Written by Teresa Sofia Pereira Dias de Castro.
In 2014, I undertook an international research internship during my PhD at the University of Suffolk (at the time it was known as University Campus Suffolk) under the supervision of Professor Emma Bond. I was greatly inspired by Professor Emma Bond’s research on young people’s children's perceptions of risk and mobile technologies, which had attracted considerable media attention both nationally and internationally.
This was a remarkable enriching academic and educational experience and it provided an opportunity to mature and evolve as a research-active academic. After four years, I am thrilled to return this month to an independent University of Suffolk, with its thriving academic environment and modern campus as an international visiting post-doctoral researcher (Universidade Nova de Lisboa) with a new project and supervision of Cristina Ponte. iTec Families is the first longitudinal study in Portugal that proposes to do research and follow up with twenty-five Portuguese families with children aged two months to eight years old. Besides gaining a grounded perspective around infancy and parenting, the project aims to assist families handling digital landscapes and its ever-changing challenges as well as contribute to families’ digital literacy.
More schooled parents and one-child families confirm demographic trends in Portugal and new family structures. According to the national statistics, Portuguese families with children are the ones who invest more in purchasing technological equipment. New cohorts of users (parents and children) point to more media-rich households and more digital-savvy parents. Nevertheless, the national study conducted in 2016 with families with children aged between 3 and 8 years old – Growing Between Screens – carried out by EU Kids Online national team for Portuguese Authority for Media Regulation, points to a style of parental mediation that relies heavily on protection-oriented measures (in particular with girls). As an example of ‘good parenting’ some families encourage postponing children’s interaction with technology justifying that the child ‘is too young’ to explore internet possibilities, and as the child grows older s/he will easily catch up with digital demands.
Nonetheless, this is not a straightforward issue. In relation to the stage of infancy and screens, ambivalence seems to cloud parents’ discourses. If parents seem to agree that they prefer having their child busy with non-screen activities, when interviewed at home, theory and practice seem to easily conflict. Screens and apps are omnipresent in contemporary Portuguese households and children as young as one year and a half are already exploring several online possibilities: YouTube for video watching, Whatsapp with assistance to make and send voice messages, and video calling applications to keep in touch with relatives. Television remains central in families’ daily lives, most of the time used as background noise and providing a ‘walled garden’ supported by cartoon channels (in particular, Panda and Disney) to which parents entrust their children.
Despite struggling with feelings of guilt, at some point, even the most reluctant parents (with consistent lofty intentions) seem to give in and surrender to using old and new media as babysitters or pacifiers. These devices have also become valued objects for capturing and storing digital evidences of children’s growth that help building family memories. Yet they are mostly valued for aiding parents through daily child rearing practices, in particular YouTube. Similarly, to television, when the child is very young, parents rely on YouTube to meet theirs and their children’s needs: for example, newborn contents that help sleep-deprived parents magically induce their baby’s sleep at nap/bedtime or to manage a two-year toddler in a highchair while the (single) mom is getting a shower and dressed up for work.
When parents are asked to remember the moment they presented YouTube to their child, almost all families admit that it became very supportive at some point, particularly when they experienced some problems with their child over-eating. However, there is a backlash to this supporting role of technology the moment the child reveals abilities to master the video-sharing platform autonomously, resist parental control or when it becomes a necessary condition for carrying out everyday routines. These and other topics have been covered in publications, seminars, conference presentations and community talks. However, there is yet much to do in order to help families scaffolding children’s interactions with connected screens in a balanced, confident and responsible manner.
Keeping all of this in mind, as an output of my research children’s digital well-being and parental mediation, in collaboration with two Portuguese moms, I wrote a book collection for families - Premika Alert! Online risk detected - that builds on actual conversations and situations collected in fieldwork context. The first number of the collection brings to reflection children’s perspectives, concerns and experiences around social media (Facebook and Instagram).
Children’s digital rights, self-expression, online identity, selfies and likes, peer pressure, parental mediation, and meeting strangers online are some aspects covered in the first volume. The story is lived by Marta – a nine-year old girl – who guides us through real life-based events living the challenges and opportunities offered by the digital world, which deeply intersects with the lives of other people (peer group, relatives, teachers). Premika is a sort of a bionic imaginary friend that comes from the future to help Marta. She gives voice to the girl’s emotions along the story by changing colour. Unlike traditional stories, the book is designed to offer an interactive experience to the reader allowing children and adults to actively reflect and participate in the narrative and decide how the story develops with effects in the plot and its characters. From a pedagogical point of view, this book is a useful tool to address serious issues in a delicate and positive manner, lived by characters that by their authentic nature, families can easily identify with.
*Teresa Sofia Pereira Dias de Castro is a Post-doctoral researcher in Media and Cultural Studies Investigadora Integrada ICNOVA - Instituto de Comunicação da NOVA, Universidade Nova de Lisboa. She will be visiting the University of Suffolk this month to share her new research on Portuguese families with children.