young fans to stay at home and practice social distancing to reduce the spread of the virus. The #distancedance original video has over 170 million views, with millions of users creating their own dance videos.
Content from these health organisations and TikTok partnerships now dominates COVID-19 related search results, which is a welcome relief from controversial ‘corona challenge’ videos that had previously been popular on the site. These viral videos, which involved users licking toilet seats and door handles, have resulted in the hospitalisation of at least one person and drawn criticism to the platform. While TikTok’s response to COVID-19 is, in part, also a reaction to criticism of the site hosting controversial virus-related content, this is only the latest in a series of controversies to hit the social media platform when it comes to health information.
Medical professionals who are active on TikTok or other social media platforms have spoken out in the wake of the backlash, emphasising their experiences on the sites are largely about connecting with the community, sharing evidence-based information and addressing misinformation.
What we see with the #distancedance is an effective mobilising of the core elements of the platform, the playful affordances that communicate effectively with the predominantly young user-base. The message is simple, telling users to stay inside. The engagement of an influencer is an important strategy that sidesteps some of the tricky concerns about maintaining professionalism I’ve identified. This is not to say that medical professionals can’t draw on the elements of dance, lip-syncing and meme-making that are the dominant language of TikTok. In fact, many of the health organisations on the platform do engage these strategies very successfully. However, recent controversies show that health workers do take a risk when they engage on TikTok in a professional capacity. When medical professionals invoke their authority on TikTok this extends expectations of professionalism into a space characterised by a quest for viral hits and this may, at times, be incompatible with their intentions to spread evidence-based health messages.
Though it is a difficult task, at times, to strike a balance between entertainment and information, there has never been a more important time to think more creatively about health promotion. Despite the Australian Prime Minister labelling a lot of the COVID19 information social media “gossip and nonsense”, it is clear from the significant number of medical professionals and health organisations engaged on these platforms that any assertion that expertise cannot be engaged in these places is false. The rapidly changing pandemic we are currently facing is a problem that demands diverse and innovative public health solutions. Though a 15-second dance video might not be a familiar format to get the message out, the time is now to engage. After all, as we can see from TikTok, health information circulates within these platforms, only increasing during global health events like COVID-19. The question is whether health professionals and organisations contribute to the conversation.
My latest book, Digital Food Cultures, co-edited with Zeena Feldman, has now been published with Routledge, as part of their Critical Food Studies Series. The abstracts and authors of each chapter are listed below. A book preview on Google Books is available here.
1. Understanding Digital Food Cultures: Deborah Lupton
This chapter introduces the book and provides a comprehensive overview of previous scholarship on digital food cultures. The five main themes into which the twelve other chapters are grouped are identified: bodies and affects; healthism and spirituality; expertise and influencers; spatiality and politics; and food futures.
2. Self-Tracking and Digital Food Cultures: Surveillance and Self-Representation of the Moral ‘Healthy’ Body: Rachael Kent
No longer defined in opposition to illness, ‘good’ health as representative of lifestyle correction has become a central discourse in international health promotion strategies for many decades. This neoliberal discourse positions the citizen as a consumer…
For those people who feel they might like to contribute their expertise and insights, please see this call for papers for a special section of Health Sociology Review I am editing on sociology and the coronavirus. This is a fast-tracked process designed to get important insights out as quickly as possible.
Health Sociology Review Special Section – Sociology and the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic
Call for abstracts
The current pandemic is unprecedented in modern times. In view of this, Health Sociology Review (HSR) (Q1 journal) has asked Professor Deborah Lupton to guest edit a special section of a forthcoming issue of the journal on Sociology and the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic. The emergence of this new virus and its rapid transformation from an epidemic localised to the Chinese city of Wuhan late in 2019 to a pandemic affecting the rest of the world by March 2020 has caused massive disruptions affecting everyday…
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 bookThe 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.