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Que font les familles à l'ère du numérique?

Contemporary families and digital practices : which adjustments for which norms ?

  • Claire Balleys,
  • Olivier Martin and
  • Sylvie Jochems

…more information

  • Claire Balleys
    professeure HES-SO, Université des sciences appliquées de Suisse occidentale, claire.balleys@hesge.ch

  • Olivier Martin
    professeur de sociologie, CERLIS, Université Paris Descartes, olivier.martin@parisdescartes.fr

  • Sylvie Jochems
    professeure à l’École de travail social, Université du Québec à Montréal, jochems.sylvie@uqam.ca

  • Traduction de
    Aude Ferrachat

Article body


Considering the role and place of digital practices in the lives of families and their individual members, it comes as no surprise that a journal such as Enfances Familles Générations ( EFG ) would open its pages to works exploring these realities. The call for papers leading to the production of this themed issue, titled "What do families do in the digital era ?" and sent out in May 2017, was right in stating that "sociological studies of youth, of the family, and of generations can no longer afford not to study the uses of socio-digital technologies". Research in this crucial yet too often ignored field must not be limited to journals specialising in the sociology of media and technology. It seems essential that we develop and refine our sociological understanding of the articulation of digital practices and family life, marital negotiations, and parent-child relationship, of the forms of surveillance mediated by these technologies, or, conversely, of the new ways in which autonomy is acquired, of the balance between peer and familial socialisation, and of the connection between gender roles and the ways in which these technologies are used by couples and families.

In the past, EFG has offered space to articles analysing the uses of digital technologies in a family context, but this is the first time that an entire issue is dedicated to these questions. This issue is all the more exceptional in that it creates a space where critical analyses coming (mainly) from both the sociology of the family and of technology are fully and purposefully brought together. This type of cross-referencing is not a simple rhetorical exercise, the result of an abstract intellectual game. It is a real scientific necessity considering the extent to which family and private lives, the activities of adults and children, and their modes of action and interaction are embedded in technological devices. How are we to study adolescents’ lives if we do not take full account of all the "peripherals" such as cell phones, of social media applications, and of the possibilities of interactions mediated by computers and tablets - in other words, by screens ? And how can we overlook the fact that children separated from their families or their peers can maintain long-distance connections and allow in their conversations individuals who are not physically present as can be the case, for example, in situations where children are placed in the care of child protection agencies ?

We are indeed talking about research bringing together the traditional questions of the sociology of the family and of generations and those coming from the sociology of media and technology. In other words, it is not about simply studying the uses of communication technologies in a family context without re-placing them in that specific context or without studying the ways in which the family is transformed, nor is it about producing a sociology of the family in which communication devices are conceived of as nothing more than decorative elements or consumer goods. It is essential that we tightly weave together the questions coming from both of these intellectual traditions, even though they remain too often segregated in different intellectual spaces - as we will show in the third section of this introductory piece.

Our ambition quickly faces a terminological, and so conceptual, problem - one that is not yet resolved, and that the reader may have noticed in the previous sentences. Roughly speaking, this problem can be expressed this way : what are we talking about exactly ? Many terms are used to refer to the realities this journal issue wishes to explore : socio-digital uses, the internet, new information and communication technologies, techniques, screens, social networks, terminals, connections, the web, social media, cell phone, tablet, computer, applications… This difficulty is not specific to this issue of EFG  : it is the consequence of a trifold reality. Firstly, the wide variety of devices involved, which makes it difficult to identify one unique and all-inclusive term to refer to them all. Secondly, the considerable heterogeneity of the ways in which these devices are being used, which makes all attempts to limit their existence to a single use futile (communication, social networks, information, synchronous or nonsynchronous communication, sharing of text, images, or sounds…). Thirdly, the versatility of these devices, which gives very different social meanings to the use of a single technological items or a single application (for example, working-class adults do not use Facebook as upper-class adolescents do : Pasquier, 2018).

The sociological literature dealing with these various realities does not provide a clear and unique answer to this terminological and conceptual question (Martin and Dagiral, 2016). What are we talking about exactly ? It would be tempting to answer that we are talking about everything. And even if that were the case, which one would be the most suitable term to refer to the practices, the devices, and their uses ? We selected the term, which, to us, seemed the most accurate : we are talking about "connected screens", emphasising the idea that these two words refer to smartphones, tablets, televisions, and computers as well as the applications available across these devices such as social media, video games, entertainment, information, and communication applications. We believe that these terms have a trifold advantage : firstly, their meaning is general enough that they do not seem to exclude any type of use ; secondly, their meaning is neutral enough that they do not refer to a single specific type of use (for example, social media rather than searching information…) ; thirdly, they can be used to describe all the tools, accessories, terminals, and technological devices (only the voice terminals, currently being distributed, are excluded here… if we don’t take into consideration that they are operated and configured using screens).

This introductory article is divided into three sections. In the first section, we will place this special issue in the broader context of research that, for nearly twenty years, has been dedicated to bringing together work on the family with work on communication technologies and the internet. The goal of this overview is to look at the development of research in the field of "the family in the internet era", as well as at blind spots, or at least be underdeveloped areas in the field. In the two following sections, we will compare and contrast the articles in this issue, highlighting both their similarities and their place within the body of the wider literature. In Section 2, we will focus on questions addressing how families negotiate and adjust to technology in the family setting, including the work that goes into developing practices and rules surrounding the use of technology in family settings . In Section 3, we will look at how families and their individual members interact with external actors entrusted with the power to assess and approve, or not, the legitimacy of the family institution (for example, those individuals contributing to online forums dedicated to choosing the first name of an unborn child, or the public authorities in charge of child protection).

