Brooke Foucault Welles - "Oneness" in Networks of Children and Families‽

This episode features Brooke Foucault Welles. She along and a panel of guest speakers critically explore the implications of One World One Network‽ and the challenges of children and family networks.

Noshir Contractor 00:00
ICA Presents.

​​The noise you just heard is the sound of the "interrobang." A nonstandard punctuation mark, the interrobang’s appearance is its explanation – an exclamation mark superimposed directly on a question mark. The theme for the 2022 International Communication Association conference – "One World, One Network‽" – ends with an interrobang. The symbol simultaneously celebrates and problematizes the "one-ness" in the modern age of global communication. This podcast series features episodes hosted by the six co-chairs of the conference theme.

In this episode, one of the conference theme co-chairs, Professor Brooke Foucault Welles hosts a discussion that explores how communication and technology can connect and divide us in the context of children and family networks. Here’s Brooke.

Brooke Foucault Welles 01:03
Hello, ICA listeners. This is Brooke Foucault Wells. I'm an associate professor and Interim Chair of the Department of Communication Studies at Northeastern University. And I'm one of our ICA theme co chairs, ICA 2022 invites scholars to interrogate the idea of One World One Network and take a look at how communication, media, and technology connect and divide us. Today's podcast is dedicated to networks of children and families. And it's my pleasure to introduce you to an incredible group of experts that are joining me on the podcast today. Our first guest today is Dr. Meryl Alper. Meryl, could you introduce yourself?

Meryl Alper 01:39
Sure, my name is Meryl Alper. I am an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. My background, before I came to academia, was working in the children's media industry as a researcher, a strategist. And in my academic work, I focus more specifically on issues related to families and kids, specifically children with developmental disabilities.

Brooke Foucault Welles 02:02
Next, we have Dr. Amy Jordan. Amy, could you introduce yourself?

Amy Jordan 02:05
My name is Amy Jordan. I am the chair of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University. My research has focused for the last three decades on the role of media in the lives of children, adolescents and families. My current research interests focus on the challenges that we face as a field trying to bring in children and families who are quite often left at the margins of our research.

Brooke Foucault Welles 02:33
And last, but certainly not least, we have Dr. Sun Sun Lim.

Sun Sun Lim 02:36
I'm Sun Sun Lim. I'm Professor of Communication and Technology, and head of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. I focus my research on countries in Asia, including Singapore, China, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Most recently, I published Transcendent Parenting: Raising Children in the Digital Age where I looked at how the increasing use of mobile communication is changing the way parents relate to children and the agencies and institutions where their children are being catered to, and how these really unleash all kinds of new parenting burdens and responsibilities that really do intensify the parenting law.

Brooke Foucault Welles 03:19
So diving in, the last 18 months or so had some pretty extraordinary challenges for all of us, and perhaps most, especially children, adolescents, and their families. Many of us are rethinking the way that communication media and technology play a role in the lives of children, adolescents, and their families and how we might respond based on things like the pandemic and the severing of school ties for many children, social unrest, you know, a renegotiation around racism and representation and media, environmental destruction, and the destroying of our physical infrastructure. So I'm wondering, as a way into this, if you might be willing to share a story or an example either from your own lives or your research that really illustrates here how families might be using communication media or technology a bit differently in light of all the things that have happened.

Meryl Alper 04:08
So I've been working on a book, kind of over the course of the past year during the pandemic called Kids Across the Spectrums: Growing Up Autistic in the Digital Age with MIT Press. One of those kids was this 13 year old girl named Saylor. Saylor had started to be more physically and socially independent from her parents and it meant that her socializing outside of school wasn't just limited to social media. But when I interviewed her, everything had shut down, the coffee shops were closed, Saylor wasn't going to school, let alone riding the bus. This shift meant something more because of her autism diagnosis, this independence and this socialization was a real milestone for her. The bigger takeaway, I think for studying kids, was looking at these developmental moments. They're these little insights that opened up a whole world to thinking about what in children's lives has been meaningful. And, and the things that maybe we think are meaningful. It's so important to talk to kids and ask them, what are the big things that have changed, and for her, social media couldn't replace that physical independence.

