Being a good digital parent: representations of parents, youth and the parent–youth relationship in expert advice

Author: Glenda Wall1
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  • 1 Wilfrid Laurier University, , Canada
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Social concern about online behaviour and safety of children and youth has increased dramatically in the last decade and has resulted in an abundance of parenting advice on ways to manage and protect children online. The cultural context in which this is happening is one characterised by intensive parenting norms, heightened risk awareness, and growing concerns about the effects of ‘over-parenting’, especially in the teenage years. Using contemporary advice to parents on managing adolescents’ digital experiences, this study investigates the ways that parenting, youth and the youth–parent relationship are depicted. Parental roles, in this material, are portrayed as instrumental and pedagogical while youth are assumed to lack agency and judgement. Intensive parenting expectations are extended as parents face advice to be both highly vigilant agents of surveillance and trusted confidantes of their children, with an overall goal of shaping children’s subjectivity in ways that allow them to become self-governing.

Abstract

Social concern about online behaviour and safety of children and youth has increased dramatically in the last decade and has resulted in an abundance of parenting advice on ways to manage and protect children online. The cultural context in which this is happening is one characterised by intensive parenting norms, heightened risk awareness, and growing concerns about the effects of ‘over-parenting’, especially in the teenage years. Using contemporary advice to parents on managing adolescents’ digital experiences, this study investigates the ways that parenting, youth and the youth–parent relationship are depicted. Parental roles, in this material, are portrayed as instrumental and pedagogical while youth are assumed to lack agency and judgement. Intensive parenting expectations are extended as parents face advice to be both highly vigilant agents of surveillance and trusted confidantes of their children, with an overall goal of shaping children’s subjectivity in ways that allow them to become self-governing.

Introduction

There has been ample research over the last 25 years to suggest that ‘good’ middle-class parenting has become more time consuming, intensive and emotionally demanding over the years, as social concerns about risk, maximising children’s brain potential and building resilience in children have increased (Beck-Gernsheim, 1996; Hays, 1996; Lareau, 2003; Wall, 2004, 2010; Lee et al, 2010; Faircloth, 2014). However, while research on intensive parenting and its implications for both parents and children is plentiful, much of it has focused on parenting children in their early (pre-school) years, and to a lesser degree, school-age children. Relatively few studies have focused on the ways in which intensive parenting expectations play out with respect to parents of teenage children, and the effect that these expectations have for the ways in which the parent–child relationship is understood. Given that academic achievement and future success are among the top issues that intensive parenting techniques set out to address, and given the longer periods of time that young people are remaining dependent on parental support, there is little doubt that parents continue to feel pressure to parent intensively throughout the teenage years. Paradoxically, these parents also face growing social pressure to avoid over-parenting because of the negative effects this may have on young people’s capabilities.

Along with the increase in risk culture and parenting expectations over the last two decades has been the introduction and expansion of the internet and social media. This has resulted in much social concern about the online safety and wellbeing of children and youth and a significant increase in advice to parents on how to manage and regulate their children’s online lives. A substantial amount of this advice is directed at the parents of tweens and teens, and as such, it provides a good site to examine the expert and social expectations that help shape the experience of contemporary parents of adolescents and adolescents themselves. It should be noted, as well, that while this research was concluded prior to the global pandemic of 2020, the large increase in online interaction that the pandemic necessitated has the potential to intensify the pressures facing parents with respect to online management of children and youth.

This study draws on past research on intensive parenting, risk culture and youth governance to analyse advice to Canadian parents of tweens and teens on how to manage their children’s online risks and experiences. In examining this material, I am asking what social expectations parents face with respect to the online management of children, what type of parent–child relationship is imagined and what implications these social understandings have for families.

Findings suggest parents face seemingly conflicting expectations of hyper-vigilance and surveillance, on the one hand, and advice to do what is necessary to maintain a trusting relationship with their children, on the other. Both sets of expectations, however, are based on the logic of intensive parenting and work to extend it. The parental role as framed in the material examined here is a primarily instrumental and pedagogical one. Good parent-initiated interactions are portrayed as intentional and done with the purpose of teaching and shaping children (who are assumed to be vulnerable and malleable) into self-governing ‘digital citizens’. Not only do these representations fail to acknowledge the capabilities of youth, they also ignore the embedded and reciprocal nature of the long-standing relationships that parents and children are a part of. Moreover, they reflect and contribute to a narrow and constrained view of the parent–child relationship both within and outside digital domains (Ramaekers and Suissa, 2012).

Parenting Culture

Contemporary understandings of children’s needs and good parenting are shaped by intensive and child-centred parenting expectations. Sharon Hays (1996) coined the term ‘intensive parenting’ in the mid-1990s to describe the norms of parenting at the end of the 20th century. These norms entailed constant attentiveness to what were seen as a growing list of children’s psychological and cognitive needs, and a style of parenting that required more time, energy and financial resources than ever before. Hays and others have traced this increasingly child-centred view of parenting to several developments in medicine and developmental psychology in the mid-20th century, which resulted in changes in expert child rearing advice literature (Wall, 2004, 2010). At the same time that Hays (1996) was writing, media articles and child rearing advice were increasingly drawing on what were presented as advances in neuroscience and brain imaging technology to suggest that ample parental attention and stimulation during children’s early years would literally shape children’s future brain potential (Wall, 2004; Macvarish et al, 2014). In Canada this led to the government-commissioned Early Years Study (McCain and Mustard, 1999), the establishment of Ontario early years centres, which exist to this day, and government support of public awareness campaigns such as the ‘What a Child Learns Before Age 6 Lasts Forever’ campaign, which emphasised the importance of parental time spent interacting with, playing with and teaching infants and pre-school children (Wall, 2004).