A review of French-language sociological works about families in the internet era

It is not the first time that EFG opens its pages to articles analysing the uses of digital technologies in a family context. We can sort previously published works into two broad categories. The first one comprises the articles whose authors mention this topic without making it an important element of their scientific investigation. The reason why these technologies are mentioned there is simply that some authors have occasionally encountered such technologies while conducting fieldwork or while developing their research question. However, it did not become a central topic nor even an important question in their research process. In this case, a detailed analysis of the uses of these technologies is not the goal of these studies and the technologies are seen as elements of context, perceived as playing a more or less important role but never investigated in depth. Such works are plentiful. Let us mention a few examples, with no intention of being exhaustive, to illustrate the great diversity of topics and settings : a paper about families choosing homeschooling and mentioning the ways in which online resources can assist in finding educational solutions and support spaces (Brabant et al. , 2004) ; Sylvie October’s article (2006) about the cultural leisure activities of children between the ages of 6 and 14, and, consequently, about their use of digital media ; a research project about transnational support among families of skilled migrants which mentions the possibilities electronic communication tools offer to maintain regular contact with relatives despite the long distance (Baldassar, 2017) ; Florence Maillochon’s research (2018) about the renewed significance of wedding ceremonies which are sometimes organised using online resources ; or a research project about the journey of gay fathers who engage surrogate mothers and are able to stay in touch with these women via communication technologies (Gross and Mehl, 2011)… In all of these cases, the uses of digital technologies and of their resources are clearly identified, and their roles are explained, or at least mentioned. Nevertheless, strictly speaking, these works do not provide a sociological analysis of the technologies and their roles in the contexts that are being studied. In these cases, these technologies are part of the background, but they are never really examined or studied.

Alongside this first category of texts is a second category of articles where digital technologies are given a central, or at least critically examined , place. These papers explore the uses of these technologies by considering them significant both at the fieldwork data-gathering stage and at the analysis stage. Such articles are quite rare and we are able to mention them (at least those published before 2014, that is, during the first ten years of EFG ’s existence) without fear of forgetting many : Irène Jonas’s (2007) paper about the transformation of family photographic practices with the arrival of digital cameras, and of new information storage and sharing solutions, including websites ; Caroline Legrand’s article (2007) about the development of genealogical research practices, specifically in relation to online digital resources ; the work about online forums dedicated to parents with autism (des Rivières-Pigeon et al. , 2012).

However, aside from these sporadic articles, the journal had never had the chance to dedicate a special issue to digital technologies and their roles in the various spheres of family life, private life, or childhood. This might sound surprising considering the importance of these technologies in our family and private lives (and our professional, public, community lives…), as well as for social work professions (social welfare, special education, and sociocultural animation) that must take into consideration the constant evolution of the uses of these digital technologies by families across generations. The surprise could even be greater if we consider, as was done for the main sociology journals in France (Dagiral and Martin, 2017, p. 10–13), that EFG is no exception : articles and, a fortiori , special issues addressing the question of the place and roles of digital technologies in the various social spaces are rare… with the exception of journals specialising in social science research into these technologies, their uses, and their effects.

We can think of several institutional and historic reasons to explain what looks like a division of work or a somewhat exclusive seclusion : without going into too much detail, let us at least mention the influence of the Durkheimian tradition of sociology which tended to struggle with its sociological investigations of technologies and materialities, as well as the intellectual and institutional creation of a specialisation in the questions of information and communication which took ownership of digital technology analyses (Dagiral and Martin, 2017). The case of social work, as a research topic and as a site for the production of knowledge, accurately illustrates this assessment. By specifically taking into account the social context (Harper and Dorvil, 2013) to guide its practice, social work has seldom questioned its definition of the 'social', hence keeping the natural environment (Jochems et al. , 2017 ; Dominelli, 2012 ; Coates and Gray, 2011) and digital technologies in its blind spot.

Conversely, what place is given to questions pertaining to the family, childhood, and generations in journals specialising in information and communication technologies (ICT) ? In a way, the situation is symmetrical : families, children, and private life are topics often addressed in social science works dedicated to ICT. But those bringing together the questions of the sociology of the couple or of the parent-child relationship with the technological dimension of the lives of couples or of the interactions between parents and children, for example, are quite rare. A more detailed answer based on a nearly systematic analysis of this literature would be beyond the scope of this introduction. Nevertheless, we can consider that an in-depth analysis of the journal Réseaux , which, as one of the main journals dedicated to publishing works about ICT and the media for several decades, provides a very accurate overview of said literature, offers convincing answers to this general question.

What is the place of the family in the journal Réseaux  ? In 2004, the journal published a special issue titled "Internet and the family " (Lelong and Martin, 2004). It was not the first time that the journal opened its pages to articles dealing with the uses of ICT in a family context : the presence and uses of the telephone were examined on several occasions (Turner and Wurtzel, 1992 ; Calogirou and André, 1997 ; Segalen, 1999 ; Martin and de Singly, 2000 ; Licoppe and Smoreda, 2000 ; Pasquier, 2001), as was the case for the television (Erhenberg and Chambat, 1987 ; Pasquier, 1995 ; Levy, 1995 ; Bertrand, 1999), or the Télétel-Minitel [1] (Mallein et al., 1984). The juvenile and adolescent populations (Jouët and Pasquier, 1999), the effects of a newborn child (Manceron et al. , 2002), or the consequences of a move (Mercier et al. , 2002) have also led to the production of specific works. The journal issue "Internet and the family" , published in 2004, can be seen as both a symbolic and concrete indicator of a more extensive consideration of questions bringing together both the sociology of the family and that of the uses of communication technologies.