Amy Jordan 05:10
A lesson that I learned from college students that I think can apply to children and adolescents is how that affected their learning, but also what assumptions we made as educators kind of go into it. We launched a study that over the course of two months between April and May, and we published the national data with more than 1400 college aged students. And we learned two important things from that study. One was that the college students who are most economically disadvantaged according to their self report were also the ones that struggled most with online learning. They had devices that weren't always working, they had internet that was unstable. They were more concerned about how much they would learn and how well they would do in school. Then there was this other really important finding, and that is that as students who have English as a second language were significantly more likely to say that remote learning was in many ways beneficial, they were able to go back and rewatch the lecture. So they weren't relying on just being able to catch it the first time the lecture was being held. I now always provide captioning. So that there is not only me speaking, but there's also text. I think that it helps us become more aware that not everyone is processing information the same way or has the same capacity to pick up the words you say at the pace you’re saying it.

Sun Sun Lim 06:48
One of the most remarkable stories from the pandemic, for me, has to be actually from very early on in the pandemic, in Wuhan, where it all began. The Chinese government introduced a lockdown and it was a very strict lockdown. And so I think the kids were thinking, “yay, school's out”, you know, but then suddenly, they were all being given all kinds of homework on these homework apps. There was one particularly well used app called DingTalk. There was this kind of rumor, movement around all the kids where if you go to the App Store and you give this app a one star review, you're going to bump the app of the store. It was amazing how these kids just kind of like collectively mobilized to try and get rid of the homework, it just shows the nature of childhood today is so different and even also for parenting within the household, you've got to think about how else your child is being influenced beyond the home.

Brooke Foucault Welles 07:42
Thinking about our conference theme this year, “One World One Network‽”, it ends in this Interrobang symbol. So it's this combination of a question mark and an exclamation point as a way to signal a mix of excitement and critique about this idea that we're all connected. So I wonder if you could just play a little bit here with the idea of the one network. So who's in and who's left out, and maybe Meryl, you can get us started?

Meryl Alper 8:05
Kids on the autism spectrum, if you think about that, on the global scale, there are massive gaps in diagnoses on even who has who has access then to resources, to school supports, whose families understand the ways to best help their kids, what level of stigma is around their condition, that varies massively, particularly in the Global North and Global South. I think it's also really important to think about the ways in which disabled people have been part of the foundations of technological networks. People on the autism spectrum have found speaking to other people through the internet to lessen certain burdens of social cues, or expectations to respond very quickly to a question. So their story isn't automatically about being outsiders when it comes to technology and connectivity, sometimes very much insiders. But at least for kids, thinking about them fully taking part in online spaces in a healthy way and maximizing its benefits can be really challenging. And that's related to one how today's platforms and apps are built to make excessive use very easy. So it's hard to maximize those benefits when it's hard to separate yourself sometimes from the technology, also, everytime we're using technology, we're also being influenced by the offline world. The ways in which these kids are connected isn't because of a choice necessarily, it's because of a lack of choices, the world outside of them in terms of the extracurriculars or just like the physical spaces around them, that aren't very welcoming for neurodivergent people. The world that they're able to find through the network sometimes is the only world that accepts them.

Amy Jordan 09:49
One of the things that we have to consider when we consider “One World One Network‽” is that particularly for very young children, their ability to connect to that network, or be a part of that world, is reliant on caregivers, making those translations for them. Parents who are savvy about using tech or savvy about knowing where on the internet they should send their children or not, are reaping more rewards. And those who have fewer resources are suffering and that knowledge gap that we talked about back in the 1960s, I believe is growing. There is an assumption that there will be a parent who is available, to sit beside them, and help them navigate. Those assumptions are really problematic, and can end up creating a generation of children who, for some thrive in these kinds of conditions, and for others who fall far behind.

Sun Sun Lim 10:51
That's a really nice segue into what I was going to share about Singapore when we went into a two month lockdown. Families that were on the right side of the digital divide, everything was peachy, but with the families that were struggling, even in a country like Singapore, we had families who had no devices, or they had the wrong kinds of devices compared to those families which were well connected, where there were mothers who had Excel sheets that had all of the different learning accounts that kid needed to use. But the digitally disconnected ones were struggling in so many ways. Some of them were given laptops, but were afraid to use them because they thought that if they broke them, they would have to pay for them. So altogether there was a whole spectrum on the digital disconnect and in terms of the difficulties and the challenges, as opposed to the digitally connected who were basically functioning very well. So yes, there are two different worlds.