Maximising children’s academic potential and future success were thus the implicit goals underlying intensive parenting advice that focused on enhancing children’s brain development. For parents of infants, toddlers and pre-school children, this has meant a resurgence of the importance placed on attachment building as well as on increased one-on-one time spent teaching and stimulating children in the early years (Wall, 2010, 2018; Thornton, 2011; Faircloth, 2014a, 2014b; Smyth and Craig, 2017). Expectations also increased for parents of school-age children as well, however.

Studies of parenting norms and behaviours with respect to school-age children have examined the extensive time, resources, energy and emotional labour that middle-class parents expend in attempting to give their children a cultural and academic advantage (Chin, 2000; Nadesan, 2002; Lareau, 2003; Caputo, 2007; Aurini et al, 2020). This has involved both increased parental involvement in children’s education, as well as the increased use of private schools, tutors and extracurricular enrichment activities (Chin, 2000; Lareau, 2003; Caputo, 2007, Jezierski and Wall, 2019). Numerous studies have documented the mental and physical toll that these ever-increasing expectations have for middle-class parents (and mothers especially), as well as the increased scrutiny and regulation of poor and marginalised mothers who do not have the material, social or cultural resources necessary to meet these standards (Gillies, 2006; Wall, 2010; Romagnoli and Wall 2012; Rizzo et al, 2013; Meeussen and Van Laar, 2018).

The logic of intensive parenting is fundamentally tied up with neoliberal rationality and the culture of risk that currently prevails in Western democratic states. Many scholars have documented a growing cultural preoccupation during the late-20th and early-21st centuries with individual risk and risk management, along with political and cultural acceptance of the ability and responsibility of individuals to anticipate, prepare for and mitigate any risks they may encounter in life (Beck-Gernsheim, 1996; Furedi, 2008; Lee et al, 2010; Lupton, 2012). Success in life is currently understood to be much more a product of individual preparation, adaptability and resilience than it was under the welfare-state regimes of the 20th century which assumed more collective responsibility for social problems. This logic extended to parenting, and it too became a ‘planning project’ (Beck-Gernsheim, 1996). Combined with a growing intolerance of any kinds of risk to children, this has resulted in increasing pressure on parents to make use of expert advice to prepare for and manage any threats to children’s safety and future success (Furedi, 2008; Lee et al, 2010).

Underlying neoliberal risk consciousness is the understanding that individuals, and parents, have a great deal of control over their own and their children’s future outcomes (Wall, 2010; Bristow, 2014). With respect to parenting, social acceptance of this parental determinism has led to an understanding of parenting as much more instrumental than in the past; as a project, or a job, where parental inputs determine child outcomes and children themselves are understood as vulnerable and lacking in agency (Caputo, 2007; Furedi, 2008; Ramaekers and Suissa, 2012; Ranson, 2018; Wall, 2018). According to several authors, by the late-20th century, social focus had shifted from an understanding of what parents are, to what parents do. In other words, focus had shifted from being a parent to ‘parenting’ which became defined as ‘a set of goal oriented tasks’ that involve ‘accessing the right knowledge-base and applying it accordingly in an instrumental fashion’ (Edwards and Gillies, 2011: 144; Ramaekers and Suissa, 2012; Ranson, 2018). Children, within this set of understandings, become viewed more in terms of their potential than as beings with their own agency and capabilities (Caputo, 2007; Woodhead, 2009; Ranson, 2018).

Amidst the ever-increasing expectations of parenting there has also been a backlash as more and more experts warn against the effects of over-parenting, or so-called helicopter parenting, on the independence and capabilities of youth (Bristow, 2014; Lee and Macvarish, 2020). Media articles and best-selling parenting books alike vilify parents for micromanaging their children’s lives and depriving their children of the opportunity to develop their own coping abilities. The focus on building resilience in children, seen in recent parenting advice and educational material is, no doubt linked in part to this backlash (Hoffman, 2010; Wall, 2018; Jezierski and Wall, 2019). However, just as the advice that focuses on building resilience involves a great deal of intensive emotion management work on the part of parents (Hoffman, 2010), the backlash against over-parenting in general also incorporates and exists alongside the logics of intensive parenting, risk aversion and neoliberal individualism (Bristow, 2014; Lee and Macvarish, 2020). As Bristow (2014) points outs, both intensive parenting and the warnings against over-parenting are child-centred and focused on the risks to children’s future success should parents do too much or too little. The work involved in fostering independence requires a great deal of thought, worry and organisation that gets added to the repertoire of intensive parenting. Knowing when and how to let go has been added to the list of tasks of ‘good’ parents alongside, rather than replacing, intensive parenting expectations, leaving parents in a double bind as they try to navigate the tension between over- and under-parenting (Bristow, 2014; Lee and Macvarish, 2020).