However, the role and place of the internet in family life in the early 2000s differs greatly from the ways in which individuals use connected screens in the late 2010s. Looking back at the 2004 issue, it is striking to see how much these practices and technologies have evolved. The adolescents described in some of the articles in that issue (Metton, 2004 ; Martin, 2004) are able to use a connected computer at home but it usually is not their own terminal and it is not set up in their bedrooms : the computer is often shared ; it is not for them to use exclusively ; they do not always need their own user account ; and the adults fairly often regulated the access to the computer. One question is that of the "status" of the computer : is it a home computer, a personal computer, or does it belong to the parents ? Furthermore, is it used for working, for communication purposes, or for playing ? At the end of the 2010s, the issues are quite different, particularly due to adolescents owning personal and connected cell phones. Another noticeable difference is the absence of what we refer to as social networks (Facebook, for example) : photos and information were shared online via a few family websites, which required the person managing them to have quite advanced computer skills (Carmagnat et al. , 2004). Other analyses from 2004 appear to be the premises of future evolutions, the inception of now universal questions : the arrival of connected computers in the home gradually led to forms and types of sociability that are no longer shared and raise the question of the family opening itself to the outside world (Pharabod, 2004).

Nearly fifteen years after the publication of this special issue of Réseaux , a journal specialising in communication and technologies, EFG , an interdisciplinary journal dedicated to contemporary families, publishes a special issue dedicated to the uses of connected screens by families. Families and their individual members are likely to have changed over these fifteen years, if only because the connection, communication, information, and interaction devices have dramatically evolved and are now widespread. Fifteen years is a long time when looking at the development of contemporary technologies. Therefore, the reasons behind the production of the Internet and the family special issue have only become more relevant : digital tools and connected screens are ever more present in homes today, including in children’s bedrooms and sometimes in the most private spaces (such as the bed).

Let us now present the actual content of this special issue of EFG .

The uses of connected screens and their negotiations in the family

A first series of texts in this themed issue looks at the discourses surrounding the uses of connected screens in the family sphere, which convey representations about the notions of normality, conformity, excess, and danger. These articles render with great accuracy and attention to detail the everyday practices of negotiation which surround these uses, the concerns that guide these practices, and implicitly, the relational dynamics underlying them. As mentioned in the introduction, the uses of connected screens today are indeed embedded in social, identity, and family contexts that precede and exceed them. They are added to a reality, of which they are both the reflection and one of the features.

These papers each present a work of immersion in the intimacy of the family, revealing the tensions and contradictions highlighted by the presence and use of screens. These uses undoubtedly question, perhaps even upset the family bond during an already tumultuous period : adolescence. The articles written by Florence Millerand, Christine Thoër, Nina Duque and Joseph Lévy, as well as by Barbara Fontar, Agnès Grimault-Leprince and Mickaël Le Mentec, and by Nathalie Dupin, critically examine the digital practices of a group of adolescents and young people between the ages of 11 and 25. The paper written by Bénédicte Harvard Duclos and Dominique Pasquier deals with a great variety of children and youths, as they worked with mothers between the ages of 30 and 60.

It is important to identify who is talking in the discourses presented in these analyses, as well as whose uses of the technologies we are talking about. Taking into account the experiences of the children and the families while conducting scientific activities is all the more important to "fully include them in the programme [of social intervention]" – also called the action plans – as highlighted by Emilie Potin, Gaël Henaff, Hélène Trellu and François Sorin.

The study conducted by Florence Millerand et al. looks into the connected entertainment practices of Quebec households from the standpoint of the youth population, as does the one conducted by Nathalie Dupin who met and interviewed students at a French high school. The article written by Barbara Fontar et al. and the one written by Bénédicte Harvard Duclos and Dominique Pasquier focus more specifically on the parents representations and supervisory practices of the uses of connected screens, as well as the concerns, perceptions and appraisals underlying them. The first thing we notice is that these studies predominantly, if not exclusively, explore the discourse of mothers. This is interrogated by Bénédicte Harvard Duclos and Dominique Pasquier who met only with women. Similarly, the paper written by Barbara Fontar et al. as well as the one written by Nathalie Dupin predominantly recount interviews conducted with mothers (only one father is mentioned in each article). Therefore, it appears that the family management of the connected screens is first and foremost a women’s issue, either because they are more concerned about this question than the fathers, or because they take on this responsibility on a day-to-day basis.

The second thing we notice is that the practices explored in these four articles are exclusively those of the children and adolescents. With the exception of shared family practices such as watching a film together on Netflix (Millerand et al. ), the ways in which the parents themselves use their screens on a daily basis is absent from the discourses. In short, the first series of articles deals with how mothers and their teenagers perceive the ways in which children and adolescents use connected screens.

To understand the shared scope of the results presented here, we must place them in the context of adolescent socialisation. During this stage of life, two socialising forces interact, sometimes resulting in tension : one exerted by the family, and one exerted by the peers (Balleys, 2015). Even though the parents are a child’s first agent of socialisation, one of the most important identity-related issues of adolescence is to prove, to ourselves and to others, that we are able to see ourselves and be seen as members of groups other than our family (Balleys, 2017b). The notion of significant others (Berger and Luckman, 1991) is very useful to examine this double need for social recognition that is characteristic of adolescent socialisation. The role of a significant other is threefold : making sense of the world, being a role model, and acknowledging the child as an individual, i.e. giving him or her a sense of his or her value. As he or she grows up, he or she will progressively feel the need to refer to figures of identification and legitimation that are outside of the family sphere. In order to assert themselves as individuals and acquire autonomy, adolescents will look for chosen significant others - friends and first partners -, as opposed to family members, whom they do not choose.

