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August 28th, 2019

Off-media options: families resisting digital technology

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Guest author

August 28th, 2019

Off-media options: families resisting digital technology

0 comments | 5 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes


What are the dynamics of refusing and rejecting the use of media by parents and their children? What kinds of avoidance and resistance against media pressure can be found in families? What are the contexts for shutting down media use? Maria José Brites (Universidade Lusófona do Porto/CICANT) and Cristina Ponte (Universidade Nova de Lisboa) looked at these questions in an article published by Comunicação e Sociedade. Maria José Brites researches participatory methodologies, youth, journalism and participation, audience studies and news and civic literacy. Cristina Ponte has researched on mediatisation of childhood and on media and family generations in Portugal.

At first our research project did not intend to examine digital technology avoiders or media resistance. We worked with an initial sample of 20 Portuguese families (a young person and his/her mother or father), and from this we focused on: seven young people (five girls, two boys) aged 14-19; 11 parents (seven mothers, four fathers) aged 45-61. They were interviewed between November 2015 and April 2016, in Great Porto, Portugal, regarding their news consumption and media usage, theoretically the opposite to resistance. However, the interview extracts pointed to unexpected and explicit forms of resistance, rejection and the impossibility of such consumption. These signs of resistance towards media in the context of a deep mediatised society (Couldry & Hepp, 2017; Hepp & Hasebrink, 2018) were what made us want to better understand the dynamics of refusing and resisting media and media contents.

With extensive work on resistance to the media, Trine Syvertsen points out that some forms of resistance are neces­sary in a context of major mediatisation, and that individuals need self-regulation in order to defend themselves from invasive media.

After identifying expressions of resistance and avoidance, five patterns emerged:

1. I do not like and do not want to use this

All of those who expressed this sentiment were parents; almost all were mothers over 45 years old. With different levels of schooling and socio-economic status, they evoked the right to have a choice within a digitalised society, to intentionally refuse the digital. While some had to make use of the internet for professional reasons, being on the internet was something all rejected because they did not like it or did not want to use it. Particularly mothers with low levels of schooling and unskilled jobs vehemently expressed resistance, in spite of the efforts of their children in facilitating their digital use.

Interviewer: Under what conditions do you access computers, the mobile phone, the internet?

Dina: Completely off. Off! Really off!

I: Don’t you have a mobile phone?

D: Here’s the thing, I have a mobile phone, the simplest of the simplest and even then, I can only make calls and sometimes I open messages that they send me, but only if I receive the message and I hear it and see it. Because otherwise I don’t pay much attention. No. […] It’s a choice I make. And it’s not just that, I really find it difficult, and I don’t try to get better…
(Dina, 53, mother of two children aged 17 and 19)

2. At this stage of my life, no!  

This reason was expressed by parents with different levels of schooling. They rejected news information they disliked, either because it was sad or because it was connected to politics and caused discomfort or disenchantment. They justified this rejection due to the stage of life in which they found themselves. This behaviour is in line with recent results from Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017

3. I cannot pay for it or I cannot have it

Two young people reported their media avoidance in different terms related to different family profiles. One was part of a family that had few economic resources and the other was from a family where there was no room for dialogue about the use of media and joint solutions. Both adapted their daily lives to the limitations they faced. The implications of these limitations turned out to be entangled and they created avoidance routines that shaped their use of digital media. These structural constraints are external, but affected their media access and use.

With a school experience marked by failure, Olavo (aged 17), referred to his poor relationship with reading. He enjoyed watching films on the digital screen of his tablet in a home which was not well equipped with technology. His mobile phone broke, and he could not buy another, but he says he got used to the situation.

Rita (16) had no internet at home because her parents cut off Wi-Fi access due to her brother’s dependency on gaming. This caused her to have to use the internet in cafes and at school. Rita carefully managed what she had to do online (personal searches, homework, contacts through email) and she controlled the time she was online. She seemed to be influenced by the family environment of internet restriction.

However, at a certain point in the interview Rita realised that her parents’ restrictive decision could constitute a violation of her human rights – identification of digital rights was one of the topics of our research – and set the context for her personal life. She had never previously thought about this but she started to rethink the rights of children for the Internet Age specifically according to the ONU resolution on internet and human rights.

4. I don’t want to draw attention to myself and I don’t want to get addicted

Young people and parents (some of them members of the same family) showed their rejection of public exposure and the possibility of over-connecting on Facebook. They rejected the social network’s control over their personal lives and they avoided personal exposure. They said they were refusing what they already knew and criticised how it was conceived; they used a self-regulating strategy to avoid such media becoming too invasive. These rejections are in line with what Sonia Livingstone and Alicia Blum-Ross found in Parenting for a Digital Future’s report, detailed here. There is a substantial research in this field, with a “focus on new and emerging technologies in the lives of children, young people, families and schools”.

5. Doing something different and doing it better

In this last group, composed of two families, parents and their children, resistance was linked to television and connected to an actual refusal of media and a conscious choice. Strong cultural concerns were expressed within family micro cultures, with a “taste and culture” influence. The family may have had a TV at home, but they rejected its use with the argument that they could talk more as a family or carry out cultural activities that would be difficult to achieve if everyday life was determined by the TV set.

These environments were media rich, and included reading and access to different forms of culture. The refusal came from the parents and it was followed by the younger members.

To think about

It is necessary to understand media disconnectivity in order to understand immersivity. If resistances and avoidances can show inequalities and lack of skills online, they can also show diversity in activities and social interaction offline. Parents play a special role in promoting this more diverse approach towards online and offline practices in relation to the media as preparation for a more diverse way of life. In a deep mediatised society, where we are supposed to be constantly online, considering offline moments can bring new possibilities for social contact and differentiated knowledge.

We can summarise our findings as follows:

  • Internet: resistance to the internet was identified only among parents.
  • Facebook: parents and children shared practices of rejecting the hegemonic social network. Even if these avoidances were not explicitly stated as a family choice, after a while they became a reflection of a common judgment.
  • Television: this rejection was the most cohesive from the point of view of family options. Parents and children showed indifference to television and had a common interest in seeking alternatives.

An overall rejection of the media was not found, but resistances and constraints, shown in singular or plural ways of acting, were. Some parents’ resistance regarding digital media come up against professional contexts where, even if one wished to, one cannot stop using it – but they did not apply this to their children. For others, resistance – either to television or to a digital network – was actively embedded in their ways of doing family.

This post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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