The line between over- and under-parenting becomes more difficult to navigate as children get older and enter their transitional teenage years. At this stage, concern about the preparedness of young adults to find their own way in higher education and the market economy, starts to increase. Parents of teens thus find themselves even more caught between societal expectations of continued intensive parenting to ensure academic and career success and concerns about over-parenting that may lead to lack of independence and resilience.

Parenting and the management of online risks

Increasing concerns about young people’s safety and behaviour online, as a relatively new area of risk, provides an interesting and opportune site for studying the expectations facing parents of youth (Bristow, 2014; Fisk 2016). Although online risks to children and youth are a relatively new phenomenon, there are a number of studies that examine the connections between risk culture and the social understandings of online child safety, as well as those that document the experience of parents and children as families attempt to navigate the risks and advice they are presented with (Nelson, 2010; Finkelhor, 2011, 2014; Clark, 2013; Staksrud, 2013; Fisk, 2014, 2016; Livingstone and Blum-Ross, 2020). Several of these studies link the current discourse surrounding internet safety to previous media panics (Finkelhor, 2011, 2014; Clark, 2013; Fisk, 2016). Fisk (2014, 2016) notes a long history of youth governance, surveillance and social control that includes social understandings of youth as both vulnerable and in need of protection as well as potentially dangerous if not watched and constrained. In examining the ways in which parents and youth are socially constructed in internet safety discourse, he finds that parents are portrayed as overwhelmed and technologically inept, but also as the most important agents of surveillance and enforcement. Youth themselves are cast as lacking in judgement and, while technically capable, are often portrayed as lacking the developmental capacity or competence to make responsible decisions (Fisk, 2014, 2016). Staksrud (2013) identifies similar assumptions in online safety discourse and goes on to note that in making parents primarily responsible for online safety, the social issues of internet privacy and regulation become individualised, a concern echoed by Livingstone and Blum-Ross (2020).

In examining the experiences of parents of youth as they deal with issues of online safety and responsibility, Livingstone and Blum-Ross (2020) highlight the flexible and varied approaches parents take to dealing with technology and digital media. These include a mix of resisting technology use, balancing risks and opportunities when making decisions and embracing the positive aspects of technology. They point to the fact that these are complex decisions that parents make within the context of past experiences, future hopes, and current family relationships and resources. They point out that parents are left individually responsible for these decisions with little available guidance or social support that recognises this complexity.

Nelson (2010) notes the tensions parents feel as they struggle with being ‘good digital parents’ and protecting their children while still maintaining close relations with them and fostering their independence in socially acceptable ways. She also finds interesting class differences in this regard between what she identifies as professional middle-class parents and other middle-class and working-class parents in her study. These differences provide indications of the extent to which the imagined relationship between adolescents and parents in expert advice is based on middle-class ideals.

Like other studies of parenting and class (Hays, 1996; Lareau, 2003), Nelson (2010) notes that less privileged parents tended to be firmer and take a more authoritative approach with their children than more privileged parents. They also tended, in her study, to hold different views about the type of relationship that they believed should exist between parents and children. While professional middle-class parents strived for a relationship of ‘friendship, respect, openness and honesty’ (Nelson, 2010): 153) in their relationships with their adolescents, working-class and other middle-class parents tended to trust their children less, but also be more accepting of what might be seen as their children’s character flaws. One of the interesting ways in which these differences became apparent in Nelson’s study was a lower acceptance of the use of monitoring software among professional middle-class parents, given the potential damage to the child–parent relationship that use of such software was feared to result in. In accordance with current advice that emphasises the importance of building up children’s own capabilities and not hovering too closely, and in a demonstration of the trust that they had in their children, the professional middle-class parents in Nelson’s study also made a point of allowing their children a degree of independence both online and off. They did however closely watch their children, check in with them often and engage in covert surveillance. This involved constant availability and watchfulness while maintaining enough flexibility to allow children to, in the words of one parent, ‘develop to their own potential’ (Nelson, 2010: 89). Nelson (2010: 103) describes this as ‘a style of care that relies on communication, negotiation, flexibility, trust, and being endlessly (and immediately) available’ to provide guidance should something go wrong.

Method

The aim of this study was to conduct a critical discursive analysis of expert advice to parents on how to keep their adolescent children safe online. The material analysed includes documents and articles from the Canadian government website getcybersafe.ca, the MediaSmarts website, mediasmarts.ca, and the Canadian parenting magazine, Today’s Parent. While it is likely that only a minority of Canadian parents access these particular materials, they do represent respected and state-authorised expertise and as such provide a good example of the expert and social expectations that parents face.