All the authors mention this quest for autonomy undergone via peer relationships and peer referencing. Connected screens are used to facilitate, even accelerate, these distancing processes in that they allow adolescents to immerse themselves in youth culture from the intimacy of their bedroom, and in an entirely individualised manner, one that is disconnected from the family context. Acquiring a cell phone, typically a smartphone nowadays, is often mentioned as a stage in the transition from childhood to adolescence, a "contemporary rite of passage" tied to the beginning of secondary education, especially for adolescents living in rural areas (Dupin). According to this same article, the difference between urban and rural contexts could be due to the greater geographic distance separating children from their parents during school days, as well as to "the limited public transport services" in remote areas.

Providing children with cell phones therefore addresses two concerns : the parents’ concern for safety and their wish to be able to communicate with their children despite the distance (Harvard Duclos et Pasquier ; Fontar et al.  ; Dupin) and that of the adolescents who wish to be able to communicate with their peers despite the distance (Dupin ; Millerand et al. ).

As evidenced in Millerand et al. ’s article, the adolescents’ cultural and media consumption practices are part of a collective and dialogical logic. The interviews conducted with the adolescents in particular have allowed us to get a better understanding of "the importance of sharing one’s practice with one’s peers" in order to not feel "left behind". There is therefore a sociability concern in knowing trending media content, which in itself is not new, as well as in owning the digital tools to access that content. This concern is also shared by the parents, the working-class parents in particular, who are very much aware of the need for these tools and their use in order to be able to take part in adolescent sociability. Bénédicte Duclos and Dominique Pasquier talk about families feeling a "connection obligation" and giving their children access to connected screens for the "sake of normalcy". In that regard, it seems to be even more difficult for the working-class mothers with whom the authors met to resist peer pressure, more so than for other mothers. The fear of exclusion from a peer group creates a dilemma in that not allowing children to use screens causes fear of social isolation, yet once the children and adolescents have been given those screens, the ways they use them (and the representations they may generate) become cause for concern.

The only possible answer lies with the type of supervision and monitoring the parents implement around their children’s practices. Yet, all of the articles exploring the question of the adolescents’ uses of connected screens highlight how the parents struggle to set and enforce limits for the use of screens that they find adequate. Both the investigations focussing on the parents and those focussing on the children and adolescents make this observation. Indeed, the former describe the helplessness felt by many parents who are tired of fighting relentlessly for the rules to be observed and end up either "exhibiting a disheartened laissez-faire attitude" (Fontar et al. ) or admitting to "being played like a fiddle" (Harvard Duclos and Pasquier). The latter relate the adolescents’ transgression stories where the non-respect of the rules is perceived as an opportunity to assert one’s individuality and autonomy : "they try but they can’t !" said a girl interviewed by Florence Millerand et al. about her parents’ failed attempts at regulating her connected viewing practices. Similarly, Barbara Fontar et al. talk about a boy who grants himself some "margins of independence" with regard to the rules set out by his parents.

Nathalie Dupin’s article shows how complex these constant and sometimes contentious negotiations can be when young adolescents set out to "convince" their parents of their need to own a cell phone, for example – sometimes a long-term endeavour – and the parents caught in between two contradictory concerns : one about the potential exclusion caused by not having a cell phone, and the other about the device itself, a source of potential dangers and excesses. All these acts of negotiation and resistance embedded in the daily lives of contemporary families must be placed in the context of adolescent socialisation whose end goal is emancipation. It therefore comes as no surprise that the uses of connected screens lead to struggles and put families "under pressure" (Harvard Duclos and Pasquier).

The tensions between the family "us" and the adolescent "I"

The struggle to regulate the use of connected screens is greatly correlated with the "power of individualisation" (Harvard Duclos and Pasquier, Millerand et al. ), namely the freedom to choose and practise alone those media activities that used to be limited by now obsolete contexts and constraints (television sets and landline phones, live and limited-access television programmes). During the interviews, the adolescents expressed joy and a need to spend time alone in the intimacy of their bedrooms, "in their bubble" (Millerand et al. ), where the connected screen becomes the medium of alone time. It is interesting to note that Bénédicte Harvard Duclos and Dominique Pasquier make a similar observation based on the interviews they conducted with some of the mothers who themselves expressed a need "not to be disturbed" when they are playing their games. The device’s ability to grab the user’s attention by placing him or her "in" an intimate context and making him or her unavailable obviously causes tension with regard to the definition and existence of the family "us".

The distribution and appropriation of digital tools pose new challenges to the creation of a contemporary family "togetherness" : "in creating togetherness, each member is recognised for his or her individual specificities, all the while contributing to the creation of a family togetherness. Each individual must, in turns, feel linked to the others as a member of the group and feel recognised as a person, that is as having another life outside of the family" (de Singly and Ramos, 2010 : 17). These negotiations between the family "us" and the individual "I" are fragile and require constant adjustments, even more so at the beginning of adolescence where, as mentioned earlier, the need for social recognition gradually shifts towards peer referencing. The more individualised the digital devices become within the family sphere, the more the shared times are at risk of being weakened, or even threatened.