Amy Jordan 11:43
And I would argue that these two different worlds didn't grow up around the pandemic, they existed prior. There has often been a conversation about the digital divide. That's kind of how we started thinking about children and adolescents and their families who are connected or not connected to the internet. As more and more children were able to acquire things like smartphones, but didn't have things like laptops or desktop computers, what we started to see instead was a digital use divide. We would have children who would have pretty strong word processing software on their laptops or their desktops but then we had other students who could write the paper, but they were writing the paper on their smartphones. Part of what we need to do as scholars is really understand, not just how do we get people connected, but how do we get people to take advantage of the resources that are available once you are connected.

Sun Sun Lim 12:41
In many ways, I'm grateful to the pandemic for actually highlighting all of the differences and how we can help. It's actually galvanized the community in Singapore around pushing for Universal Digital Access, which I also helped to raise when I was in Parliament at the time.

Meryl Alper 12:56
I think that in the field of children and media, we've sometimes taken a very atomized look, thinking about an individual child in the middle and thinking about a parent, and very often sometimes a mom. If the pandemic has made anything clear, and there has been work before this, but I don’t think it has really fully baked into the work that we do, thinking about siblings as really important influences both potentially positive or negative. Parent like but also not. The way that siblings influence children's interests, the kind of content that they watch. That's something that maybe comes out of this in terms of how we think more expansively about the social context around an individual child that we, we think about it in a less atomized way and think about siblings in a more dynamic context.

Brooke Foucault Welles 13:43
So I wonder if any of you can think of examples of things that are really sort of helping kids connect and helping engage children and their families?

Amy Jordan 13:51
Children have been asked to cope with a lot. And there's a lot that they're afraid of. So how can media companies like Sesame Workshop or others, give content to parents to help them talk to their children about what they might be seeing on their programs or in their neighborhoods. For example, in the US, Black Lives Matter. How do they talk about racial disparity? How do they talk about COVID, and masks and vaccines? Oftentimes, we don't know what language to use when we're talking to a two or three or four or five year old. Being able to provide models through Muppets, for example, that feel more accessible to children can, I think, be very helpful for parents who are struggling to know how to explain to their children what's happening in the world.

Sun Sun Lim 14:46
One of the communities that was badly struck by the pandemic at the beginning was our rather large community of migrant workers, they had issues of having to be quarantined and so many of them were sort of cut off from the rest of the world. And so you saw young people create all kinds of initiatives, where they were giving the migrant workers English language lessons via mobile phones, starting mask sewing programs. In many ways, this helped the young Singaporeans to cope with the whole pandemic.

Meryl Alper 15:16
How did people create connections when usual connections were gone? Kids on the spectrum, some of them very much feel connections to media characters, to media persona. The comfort of those characters, the predictability of episodes, the known length of an episode. I think having something, when everything was different, something that was the same meant a lot for kids in general. To me, it reflects back on, for a lot of people on the spectrum, a lack of predictability, and a lack of sameness can cause a lot of dysregulation and worry. So this is a population who may be more so feels like that affinity in that relationship to characters. I think in some ways, due to the lack of individuals to not just to socially interact with, not para-socially interact with, that there was a benefit there for young people to have something that was a constant.

Brooke Foucault Welles 16:12
I suspect a lot of our listeners are parents, caregivers, or otherwise have young people in their lives. So I'm wondering, based on your enormous expertise, if you could each offer a piece of advice for those parents and caregivers.

Sun Sun Lim 16:28
You know, when the pandemic first broke out, I was invited by various ministries to conduct webinars for families and I really empathize with all these parents, especially those with very young children who are more needy. And many parents have shared with me that they found the last year to be very enriching for them in terms of really connecting with their kids, and understanding on a deeper level, their usage of technology. So I'll just boil it down to three things. The first thing is the technology, we've got to actually understand what's out there and the technology, how it works, so that you can actually provide the guidance that your kids need. The second thing is really, he tone, not to be judgmental, but really to try and understand from their perspective, what they're enjoying about the technology, what they find intimidating. And then the third thing is trust, you've got to build a relationship of trust, so that when they encounter anything that is threatening or intimidating, that they know that they can turn to you for advice and guidance.