Get Cyber Safe is a Government of Canada public awareness campaign designed to educate Canadians on internet security and safety. They have produced a number of documents aimed directly at parents that address ways to keep children safe online, and several of these specifically address parents of tweens and teens. Additional educational resources for parents are recommended on the Get Cyber Safe site and chief among those are the resources available at mediasmarts.ca. MediaSmarts is a long-standing Canadian non-profit organisation, with many large corporate sponsors, that creates and promotes media and digital literacy resources for teachers, parents and children. Their resources aimed at parents of teens that were available at the time of analysis were examined. Finally, articles about online safety and concerns aimed at parents of older children in the Canadian parenting magazine Today’s Parent were examined. Both print and online editions of the magazine published between January 2010 and December 2019 were searched. Articles were accessed using keyword searches online and by examining the tables of contents of all the print editions during the period covered by the study. Today’s Parent is Canada’s longest running and most widely read parenting magazine. With a total brand readership of about 1.95 million the magazine estimates that it reaches one in five English-speaking Canadian mothers with children aged under 18 in the household (Rogers Sports & Media, 2020).

The final sample included 20 magazine articles and 25 educational online documents aimed at parents. These included workshops, presentations, articles and tip sheets. I approached the data by asking a number of questions that focused on how online risks themselves were framed, and what was being assumed about the nature of young people, the job of parents and the relationship imagined to exist between children and parents. The analysis itself was an emergent thematic one, involving initial broad coding of themes in both the texts and images that accompanied them, followed by collapsing and synthesising of the codes as the analysis proceeded (Birks and Mills, 2011).

Findings

Starting with some broad observations about the material analysed, it can be said that most of the focus in the contemporary advice was on the dangers of cyberbullying, which is presented as a common consequence of social media use among teens. Although there was some space devoted to the dangers of online sexual solicitation and pornography, these were far less commonly addressed. In the later material especially, these dangers were often downplayed in comparison to the risks associated with cyberbullying. Cyberbullying was generally broadly defined and included concerns about sexting. Typical descriptions referred to the use of technology to ‘embarrass, humiliate, torment, threaten or harass’ others (Government of Canada, 2018a). While there were some exceptions, cyberbullying was often treated in a very black-and-white way with any complexities involved in clearly recognising it, or the roles of victims and perpetrators in it, left unaddressed.

In line with childhood sociologists who point to the fact that children (and especially youth) are viewed as both vulnerable and dangerous (Fisk, 2014, 2016), it also became clear that the advice was not just about ensuring child safety, it was also about parents’ responsibility for children’s potentially bad online behaviour and for the inculcation of the values of good responsible digital citizenship in children. In an online article titled ‘Is your child cyberbullying?’ readers are told that ‘cyberbullying isn’t just limited to “bad kids”’ and that ‘it’s become more common than most of us would like to think’ (Government of Canada, 2015a). Furthermore, bystanders, even passive ones, were said to play an essential role in ‘perpetuating the bullying and giving it power and momentum’ (Government of Canada, 2015b). Preventing cyberbullying behaviour on the part of your child and dealing with it when it occurred was a common theme throughout the material, as were ways to empower your child to intervene and avoid the silent bystander role. Overall then, as the analysis that follows shows, children were presented as either potential victims, perpetrators or bystanders who do nothing to stop cyberbullying when they see it, and parents were advised on ways to spot, prevent and deal with all of these occurrences.

In addition to these general observations, the themes that emerged in the material fit within two broad categories. The first relates to a focus on the risk, danger and need for vigilance on the part of parents, while the second emphasises the ways in which parents were encouraged to shape and manage both the relationship that they had with their child, and their child’s subjectivity.

Risk, fear, vigilance and intensive parenting

Fear and anxiety-provoking statements about the ubiquitous nature of, and the dire risks that accompany, cyberbullying were common throughout the material examined, but were somewhat more prominent in the online advice. Parents are told that they ‘might be surprised to learn that most teens today have been involved in some way or another, either as a target, as a bully, as a silent observer, or as someone who participates on the sidelines’ (Government of Canada, 2018a). In one Today’s Parent article that addresses the issue of sexting, parents are advised to ‘ask teens how they would feel if their teachers, parents or the entire school saw the picture (that they may have sent to someone), because that happens all the time’ (Knorr, 2019).

The pictures that accompany the advice often show anxious, sad and hopeless-looking young people (some with their heads in their hands) and these are accompanied by warnings about the mental health effects of cyberbullying. Cyberbullying can be ‘relentless’, ‘emotionally damaging and even lead to tragic consequences’ according to one online advice article (Government of Canada, 2018a). Another example is provided by an expert in a Today’s Parent article (Stein, 2018) who notes that ‘there is such a high incidence of mental and physical health issues among youth that is associated with technology use’ that he ‘sees kids on a daily basis who are addicted to technology and suffer from depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide’. In a similar vein, another article on sexting advises parents to tell their children that ‘no matter how big the social pressure is, the potential social humiliation can be hundreds of times worse’ (Knorr, 2019).

Also common in the material were lists of behaviours that parents should be on the look-out for that might indicate that their child was involved in cyberbullying in one role or another. These potentially anxiety-producing lists often included common adolescent behaviours such as mood changes, skipping school, wanting to spend more time alone, or not being able to put their technology away. Overall, the risks of cyberbullying are presented as high and the consequences as potentially tragic, and certainly a threat to children’s mental health. The general message is that cyberbullying is ubiquitous and the chances of it involving your child without you knowing it are high.

