Based on her latest article, When anxious mothers meet social media, LSE’s Bingchun Meng looks at how parental anxiety amongst parents from across China’s socio-economic spectrum is rife, and in the case of the middle-classes, is being exacerbated by conversations with other parents on social media communications platforms.
Pressure on parents to make the ‘right’ choices and purchases for their child is shown to be a significant source of anxiety across all sections of China’s society: working class and middle-class parents exist in different cultures with different lifestyles, but they are united in their anxiety around their children. They both want the best for their families: for middle class parents, this means not following behind from their peers, for working -class parents’, their aspiration is oriented toward moving up the socio-economic ladder. However, middle-class parents worry more, and intervene more often, because they have the relative luxury of having the time and means to support their children, whereas working class families do not.
For this project, I interviewed 28 mothers in Shanghai, China, either individually or through focus groups. Just like anywhere else, women are often the more influential parent in heterosexual couples. Mothers assume primary responsibility for the physical, emotional and intellectual wellbeing of children, and the expectation of good mothering is fulfilled by practicing the right kind of consumption in relation to childrearing. Through these conversations with both middle-class and migrant working-class mothers, I was able to learn what different parents imagined the idea of a good mother to be, and how they linked this understanding to their version of a ‘good life.’
A clear class divide emerged in the kind of lives that parents imagined for their children. Middle-class parents held a hope that they could cultivate their children, through a choice of school and university and extra-curricular activities. They aimed to equip their children to have a range of career choices and be happy when they reached adulthood.
Working-class parents seemed to emphasise and trust the importance of the education system in China, and had more prosaic hopes for their children, such as pursuing a stable career in sectors like healthcare. In addition, because working-class parents had less time and access to the social networks to discuss their parenting choices, they were shielded from the intense discussion and peer pressure middle-class parents encountered. This meant working-class parent-child relationships were markedly different.
One theme that emerged from my conversations was how discussions on social media platforms such as WeChat were a popular place for discussions with other parents. Middle-class parents are endlessly seeking the right product or activity for their child. They contact their friends about education, about the development of their children, about activities that they should be doing, and the sheer range and choice available to them feeds into the sense of apprehension that they may not be doing the right thing.
As well as allowing communication between friends and groups, WeChat has a Public Account (also referred to as “official account”) function, which allows individuals and private companies as well as government agencies to set up their own channel for content distribution. Small and medium-sized businesses are especially keen to invest in Public Accounts for marketing and promotional purposes. Data from Tencent, the company that developed WeChat, shows that there were 17 million active Public Accounts as of late 2017.
Increasing parental investment and consumption demands in relation to children’s education has given rise to the exponential growth of a wide range of educational services and products catering to families with differing purchasing power. These private companies are ingenious not only in identifying business opportunities in anything child-rearing- related, but also in devising marketing rhetoric that preys on the anxiety of parents. Social media in particular have become a channel conducive to disseminating commercial discourses. Parenting advice from Public Accounts can be categorised into: health advice, which mainly caters to parents of younger children; psychological advice that attends to the emotional well- being of both parents and children; and educational advice for improving the academic performance of school-age children. Advertisements are for both goods and services ostensibly to improve every possible aspect of children’s lives and are mostly in “soft” forms, embedded in advisory content.
Of course, parental anxiety has a long history around the world, but it seems as if the social media enabled parental network takes it a step further. Some of the mothers whom I spoke to explained that they found the relentlessness of their conversations, and the choices they have, make it more difficult for them to cope. They talked of wanting to just switch off and bury their heads in the sand: particularly for the middle classes in my study, their anxiety is approaching a state of panic.
One might think that, given the significant advantages that middle-class children enjoy in all aspects of their upbringing, their mothers would be more content and confident than their working-class counterparts. Yet my research seems to suggest the opposite. Exactly because middle-class mothers have the means and resources to pursue intensive parenting and concerted cultivation, they are the target audience for commercial messages selling all kinds of products and service to do with childrearing. More often than not, the parenting-related soft advertisements that saturate Chinese social media promote a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality by stirring up the deep-seated anxiety of middle-class parents about falling behind.
So middle-class mothers are well-informed, but they are constantly seeking new advice in the hope of planning everything ahead as much as possible, as was reflected on multiple occasions when my interviewees treated me as their informant. Having too many bits and pieces of information from different channels and facing seemingly endless options proved to be exacerbating rather than appeasing their anxiety. In general, working-class parents have more faith in the public education system. Their basic attitude is that as long as their children go to a decent school they will be fine. Middle-class parents, however, think that there are always better services provided by the market. This of course is reinforced by the fact that they are the target audience of parenting Public Accounts.
Further research is needed to investigate how working-class parents deal with the pressure to be a certain type of parent. As social science researchers, we need to go much further in our understanding of how this group navigate the challenges of parenthood in light of their additional economic and social pressures.
This article represents the views of the author and not the position of the Media@LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.