How do the families in the studies of this themed issue handle this dilemma ? The answer is the same on both sides of the Atlantic : by increasing and routinising the individual uses of connected screens in a co-presence setting. The idea is that each family member uses their own device, whether tablet or cell phone, but in the presence of the other family members, for example while sitting on the living room couch. Oftentimes, the television is on and contributes to the feeling of being together. Several articles mention this way of using connected screens, concurrently individual and collective. Florence Millerand et al. talk about "co-viewing practices", which allow to combine personal tastes and "the wish to share a common family space". As the shared viewing times are no longer self-evident, they are from now on scheduled like appointments that become rituals, and as such "contribute to structuring the family life" (Millerand et al. ). The Sunday night Netflix film, for example, selected based on the tastes and ages of each family member, is turned into "an opportunity to spend time together" ( ibid. ) physically and to take part in a shared activity.

The individual uses of connected screens in physical co-presence are also a way to reassure some parents who want to have access to the content their children consume. There are therefore two reasons to forbid or at least limit the uses of connected screens in private spaces like the bedroom : the fear of seeing one’s child become isolated and cut himself or herself off from the family (Dupin), and that of him or her having access to content deemed inappropriate (Fontar et al. ).

In this context, the uses of connected screens and the acquisition of adolescent autonomy are linked in a paradoxical way. On the one hand, the connected screens encourage highly individualised, and so autonomous and potentially emancipating, modes of appropriation. On the other hand, they enable adults to exercise a new, and sometimes constant, form of supervision over their children’s cultural and social practices : "Some parents do not hesitate to act in a very interventionist manner in order to protect their child", for example, by having them delete accounts from their social media profiles (Fontar et al. ). This idea of protection is of course arbitrary and constructed on the basis of a particular perception of danger. Furthermore, all the articles explain that the decision to provide children with smartphones is a response to the parents’ need for reassurance. The same device therefore offers reassurance and raises concerns.

In summary, when it comes to connected screens and their uses embedded in family life, we would not be able to understand their role without replacing them in the context of contemporary socialisation processes. The uses of connected screens, and more specifically of smartphones, being the individualised devices par excellence , are part of social and relational dynamics, which they consecutively mirror and drive. These individual practices fall within the scope of group logics and can connect socialisation groups that are sometimes at odds with each other, such as peers and the family. Sitting comfortably on the living room couch and scrolling through one’s Instagram feed on one’s cell phone while every now and then commenting on the TV programme playing in the background with one’s mother as she irons clothes can indeed be a way of reconciling the family "us" with the adolescent "I" affiliated with the "us" that is the group of peers (Balleys, 2015). What Bénédicte Harvard Duclos and Dominique Pasquier observed while conducting ethnographic fieldwork is that "the internet does not only have a centrifugal potential for the family. By allowing for the possibility to virtually step out of the home while physically remaining there, it can paradoxically add meaning to the family bond and insert itself in the quite traditional lifestyles of the working-class population. Indeed, the children are likely to less drawn out of the house."

As mentioned above, we may rightfully wonder whether withdrawing and staying in the home might not be the actual contemporary cultural change, particularly among adolescents. That is what Florence Millerand et al. suggest in their article, referring to Sonia Livingstone’s works (2002) : "connected entertainment appears to be part of a large-scale social trend, which is reflected by a greater presence of the children in the house, as they feel less incline to occupy outdoor spaces and instead remain confined in their bedrooms". However, if adolescents nowadays are less drawn to and less inclined to go outside to live out their sociability, it is also due to the fact that they have seldom been socialised to experience their autonomy and freedom of movement. Indeed, several studies have shown that the adolescent population is not allowed to use public spaces as much it used to, particularly collectively, and is now confined to dedicated spaces (skate parks) or driven towards shopping centres (Crowhurst, 2000 ; Vanderbeck and Johnson, 2000). These studies were conducted before the advent of handheld connected screens. It is therefore clear that this trend predates it. However, the articles in this themed issue clearly show that there is a strong connection between the parents’ need for reassurance, monitoring the adolescents’ movements, and prematurely providing them with cell phones (Harvard Duclos and Pasquier, Dupin, Fontar et al. ). This is particularly true for families living in rural areas due to the geographical distance and the more limited public transport network, as mentioned earlier (Dupin).

Digital devices and the acquisition of adolescent autonomy are therefore connected in a paradoxical manner : the devices enable the individuals to contact anyone from the intimacy of the family home, but they also demand a form of hyper-connectedness that hinders the freedom of movement characteristic of earlier times when no control was possible once the children left the house or the village (where 'walls have ears'), i.e. in the city, in the woods or in the countryside (Balleys, 2017a ; Lachance, 2014).

It is, however, quite unsettling to notice that this control "tends to persist as the child grows up" (Fontar et al. ) as the parents (mostly the mothers) keep enquiring about the whereabouts of their children when they leave the house "just to make sure that everything is okay" ( ibid. ). According to Bénédicte Harvard Duclos and Dominique Pasquier, combining the wish to protect and the demand for transparency in this way is specific to the working-class population : "the fact that this practice can go on with adult children leads us to believe that it also has to do with family moral values. The women who participated in the study led by Wimott and Young (1957) knew everything about the lives of their married daughters, down to what they cooked for dinner." There, the question of the social environment, whether urban or rural, is connected to that of the social class to which the families belong and the role it plays in the modes of negotiation and regulation of the uses of connected screens. This is the topic of our next question : is the digital divide (still) connected to the social divide ?

Digital divides : social, generational, and symbolic

Working-class adolescents do not have any less access to connected screens, and to the internet, than their upper-class counterparts do. On the contrary : "The bedrooms of working-class adolescents are more likely to be equipped with a laptop, a game console, and a television. These adolescents are also more likely to own a smartphone" (Fontar et al. ). Therefore, as shown in Nathalie Dupin’s article, the comparatively higher cost of the devices and subscriptions for modest families does not constitute an obstacle to their acquisition.