Contributing to this sense of risk and fear is the fact that young people are presented as being especially vulnerable to the dangers of social media and likely to lack the judgement necessary to make responsible decisions. Fisk’s (2016) findings that young people are framed in discussions of the internet as being fundamentally different from adults and incapable of responsible behaviour or judgement were echoed here. Often this is implied in the lists of skills and information that parents are advised to teach their teens. Other times it is more explicitly stated. For instance, a MediaSmarts publication on internet safety tips for parents of 11- to 13-year-olds states, as a matter of fact, that children at this age ‘lack the critical thinking skills to judge the accuracy of online information’ (MediaSmarts, 2014a). ‘Impulsivity’, and a greater likelihood ‘to behave meanly or cruelly’ is said to characterise 14- to 17-year-olds. This together with their increasing interest in sexuality is said to put children of this age at greater risk of being involved in cyberbullying and sexting. (MediaSmarts, 2014b). Overall teens are presented as ‘very sensitive to social pressure and are more likely to follow their friends’ leads ‘even if it is shown to be bad or dangerous’ (MediaSmarts, 2015a). Similarly, in a Today’s Parent article parents are warned that ‘kids can become overly focused on collecting followers and “likes” as their fragile self-esteem becomes entwined with online feedback’ (Goldenberg, 2014).

Given the high level of risk and the assumed inability of young people to adequately protect themselves, intensive parental involvement is presented as crucial. Similar to Fisk’s (2016) findings, parents here were often framed as easily overwhelmed with the pace of technological change, and as being ‘out-smarted’ by their children and ‘scrambling’ in ‘unchartered territory’ (Waverman, 2013; Rivas, 2016). Hence the need for expert advice. As the quotations that follow illustrate, being a good cyber parent entails being highly involved in your children’s online lives, being constantly aware of what they are doing on online, educating oneself to become technologically savvy and aware of new apps, and negotiating sets of rules and contracts to guide children’s online behaviour, among other things.

Are you involved in your kids’ online activities? Do you know what they are doing and who they are talking to when they are on the internet? […] Do you make internet use a family activity by guiding your kids to good sites and teaching them how do safe, effective searches? […] Does your family have a set of rules or an agreement for appropriate internet use? (MediaSmarts, 2016)

Learn what sites (and apps) your child uses […] try it yourself […] Know the technology and keep up with it. Learn about the devices your child is using and how they’re using them: instant message, text, visit social networking sites, download content. (Government of Canada, 2018b)

In a similar vein a MediaSmarts online workshop advises that ‘as a parent, if you aren’t using Facebook or any other social network your kids are on – you should be!’ (MediaSmarts, 2012).

Evident in the quotations above, and in keeping with neoliberal rationality, is a common emphasis on the need for preparation and knowledge (based on expert advice) in order to anticipate danger and manage risk before it appears. Parents are commonly advised to ‘have discussions early and often […] don’t wait for an issue to arise’. (Madigan, 2018). Similarly, the Digital Citizenship Guide urges parents to ‘talk before it [cyberbullying] happens’, and to ‘ask them to tell you what they are doing online and to explore those places yourself, so you can spot possible problems before they happen’ (Government of Canada, 2017, emphasis in original). Another document ends with a list of 29 possible websites and apps that parents should familiarise themselves with (Government of Canada, 2018b). The consequences of not doing these things are presented as grave. As parents are told in one Today’s Parent article ‘it’s the parents who are least involved in their child’s online life who often discover their child is in danger, when it is far too late’ (Rivas, 2016).

Thus, a lot of the intensive parenting that is expected is related to being vigilant and knowing exactly what your children are doing online and who they are doing it with. It is clearly a good parent’s job to carefully surveil and manage their children’s online lives. As is evident in the section that follows, however, the way to do this is not by simply putting rules in place or installing monitoring software on children’s devices. Echoing the views of the professional middle-class parents in Nelson’s (2010) study, many documents actually warn against the use of monitoring software. Rather, parents are told that the best way to accomplish this is to establish and maintain a strong bond of trust with their children and be a welcome and trusted part of their online lives.

Trust, control and shaping subjectivity

A focus on building and maintaining a trusting relationship with your child with respect to their online lives is strongly emphasised throughout the material. Parents are urged to be an active and welcome part of their kids’ online lives and to be their child’s main confidante with respect to online issues. They should strive to ‘be the person they [their children] come to when they have problems online’ (Government of Canada, 2017). Aside from pictures of stressed and anxious-looking children, the other main type of image found in the documents (and especially in the online material) was that of parents and young people in front of a screen spending enjoyable online time together.

Having this type of close and trusting relationship with your child is commonly presented as being far more effective at managing children’s online behaviour than installing spyware or monitoring their texts or posts. A common message to parents in this material is to ‘resist the urge to install “spy” or monitoring software […] it sends a bad message about privacy, it may push kids to use the internet in unsupervised places and it makes them less likely to come to you if something goes wrong’ (Government of Canada, 2017). Parents are told that ‘it’s always better to talk to your kids’ than to spy on them (MediaSmarts, 2012). As one parenting expert quoted in a Today’s Parent article notes, ‘we have to prove to our kids that we have their backs, not act like the police officers of their lives’ (Overland, 2011).

