Academics and Research

Faculty member’s new book helps parents navigate the digital age

In her new book, Lynn Clark investigates how young people and their parents are navigating a decade’s worth of dramatic changes in digital and mobile media. Photo courtesy of Lynn Clark

In 2002, when Lynn Schofield Clark began the research that led to her new book on raising children in a dotcom world, the media landscape was a simpler place. Facebook had yet to debut; Twitter was a just a word that described the chatter of birds; and “sexting” was widely regarded as a typographical error.

In The Parent App: Understanding Families in the Digital Age (Oxford University Press, 2012), Clark investigates how young people and their parents are navigating a decade’s worth of dramatic changes in digital and mobile media. She looks at how teens and pre-teens are using digital media to tell stories about themselves and connect with peers. She also examines how parents are attempting to make sense of media-generated challenges—everything from eyebrow-raising content to cyber-harassment on social networking sites.

Her findings? Whether they are upper class, middle class or toiling on a lower rung of the economic ladder, American parents are perplexed about how digital and mobile media are affecting family life. They see the advantages of new media, but they don’t always know how to make wise decisions about using and monitoring it. And family by family, they’re cobbling together approaches that reflect their economic realities and cultural backgrounds, as well as their aspirations and fears.

“Every family has its own way of living out the culture,” says Clark, an associate professor in the University’s Department of Media, Film and Journalism Studies.

Clark’s research draws on in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with more than 340 people — parents, teens and pre-teens — from urban, suburban and rural areas in a handful of regions. From these interviews, she assembled a handful of case studies that provide readers concrete examples of how digital and mobile media are affecting family life.

To help with this massive undertaking, Clark enlisted one of the University of Denver’s most abundant resources: student talent. Students not only assisted in conducting interviews and assembling focus groups, they also helped Clark sift through information to identify patterns and trends.

“I was able to bring students into this research in a pretty significant way,” she says.

Clark launched her research, in part, out of sympathy for overloaded parents contending with uncharted terrain. But she also wanted to call attention to the ways in which media trends have exacerbated the nation’s class divisions.

“We live in very different contexts in the United States,” she explains, noting that affluent and economically secure families can be totally oblivious to the experiences of lower-income households. That’s just as true of scholars and policymakers, many of whom direct their attention primarily to middle-class habits and constituencies. Unfortunately, Clark says, this focus on the middle class reinforces the assumption that lower-income families simply aspire to the habits of their middle-class counterparts.

Clark’s research delves into just how lower-income families regard and use digital and mobile media. “These families are making very conscious choices,” she says. What’s more, they’re doing so to support their own values and priorities.

Among the families she studied, Clark identified two patterns of media use. Upper-income families tend to enlist digital and mobile media as a means of “expressive empowerment.” In other words, they encourage their children to use these media for purposes of education and self-development.

Lower-income families, on the other hand, see digital and mobile media primarily as a means of achieving “respectful connectedness.” They want their children to use these media in ways that honor parents and reinforce family and cultural ties.

Each approach comes with a host of benefits and drawbacks. For example, middle-income families may see their teen’s Facebook page as an opportunity to think about identity and try on different personas. But social networking sites also can intensify narcissism, stoke a sense of entitlement and create distance between children and parents.

“Technology,” Clark points out, “is enabling people to live very individualistic lives within the family.”

The family philosophy that emphasizes respect for parents, family and culture can offer comforting boundaries for children in a frightening world. It also can result in authoritarian policies—censorship, for example—that stifle exploration.

For Clark’s University of Denver classes, these observations were right out of real life. Her students reviewed several of the book’s case studies, responding to the themes she’d identified and commenting on the ways in which these studies connected to communications theory and reflected or differed from their own experiences.

She also asked students to conduct and record Skype interviews with their parents. In these, students quizzed their parents about their intentions and policies related to digital and mobile media. The resulting discussions helped Clark think critically about her arguments.

Through internships and independent study projects, other students helped Clark collect data. One student used a grant from Partners in Scholarship (PINS), a University program that underwrites undergraduate research, to help Clark with interviews, focus groups and analysis. Several students helped her review the reams of data, identify themes and spot departures from trends.

“It’s been an interesting way,” she says, “to help students think about parenting and class and media.”


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