Bénédicte Harvard Duclos and Dominique Pasquier’s article also reports on how early very young children are provided with tablets, as well as the awe inspired by the ease with which toddlers appropriate these tools. In a working-class context, providing children with connected screens is also linked to a wish to give children the best possible chances for academic success : "the academic argument is undoubtedly particularly characteristic of working-class families" (Harvard Duclos and Pasquier).

However, having access to connected screens does not mean that one will acquire digital skills. In a paper published in Les cahiers du numérique , Périne Brotcorne and Gérard Valenduc talked about "strategic skills", referring to "the ability to use information in a proactive manner, to give it meaning based on one’s lifestyle, and to make decisions in order to act upon one’s professional and personal environment" (2009, p. 54). They propose talking "about digital inequalities (plural) rather than divide (singular)" ( ibid., p. 65). This premise aligns with that of Fabien Granjon who stated that "having access to computing resources does not imply knowing how, or being able, to take advantage of it" (2011, p. 68).

In a study about the digital practices of a group of young adults between the ages of 18 and 26, Eszter Hargittai and Amanda Hinnant (2008) have also shown that access to the internet no longer is a factor of inequality between individuals. However, inequalities stem from the ways in which individuals leverage this access to the internet and turn it into social and economic resources. The question, therefore, is not to know whether adolescents use digital devices and resources or not, and how often, but rather to understand their practices and the ways in which these interact with other fields of competence and other resources.

Since the issue of the access to the internet is almost definitively resolved, how does family socialisation interact with the adolescents’ digital skills ? Fact No. 1 : as is the case with other cultural practices (Pasquier, 1999 ; de Singly, 2006 ; Mardon, 2010), the uses of connected screens are much less regulated in working-class families than they are in socially privileged families (Fontar et al. ). This greater leeway in the regulation of access to and uses of connected screens must not be interpreted as a disengagement on the part of working-class families. Bénédicte Harvard Duclos and Dominique Pasquier emphasise the fact that all the mothers are concerned about the excessive use of these technologies : "Whatever the social setting, rules are set out and attempts at implementing them are being made, more or less successfully - no cell phone at the dinner table, handing over the tablet before going to bed, etc. - and the parents’ abdication is no greater in those settings than in any other". This observation therefore led the authors of this themed issue to reach a consensus : "Whatever the social setting, the parents seek a balance between digital practices and other recreational practices which they deem more legitimate." (Fontar et al. ).

However, although these are shared concerns, the ways in which the parents seize and define them differ. For example, single mothers who work outside of school hours are unable to supervise their children in the way they would like to (Fontar et al. ). Nathalie Dupin’s paper suggests that rules are more easily observed when all the family members do so. Because working-class parents are often heavy users of connected screens themselves, be it the television, Facebook (Dupin) or smartphone games such as "Candy Crush" (Harvard Duclos and Pasquier), it becomes quite difficult to get their children to accept their attempts at limiting the amount of time they are allowed to spend using their devices.

To summarise, the risks of excessive use are greater in working-class families due to the parents not being as present and available at home, and due to the belief that providing children with connected screens early is a social asset, and an assurance of conformity and integration. Yet, those beliefs are incorrect in that they mistake the use of connected screens for digital skills.

Contrary to popular belief, children are not necessarily more skilled than their parents. These skills are neither "innate" nor characteristic of a population born in the 2000s. British sociologist Sonia Livingstone demonstrated that adolescents between the ages of 9 and 19 show greater difficulties in assessing the content they access online. They are unable to rate them or identify their source (Livingstone and Bober, 2008). Therefore, it is not because a child is easily able to appropriate the ways to use a tablet or the features of his or her smartphone that this child has the skill set necessary to understand and appropriate the techniques as well as the informational content to which he or she has access. Nowadays, a large number of adolescents believe all of Google’s top search results to be "true" (boyd, 2014, p. 183). They know nothing about the logic of the algorithms and believe that a human being is checking every hyperlink available on Google (Balleys, 2017a).

By summarising the articles that deal specifically with the negotiations and interactions taking place in the intimacy of the family, we notice that the digital divide is linked to other divides : generational and symbolic (as shown elsewhere : Granjon, 2011b). The adolescents with whom Florence Millerand et al. met talked about their parents’ disinterest in their connected viewing practices. The authors point out that the parents often talked about the media content that their children enjoy in a denigrating manner : "[they] do not always understand their tastes and criticise the amount of time spent using their devices". The misunderstanding, or even the denigration, with which some parents approach their children’s media practices is particularly significant in upper-class families (Fontar et al. ). This observation is not new. Upper-class mothers have long expressed feeling dismayed by their children’s cultural choices which often fall far from their own references, whereas working-class mothers tend to share their children’s preferences in terms of media content (Pasquier, 1999), or at least approach them with more tolerance. We can hypothesise that this tolerance is also correlated to the parents’ ages.

Indeed, as Bénédicte Harvard Duclos and Dominique Pasquier remind us, working-class parents have children slightly earlier than upper-class parents as the latter has often spent more time at university and developing their career before starting a family. Do younger parents tend to be less judgemental of their children’s uses of connected screens because they are themselves less removed from the digital culture ? The results from Nathalie Dupin’s and Barbara Fontar et al. ’s works partially support this hypothesis as it appears that "the parents’ assessment of their children’s digital practices is strongly linked to the role of digital technologies in their own cultural practices".