Given how crucial trust building is presented as being, much of the advice in the documents analysed is aimed at teaching parents what to do and what not to do in order to establish this. In addition to not using monitoring software, there are many warnings not to ‘overreact’, ‘freak-out’, blame kids or threaten to take away their devices if children get into trouble online. Parents are told repeatedly that to do these things will damage trust and result in their children not turning to them with problems. For instance, in one cyberbullying information sheet, parents are told to ‘let your child know […] you won’t overreact’, ‘assure them you won’t “freak-out” or that you won’t take away their devices’ (Government of Canada, 2018b). Similarly in Media Smarts ‘Parent’s Guide to Cyberbullying’, parents are told ‘to build trust, try not to overreact. Don’t forbid your child to use the Internet […] for your child, this is equal to social death’ (MediaSmarts, 2015b).

Rather than threatening to take away devices or instituting inflexible rules, parents are urged instead to talk with their children and maintain an ongoing conversation about safety and responsibility online. In aid of creating and maintaining trust are many tips for how to talk to your children in non-threatening ways that are more likely to get them to open up to you. These tips come in the form of suggested wording for comments you can make or questions you can ask your children. The entire digital citizenship guide for parents, for example, is set up in a way that assumes parents don’t know how to talk to their children. It includes sections that start with ‘How do I talk about …?’ This is followed by suggestions worded in the form of ‘You can say …’ or ‘You can ask it this way’ (Government of Canada, 2017). Suggestions for how to talk to your children often involve depersonalising situations by suggesting scenarios to children that involve other people and then asking them what the best response for someone in that situation would be. Another commonly suggested strategy involves showing interest in the positive things children do in order to open the door to talking about things that they should not be doing, as is illustrated in the following quotation: ‘YOU CAN SAY: “Show me some of the cool things you or your friends are doing online or with social networks.” Now you can ask your child to suggest things that they think you should definitely NOT do online’ (Government of Canada, 2017, emphasis in original).

Evident in the material as a whole, then, were the seeming contradictions between the advice focused on trust building and the advice urging parents to be wary and vigilant. Parents were told that they needed to be aware of what their kids were doing online and who they were doing it with, yet they must also respect their children’s privacy and not ‘overprotect their kids with inflexible rules’ (Waverman, 2013). These apparent contradictions went largely unaddressed, and it was not uncommon to find both types of advice in the same document. In one Today’s Parent article, for example, parents are told in one section that ‘many moms and dads aren’t taking the necessary steps to ensure their [children’s] safety’, and that ‘only a third of parents make an effort to constantly supervise their kids’ online activities’ despite their admitted worry. In another section of the same article is the advice that ‘It’s important that your kids see you as the solution to their online dilemmas, not an obstacle to their freedom. Parents need to cultivate an atmosphere that makes kids feel comfortable coming to them’ (Sapieha, 2018).

Also clear in the above quotations is that the establishment of trust was not promoted for its own sake; rather, its purpose was to maintain parental control without resorting to technological surveillance. A trusting and close relationship was also said to enable parents to influence their children’s subjectivity in such a way that they would want to engage in their own self-discipline. In other words, the larger goal that parents were urged to strive for was to change children’s subjectivity so that they become self-motivated to have good digital behaviour. This message is relayed implicitly in the large amount of material devoted to how, ideally, kids ‘should’ feel and behave with respect to online activity. Good young digital citizens are described as empathetic and thoughtful, as interveners rather than bystanders, as being able to recognise and regulate their emotions so that they don’t act impulsively, and as being knowledgeable about the harm that can come from seemingly innocuous online behaviour. Good parents, it is implied, will inculcate these values and behaviours in their children. There are also more explicit messages to parents about the need to influence children’s self-motivation. As is noted in one Today’s Parent article, for instance, ‘reward systems can backfire. ‘It’s an external control module for manipulating kids’ behaviour […] you’re not truly getting kids motivated’ (Gagné, 2018). Later on, in the same article, parents are advised that a system that gives children choices about when they will go online ‘gives kids more control […] you want them to learn to regulate themselves’. Similarly, in a MediaSmarts publication parents are told that

We’ve talked a lot about the importance of communication in this presentation. This is because we know that eventually our kids are going to making their own choices online. When they do we want to be the little voice in their heads that prompts them to pause and reflect – and be the people they can go to if things go wrong. (MediaSmarts, 2012)

Discussion and conclusion

Similar to findings of previous research on contemporary parenting advice, what is imagined in this material is a one-way relationship between parents and children whereby parents provide the inputs that shape children’s values and behaviour. Young people are generally framed as being vulnerable (but also potentially deviant and dangerous), passive, lacking agency and judgement, and malleable. This is not a view of young people that respects them as individuals with their own will, judgement and capabilities. As Staksrud (2013) points out, children are more than just vulnerable victims, they are also competent learners. Caputo (2007: 189) as well notes that the assumption of child vulnerability and passivity that underlies current expectations of good parenthood ‘does not match the reality of children’s lives’ and ignores the competence and agency that children possess. As Caputo (2007: 189) suggests, ‘it takes a great deal of competence to negotiate the complexities of children’s worlds’.

