Parents' failure to plan for their children's digital futures

Document Type


Publication Title

Media@LSE Working Paper Series


Media@LSE, London School of Economics and Political Science ("LSE")


School of Arts and Humanities / Graduate Research / Centre for Learning and Teaching


Australian Research Council

Sonia Livingstone

Grant Number

ARC Number : DP150104734


Green, L., Haddon, L., Livingstone, S., Holloway, D., Jaunzems, K., Stevenson, K., & O'Neill, B. (2019). Parents' failure to plan for their children's digital futures. Media@LSE Working Paper Series, 2019, article 61.


There is extensive evidence that teenagers’ social media and internet use is of considerable concern to a number of parents. But little is known regarding parents of much younger children. Given the widespread public debate about screen time and online risks, do parents have an intended strategy for socialising their very young children to prepare them to take their place in the digital world? While this might be driven by similar concerns to those expressed by parents of older children, it is possible that parents of younger children hope to find ways to parent differently, thereby avoiding some of the problems encountered by teenagers?

This paper explores the experiences of digital parenting of six families with a ‘focus child’ aged three years or under. These families are a subset of nine UK families and 12 Australian families with children aged between birth and five (inclusive) who participated in the research project Toddlers and Tablets funded by the Australian Research Council (2015-18). The project adopts a children’s rights context (UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989) (Livingstone and Third, 2017), and interrogates issues of access, engagement, risk and the sense of control that parents have over their young children’s technological interactions. In Australia, the data underpinning this paper was gathered in family-based investigations and interviews in an ethnographic setting involving two researchers, one of whom engages principally with interviewing the parent(s) and child, while the other focusses on taking notes and images to inform an ethnographic account of the target child’s digital media use. In the UK, there was a little more variation in approach, with some single-researcher interviews.

In addition to the child’s rights perspective, the conceptual foundations for the paper are derived from Lave and Wenger’s theory of communities of practice (1989). These frameworks position children as having rights while parents and other caregivers learn from each other and from materials circulating in the public sphere in exerting the principal influence upon young children’s early digital literacies. Parents are conceptualised as collaborating and sharing in communities of practice, but the available evidence also suggests that many parents engage in reactive digital parenting, rather than planning ahead to create a thought-through basis for the digital life of the future teen or young adult digital citizen. The paper suggests that this need not be problematic, however

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