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Adolescents, Parents and Digital Media: Looking for the pattern that dis/connects

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - AdoDigitFamX (Adolescents, Parents and Digital Media: Looking for the pattern that dis/connects)

Reporting period: 2015-09-01 to 2017-08-31

Scientific research and much public opinion are either enthusiastic and supportive or pessimistic and condemning for great harm and risks afforded by Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). Previous studies have showed that ICTs provide new possibilities for self-expression and personal experimentation, but also new risks and harm, that become particularly important in adolescence. Adolescence is indeed a time of high-level use of digital devices (smartphones, social networks), which often becomes the trigger of family disputes and conflicts. Adolescence is also an intense time of re-organizations in family relations when the family system must find a new balance to adapt to children’s changes. This happens through collective reorganizations (microtransitions) that can either enable or limit the development of adolescents’ competencies and autonomy. Also, parents face new challenges in regulating their practices with respect to digital media and children’s control and protection, and ask for support. More empirical evidences are needed to overcome opportunities/risks dichotomies, and provide more effective solutions to the problem.
This research adopted a transdisciplinary framework of social/developmental psychology and media and communication studies to examine how ICTs are changing interpersonal relations within the families. This has been done through the development and application of innovative methods based on Digital Ethnography (DE) and First-Person Perspective (FPP). Two research questions guided our project: (1) What is the impact of communication through digital media on family interactions and child development during adolescence? (2) How can we gather and analyse data on the mediating role of digital devices in real life situations? Starting from these questions, we have defined three research goals:
(a) To capture the actual use of digital devices, i.e. all the technologies adolescents use to create, maintain, and transform communication in different situations of their everyday life.
(b) To better understand the role of digital devices in parent-child interaction, by understanding the mutually shaping processes of ICTs, human development and family communication.
(c) To clarify the opportunities and risks of ICTs in family communication and child development, documenting the good/bad practices (strategies, parenting styles) thereby providing parents, practitioners and stakeholders with operational advice.
The research project was carried out over 24 months: six work packages and 14 deliverables have been completed. The realization of the actual research project lasted 19 months and comprised: the preparation of the research design, the pilot study, the definition of the methodological protocol (video-based procedure: Subjective Evidence-Based Ethnography, SEBE), and the actual data collection. A fieldwork was carried out with 21 families and their adolescent children recruited in two secondary schools. The last 5 months of the project were dedicated to communication and public engagement strategies: one conference for the general public, schools, and stakeholders; report for participant families; technical report for LSE. Activities of dissemination and exploitation of results started after the pilot study. Results have been disseminated in: 9 seminars for PhD students; 5 international conferences; 3 scientific papers; 5 newspaper articles; one Blog contribution.
Our findings showed that:
(a) Adolescents privileged the use of smartphones to accomplish several tasks ranging from entertainment to school duties. A small number of adolescents was able to develop coping strategies that allowed them to self-regulate the use of ICTs (digital coping); the majority showed a ‘bittersweet’ approach to the use of ICTs (mixed positive and negative practices).
(b) Parent-child interactions were analysed through the lenses of domestication theory (appropriation and integration in everyday tasks and routines) and installation theory (how objects, social constraints, and individual representations shape individual practices). Different patterns of domestication were observed (successful, unsuccessful, intermediate) and related to family functioning and values, and effective/ineffective strategies adopted by adolescents (successful domestication pattern implied parental regulations about use and allocation of digital devices in the domestic environment).
(c) Families and schools should build a ‘social contract’ to promote a better use of digital technologies, improve technology-mediated communication and adolescents’ wellbeing. Adolescents and parents that showed good practices could share their experiences and networking with other parents, children, teachers, through meetings/online platforms.
The SEBE protocol and the integration with other classic instruments allowed us to reach a ‘thick’ corpus of data which accounted for individual, interpersonal, and cultural processes with respect to ICTs use. The video recordings of adolescents’ everyday interactions with ICTs and the examination of their subjective experiences (motives, goals, emotions) during reply interviews (RIWs) allowed us to identify practices that would have never been observed through classic techniques. During RWIs adolescents were asked to provide explanations of their behaviours commenting their video recordings. This triggered a ‘self-reflexive process’ in which adolescents could ‘critically’ examine their activities with the support of the researcher, who could confront and integrate her interpretations with those provided by participants.
The adoption of a family perspective to examine digital media incorporation allowed us to situate the understanding of adolescents’ use of ICTs in the context family relations and communication, thereby linking individual behaviours and family dynamics. We shed light on new domestication processes, suggesting that domestication theory can benefit from integrating Installation theory principles (i.e. a micro-analytical framework for examining individuals’ actions, goals, motivations and emotions).
Students, researchers and professionals has demonstrated interest in learning and using SEBE in psychosocial research (digital technologies, human-computer interactions, family process, behaviour change). This has prompted us to found a research laboratory at the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at the LSE, the SEBE-Lab, which is having periodic meetings and hosting events for the scientific community.
Beyond researchers, families, practitioners and socio-educational and clinical agencies have been the main audience. The collected video material (good/bad practices) can be used to provide counselling to parents and/or adolescent children having problems in controlling ICTs use as well as to train practitioners working with families and children. Clinical practitioners demonstrated a particular interest in the SEBE protocol; they envisaged the use of SEBE for treating technology-related problems (addiction or anxiety). New connections were built with psychotherapy centres (especially the Tavistock Centre), and a new research project is under preparation with their collaboration.
SEBE promises to become a useful tool for research and intervention with children and families in today’s societies, where ICTs have become integral part of our everyday lives.
SEBE protocol for adolescents
AdoDigitFamX final event for general public
Overview of AdoDigitFamX actions
Theoretical framework (Installation Theory)