Indicative of neoliberal culture, parents are portrayed here, as they are in other child rearing advice, as having a great deal of control over children’s outcomes so long as they prepare themselves with expert knowledge, and remain vigilant. The work involved in keeping kids safe online is highly time consuming and extends intensive parenting expectations significantly. Whether parents actually have that much control over children’s behaviour and outcomes (and indeed over their own outcomes) is questionable and certainly subject to class-based resources. The widespread assumption that they do, though, contributes to both setting parents up for failure or guilt when things do not go as planned, and to a social view of youth as lacking in agency and competence (Wall, 2010; Livingstone and Blum-Ross, 2020).

The parent–child relationship imagined in this material is a therapeutic and pedagogical one whereby parents shape the values and subjectivity of children rather than participating in a two-way relationship with them. Parental behaviour is seen to be intentional. It is done with a purpose and the purpose is to control and shape better children. It is a view of parenting as a job focused on skills rather than as a relationship between people (Ranson, 2018). It is what Ramaekers and Suissa (2012: 354) refer to as ‘a narrow and impoverished way of conceptualising childrearing and the parent-child relationship’. The type of parenting advice offered here, then, has the potential to both reinforce and perpetuate a diminished ideal of parent–child relationships both within and outside the digital realm.

The instrumental nature of the imagined parent–child relationship is also seen in the many examples of advice telling parents how to relate to and talk to their children in order to achieve the desired behavioural outcomes. What this ignores is the fact that parents already have long-standing relationships with their children that have been built up over years and years of living together, which would make following these directions either something that they don’t need instruction on, or something that would be very difficult to pull off because of long-standing relationship difficulties. As Livingstone and Blum-Ross (2020) note, parental decisions about digital technology are complex judgements that are made within the context of family relationships while weighing a multitude of other contextual factors. The advice, then, would appear to support some unrealistic and problematic understandings of both adolescents and their parents and to be, from a pragmatic standpoint, not very helpful.

What is also worthy of further discussion is the apparently contradictory expectations facing parents in this advice. Portrayed in the material examined here is both a focus on intensive parenting and the need for parental surveillance of youth, on the one hand, and a strong emphasis on the need to respect privacy and establish trust, on the other hand. While needing to carefully watch and protect young people, parents are also urged to not overtly engage in surveillance lest they destroy the ideal trusting relationship that enables parental influence. While the research for this study predated the global pandemic, one can only imagine that the increased online engagement that the pandemic has forced on families, for both education and diversion, will only work to deepen the uncertainty that parents face amid these conflicting messages.

While these advice threads appear on the surface to be contradictory they can, in fact, be seen as interrelated through common links to both the neoliberal rationality that pervades current parenting culture, and the recent focus on the lack of resilience and self-reliance in youth that has accompanied the discourse regarding over-parenting. The advice promoting intensive parenting, as well as the expert literature raising concerns about over-parenting, have at their core the neoliberal goals of self-responsibility and self-reliance. While intensive parenting advice focuses on the ways in which parents can individually control the safety, opportunities and future success of their children, those ringing alarm bells about the effects of over-parenting often point to the ways in which excessive parental involvement in children’s lives has resulted in young people who are not self-reliant themselves. Rather than growing up with a subjectivity that epitomises the self-managing and self-responsible citizen, the concern expressed is that young people are becoming entitled and incapable of managing their own lives.

In the material examined here the establishment of a close and trusting relationship, along with stepping back from overt surveillance and discipline, was presented as a way to help shape and control young people’s subjectivity in ways that would result in them regulating, and taking responsibility for, themselves. It did not, however, promote less-intensive parenting. As Bristow (2014) has noted, the ways in which parents are advised to step back from over-parenting are themselves immersed in the logic of intensive parenting. The establishment and maintenance of trust becomes yet another task for ‘good parents’ and one that requires a delicate balancing act between watchful vigilance and maintaining children’s trust. It requires more work than simply relying on monitoring software. It involves what Ranson (2018) described in her study of contemporary parental experiences, as parental omnipresence: the feeling on the part of parents that they must be always watching their children, participating in their lives and being constantly available. As noted earlier, Nelson (2010) observed similar parental experiences among the professional middle-class parents in her study. She described the balancing act that these parents engaged in as they walked the fine line between maintaining control of their adolescents while attempting to foster independence as requiring ‘intimacy and hovering combined with elastic constraint and covert surveillance’ (Nelson 2010: 11). This type of parenting, she too found, relied on ‘communication, negotiation, flexibility, trust, and being endlessly and immediately available’ (Nelson, 2010: 103).

Finally, the promotion, in parenting advice literature, of neoliberal citizenry with its assumption of individual self-regulation is also problematic to the extent that it ignores the social conditions that contribute to the issues of cyberbullying and online risks in the first place, and make some children more vulnerable than others (Hoffman, 2010; Staksrud, 2013). It also shifts attention away from social responsibility for regulating online risks and ensuring citizenship rights to online participation and protection (Staksrud, 2013; Livingstone and Blum-Ross, 2020).