What emerges from these studies is that the children’s uses of connected screens are correlated with that of their parents : "I noticed that the adolescents who state that they use their smartphones and social media applications only in moderation come from families where the parents generally rarely use social media, if at all." Therefore, when it comes to connected screens, there are families of light users and families of heavy users. The parents’ cultural capital seems to play a prominent role in this distinction. Indeed, as Barbara Fontar et al. point out, the more highly educated the parents are, the more they consider the internet to be a "waste of time".

In conclusion, we can observe a symbolic divide between the various ways in which families use and approach connected screens today, from that "expert" parents who "are able to distance themselves from, and take a critical and understanding look at, the standard uses of digital technologies by the adolescents" (Fontar et al. ) to the "wary" parents who themselves rarely use, show little competence for, or are simply not very interested in, these technologies. This symbolic divide is not to be mistaken for the social divide as it is often the parents who are the most privileged education-wise, who act in the most judgemental and denigrating manner towards youth culture, which is today expressed and shared via connected screens.

The negotiations of digital practices between the families and the institutional and media audiences

Let us now step away from the modes of regulation and negotiation within the family context and consider the ways in which digital practices come into play in the families' interactions with various institutional and media audiences. Setting the family unit aside, we will take a look at how its individual members interact with actors entrusted with the power to assess and approve, or not, its legitimacy as a family. At first glance, the topics of the three articles we will refer to in this second section appear to be quite disparate : Laurence Charton and Catherine de Pierrepont analyse the "prescriptions" and "normativities" surrounding the conversations being held in online forums dedicated to choosing the name of unborn children ; Chantal Bayard explores the meanings behind celebrity mothers staging their breastfeeding their babies on Instagram ; and Émilie Potin, Gaël Henaff, Hélène Trellu and François Sorin look at the digital practices of the families of children living in foster care, as well as the regulation of the communication imposed by the judges in charge of setting the framework of the parent-child relationship.

The negotiation frameworks for the norms surrounding digital practices are therefore different. In those three contexts, however, the family is standing in front of an audience, chosen or not, to which it must present itself, in the Goffmanian sense (1959), and from which it must secure a form of approval, whether informal, in the case of other internet users approving the choice of a name, or formal, as with the right to digital correspondence. The digital practices take part in this performance, that is in the staging and negotiating of the family identity.

The question we are asking here is this : what do the articles in this themed issue teach us about the way to "be a family" via digital practices, when in front of audiences that determine the social and institutional norms ?

"To be a family" using connected screens

In the three articles on which we are focussing, connected screens are resources for the social and identity work involved in shaping the family entity. What makes the family ? Which social practices grant it visibility, value, and legitimacy ?

First, the digital practices allow for the creation of an image of the family that is more controlled than in real-life daily interactions. The screen acts as a mediator providing reflection time and a technology to manage the impression made on the audience (Goffman, 1959) that are otherwise absent from the immediacy of face-to-face interactions (Schwarz, 2011 ; Lachance, 2013). As shown by Chantal Bayard, posting a breastfeeding photo on Instagram, for example, is the result of a staging process intended to present an idealised image of the self, and suggesting a "standard" for motherhood : presenting as "role models productive mothers who breastfeed their babies with no apparent effort, who easily balance work and family, and who display a neat physical appearance and a body free from any sign of motherhood". The results of this study show that Instagram is used as a vector of "two ideals" : "that of the loving and happy family, and that of effortless breastfeeding". In this context, creating an idealised self-image by staging the family as fulfilling entity is done first and foremost for commercial purposes. The celebrities who make up the corpus of this study are looking to grow their fan community and to garner advertising revenues, particularly via product placement.

In those cases, the stakes involved in "being a family" are correlated with (self-)publicity through the use of social media. The intimate experience of breastfeeding, shared by many women, is appropriated as a means of self-identification thanks to narratives built on "a feeling of closeness" (Bayard). But the mirror image presented to the internet users does not show the behind-the-scene aspects of this representation of motherhood, namely the specific measures taken to create this image : "Despite the celebrities’ wish to present themselves as 'ordinary mothers', they perform a motherhood that requires financial resources in order to maintain their lifestyle and body work (personal trainer, support staff, etc.), and that is therefore only accessible to socially and economically privileged women".

Connected screens can also be used to distance oneself from one’s close relatives by looking for other references of what family is (or should be), by giving it a different place in society. Laurence Charton and Catherine de Pierrepont offer an analysis of the conversations being held on the online forum Doctissimo about the process of naming an unborn child. This idea here is to interact with a community of internet users anonymously, outside of the close family circle : "When parents think they have found the name they want to give their child, some expectant mothers feel the need to ask the opinion of outsiders rather than loved ones to prevent their decision from being challenged." According to the authors, this need to interact with individuals unaffected by the emotional concerns of the family circle indicates that "the couple wishes to assert its role in the choosing of their (unborn) child’s name" in an attempt to build or keep "a secret garden" (Charton and de Pierrepont). This action is therefore to be understood as part of a quest for autonomy, as well as a distancing process from "the contingencies of olden times" when the choice of a baby’s name was a family affair. By turning to outsiders regarded as "peers", the parents (mainly the mothers) take responsibility for their family’s destiny, and so for their own way of "being a family".