Amy Jordan 17:23
You should model the behavior. So that means that when you're with your child, and wanting to spend quality time with them, you should put your phone away and encourage them to do the same. This has been an opportunity, in many ways, to spend more time with our children. But that time is compromised if it's spent primarily on devices. Children are using media in ways that are often times mysterious and confusing to parents. But children are often very happy to tell you what they're doing, expressing that interest, as opposed to constantly judging what they're doing makes for a healthier relationship between the caregiver and the child, but also between the child and the medium.

Meryl Alper 18:09
I'm thinking about parents of neurodivergent kids that don't necessarily think in the ways that are typically expected. And sometimes that can lead to parents over regulating, trying to over-manage, micro-manage. And I think sometimes that can then lead to there being a lack of agency that kids have. So it's important to think about the whole child because sometimes I think we focus just on certain things that are issues or problems related to, you know, like behavior that we can miss then all these other ways that media can enable things like communication like emotional expression. Thinking about, in what ways it's important to scaffold and support kids, but the ways in which that focus on the structure can be very sociological can then lead to not enough focus on agency.

Brooke Foucault Welles 18:58
So I'm wondering, If you had to pick, would you say, but our media and technologies are making us more connected into one world, one network, or they're making us less connected?

Sun Sun Lim 19:10
I would definitely be on the connected end and because of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty Campaign that we're organizing, we decided to get people who are traditionally disconnected to sort of tell us their stories. And then this boy, he's from a less privileged background, and he had a video of himself in his home, and it was a Tik-Tok video of himself, eating the donated food. And he was joking about how, you know, poor and impoverished they were and so on. And I really liked that, you know, he took ownership of his life and his narrative. And he was sort of like taking the mickey out of these Tik-Tok videos, which are always about glamour and stuff, and so on. Really, it was a wonderful example of how people can actually articulate their views, their perspectives, and from their stance and educate everyone else as to what the world looks like, from their view in their shoes. I think that the more we work towards universal digital access, the more we can get more people on board. And the more we can create those conversations.

Meryl Alper 20:09
Connection isn't always good, disconnection isn't always bad. Connection can heighten risks, and disconnection can provide a much needed break. What it really is, it's a matter of agency and choice: who has control over the terms of their connection, or disconnection. That's kind of the crux of it, those questions of power, to me, are the ones that we need to keep digging into.

Amy Jordan 20:33
From a global perspective, we are more connected. However, we need to do a better job of making sure that those who want to be connected are those who would benefit from being connected, have that opportunity to be connected. I would like to see more governments doing what Sun is doing in Singapore, and working to pass policies and lay the infrastructure so that everyone who wants to have the opportunity to be a part of this global network has that opportunity. In the United States, there are many communities that just don't have broadband access, and there have been movements to pass legislation to get those communities connected up. There are many homes that can't afford the monthly internet fee and so we need to do a better job of making sure that those homes are subsidized and it's happening but it's not happening fast enough. And I think that we as scholars need to continue to study what happens to the children who are left out of that global network.

Brooke Foucault Welles 21:43
Thank you for being here today, it's been a joy, and thank you for all the wonderful work you're doing out in the world.

Noshir Contractor 21:49

This podcast series is presented by the International Communication Association in the lead up to the 2022 annual conference in May. One World One Network ‽ is sponsored by the Annenberg Center for Collaborative Communication at both the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

This episode was produced by Troy Cruz. Our executive producer is Aldo Diaz Caballero. The theme music is by Jon Presstone. For more information about our participants on this episode, as well as our sponsor, as well as the history behind the interrobang, be sure to check the show notes in the episode description.

In the next episode, we will continue exploring the conference’s theme – “One World, One Network‽” – from the perspectives of the conference theme’s other co-chairs.

Thanks for listening.

Brooke Foucault Welles - "Oneness" in Networks of Children and Families‽
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