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chin, T. (2000) ‘Sixth grade madness’: parental emotion work in the private high school application process, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 29(2): 12463. doi: 10.1177/089124100129023855

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Clark, L.S. (2013) The Parent App: Understanding Families in the Digital Age, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Faircloth, C. (2014a) Intensive parenting and the expansion of parenting, in E. Lee, J. Bristow, C. Faircloth and J. Macvarish (eds) Parenting Culture Studies, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp 2550.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Faircloth, C. (2014b) The problem of ‘attachment’: the ‘detached’ parent, in E. Lee, J. Bristow, C. Faircloth and J. Macvarish (eds) Parenting Culture Studies, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp 14764.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Finkelhor, D. (2011) The internet, youth safety and the problem of ‘juvenoia’, Crimes Against Children Research Center, http://unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/Juvenoia%20paper.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Finkelhor, D. (2014) Commentary: cause for alarm? Youth and internet risk research – a commentary on Livingstone and Smith, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 55(6): 65558. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12260

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fisk, N. (2014) ‘... when no one is hearing them swear’: youth safety and the pedagogy of surveillance, Surveillance & Society, 12(4): 56680. doi: 10.24908/ss.v12i4.5059

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fisk, N. (2016) Framing Internet Safety: The Governance of Youth Online, Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

  • Furedi, F. (2008) Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May be Best for Your Child, London: Continuum.

  • Gillies, V. (2006) Marginalised Mothers: Exploring Working Class Experiences of Parenting, London: Routledge.

  • Gagné, C. (2018) Screen-time systems, Today’s Parent, 35(1): 3335.

  • Goldenberg, M. (2014) Learning about sex through social media, Today’s Parent, https://www.todaysparent.com/family/kids-sex-social-media/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Government of Canada (2015a) Is your child cyberbullying?, www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/ntnl-scrt/cbr-scrt/cbrbllng/prnts/chld-cbrbll-en.aspx.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jezierski, S. and Wall, G. (2019) Changing understandings and expectations of parental involvement in children’s education, Gender & Education, 31(7): 81126.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Knorr, C. (2019) Talking to your kids about sexting is more important than ever, Today’s Parent, www.todaysparent.com/kids/tween-and-teen/tips-for-talking-to-kids-about-sexting/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lareau, A. (2003) Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

  • Lee, E. and Macvarish, J. (2020) The ‘helicopter parent’and the paradox of intensive parenting in the 21st century, Lien Social et Politique, 85: 1942. doi: 10.7202/1073740ar

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lee, E., Macvarish, J. and Bristow, J. (2010) Risk, health and parenting culture, Health, Risk & Society, 12(4): 293300. doi: 10.1080/13698571003789732

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Livingstone, S. and Blum-Ross, A. (2020) Parenting for a Digital Future: How Hopes and Fears about Technology Shape Children’s Lives, New York: Oxford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lupton, D. (2012) Configuring maternal, preborn and infant embodiment, SSRN Electronic Journal, doi: doi: 10.2139/ssrn.2273416.

  • Macvarish, J., Lee, E. and Lowe, P. (2014) The ‘first three years’ movement and the infant brain: a review of critiques, Sociology Compass, 8(6): 792804. doi: 10.1111/soc4.12183

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Madigan, S. (2018) 12 ways to make sure your kids don’t stumble on sexy stuff online, Today’s Parent, www.todaysparent.com/family/family-life/ways-to-make-sure-your-kids-dont-stumble-on-sexy-stuff-online/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McCain, M. and Mustard, J. (1999) Early Years Study: Final Report, Toronto: Publications Ontario.

  • MediaSmarts (2012) Parenting the digital generation, https://mediasmarts.ca/tutorial/parenting-digital-generation.

  • MediaSmarts (2014a) Internet safety tips by age: 11–13, https://mediasmarts.ca/tipsheet/internet-safety-tips-age-11–13.

  • MediaSmarts (2014b) Internet safety tips by age: 14–17, https://mediasmarts.ca/tipsheet/internet-safety-tips-age-14–17.

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  • MediaSmarts (2016) Are you web aware? A checklist for parents, https://mediasmarts.ca/tipsheet/are-you-web-aware-checklist-parents.

  • Meeussen, L. and Van Laar, C. (2018) Feeling pressure to be a perfect mother relates to parental burnout and career ambitions, Frontiers in Psychology, 9: 2113. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02113

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nadesan, M.H. (2002) Engineering the entrepreneurial infant: brain science, infant development toys, and governmentality, Cultural Studies, 16(3): 40132. doi: 10.1080/09502380210128315

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nelson, M.K. (2010) Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times, New York: NYU Press.

  • Overland, H. (2011) The optimistic parent’s guide to kids and texting, Today’s Parent, www.todaysparent.com/family/parenting/the-optimistic- parents-guide-to-kids-and-texting/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ramaekers, S. and Suissa, J. (2012) What all parents need to know? Exploring the hidden normativity of the language of developmental psychology in parenting, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 46(3): 35269. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9752.2012.00866.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ranson, G. (2018) The Parents and Children Project: Raising Kids in Canada Today, Rock Mills Press.

  • Rivas, E. (2016) How to outsmart your kids online, Today’s Parent, www.todaysparent.com/family/parenting/how-to-outsmart-your-kids-online/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rizzo, K.M., Schiffrin, H.H. and Liss, M. (2013) Insight into the parenthood paradox: mental health outcomes of intensive mothering, Journal of Child and Family Studies, 22(5): 61420. doi: 10.1007/s10826-012-9615-z

    • Search Google Scholar
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  • 1 Wilfrid Laurier University, , Canada

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