Lastly, in the significantly different context of mediatised communication between family members separated by legal placement measures, digital practices offer new opportunities to "be a family" by fostering relationships remotely. Firstly, the digital practices allow families to negotiate "the appropriate closeness" between members whose relationships have been weakened : sending a text message to express one’s emotional attachment, leaving a voicemail or liking a post on social media do not all have the same implications in terms of the relationship. "In terms of the interaction features of the digital interfaces, some tools offer the possibility to follow what is happening without being noticed or seen" (Potin et al. ). The temporality of the communication is therefore better controlled and allows each member to position themselves in the way they wish and to "be a family/be siblings remotely". Secondly, the digital practices contribute to maintaining, and even rebuilding, family relationships remotely, and in doing so, give its members the possibility to "become part of a story and find one’s place", thus creating a sense of belonging. These are two concerns also mentioned in the other two articles, that is the use of digital practices for identity and social recognition. "To be a family" is the result of a social practice, and one experiences it when interacting with various audiences with the authority to recognise the individual as a legitimate actor.

This assessment leads us to look at the normative dimension of family affiliation. Indeed, "to be a family" in front of various institutional and media audiences requires to negotiate social norms, especially those pertaining to the various social roles inherent in the family.

Family digital practices and social norms

We have previously shown that a variety of actors use connected screens as resources to interact with various audiences, distancing themselves from specific contingencies. Yet, the three papers presented here also show how individuals embody social norms and how connected screens are tools for the expression and negotiation of these norms. As was the case with the articles presented at the beginning of this introductory piece, it would be interesting to take a minute first to look into the significance of the mother figure as portrayed by the digital practices of the family in front of various audiences, and second to explore the role of the mothers. One cannot deny that they occupy centre stage.

In the online forum dedicated to the choice of babies’ names studied by Laurence Charton and Catherine de Pierrepont, the individuals taking part in those conversations are almost exclusively mothers or expectant mothers : "In these forums, to find and to choose the name of an unborn child is evidently a ‘women’s issue’". As is the case with the practices of negotiation and daily regulation of the children’s use of digital technologies, women are in charge of doing the research work that goes into picking a first name that "makes sense" for the family. The online forum users often mention the fathers-to-be’s opinions, which must be taken into account, but only women take part in those discussions. Similarly, the celebrities who stage the intimacy of breastfeeding on Instagram portray themselves as mothers. The pictures’ shared normative representation is that of a mother figure as the primary (even only) caregiver. Chantal Bayard points out the many references to the "benefits of breast milk" as well as to "the importance of breastfeeding to develop and deepen the bond between mother and child". The composition choices result in an image focussing on the mother feeding her baby, often surrounded by her other children. As mentioned by the author, the fathers (or other adults), however, are rarely in the picture. This conveys a parenting norm primarily (if not exclusively) centred around the mother figure. However, the study’s limited corpus points to the likelihood of there being other uses and other staging of parenthood on Instagram. The study only looked at the accounts of a few celebrities.

The family uses of connected screens are also dependent on institutional norms, with which a practice framework must be negotiated. Émilie Potin et al. ’s paper highlights the normative representations of the educational teams in charge of regulating the digital communication between parents and children who were separated by court order.

To summarise the analyses of the articles published in this issue, the family digital practices are embedded in identity and social contexts which both predate and exceed in scope their rise to prominence, but they are also tools that can be used to reframe social norms : parents no longer discuss the choice of their unborn child’s name with their family, the body of the breastfeeding mother is exposed, separated families stay connected online. Families can therefore use their digital practices as resources in their quest for identity and social references of their own choosing.


Studying the youth and families in society in the digital era is all the more essential in that the digital is "pervasive, that is, it suffuses all our activities, from the most intimate to the most collective" (Boullier, 2016 : 6). These studies of the youth and families in the digital era obviously reignite the debate between the proponents of a ready-made-society sociological analysis and those who support a society-in-progress analysis. And these studies also raise the question of the reinstatement of technological tools, among other things, when analysing social relationships (Latour, 2007 ; Dagiral and Martin, 2017).

The articles in the themed issue largely demonstrate that family digital practices reflect current social norms, as well as the tensions these norms may create. Although this analysis is not new (Pasquier, 2018), it is refined by the multiplicity of actors, discourses, and methodologies. Hence, this themed issue takes part in the conversation between the sociologies of the individual and his or her relationship to norms, where some believe that the norms govern the individual (structuralism), while others believe that the individual negotiates and co-creates the norms regulating these "good practices" (pragmatism, interactionism).

The sociology of family is only starting to produce knowledge about the link between the family and the uses of digital technologies, as is the field of social work. Let us not forget that social work includes those social sector professionals that must take the "social context" into consideration in order to guide the interventions required by organisations and institutions. This themed issue does contribute to the publication of analyses of social interventions in the digital era (especially regarding child protection) but also encourages the taking into account of children’s, adolescents’, and families’ perspectives. That being said, further study will be necessary if we are to provide context for social interventions (Healy, 2014) with more empirical support : the institutional contexts of social services, the training programmes and the environment itself in which social work research is being conducted, as well as, and possibly most importantly, the community and group practices in the digital era.

This first section of this article provided a short but necessary survey of French-language sociological knowledge about family in the digital era - a way to remind ourselves and our readers of the Foucauldian idea that scientific works about a research topic are not neutral. The production conditions of this themed issue also contribute to this scientific history. Therefore, we cannot but recognise that as a result of the evaluation and selection of the articles, this themed issue is intended to give a voice to sociologists influenced by a relationist approach and a constructivist language. The articles deal with intimacy and fall within the framework of the sociology of everyday life, taking a close look at ordinary practices. Technological deterministic analyses (Jauréguilberry and Proulx, 2011) are therefore less present. Scholars interested in these topics will find that much remains to be done, and the constant evolution of these practices and technologies ensures that there will always be new questions to address.