Parent networks in digital societies: stories from the UK, Austria, Denmark and Portugal amidst COVID-19

By Ranjana Das, Niklas Chimirri, Ana Jorge and Christine Trültzsch–Wijnen

We reflect in this blog, on just-completed fieldwork with 16 households across the UK, Austria, Denmark and Portugal – on parents’ experiences of creating and maintaining their networks in digital societies. In all four national contexts, there has, for some time now, been a proliferation of both formal and often conflicting parenting advice online, an increasing reliance on technology for schools and parents to communicate, and numerous apps and platforms for parents to connect informally. But do parents feel well connected? In what ways do digital media facilitate connections? What shapes the unevenness of parental experiences? With funding from the University of Surrey, a team of European colleagues – Ranjana Das, Niklas Chimirri, Ana Jorge and Christine Trültzsch-Wijnen – set out recently to investigate some of these questions with a pilot study in the UK, Austria, Denmark and Portugal.

Uneven experiences, online and offline

The benefits of strong, supportive parent networks have been reiterated repeatedly, both for parents, (Lu and Hampton, 2017), and for children’s self-efficacy in accessing community-based and intergenerational resources (Hunter et al., 2019), students’ attainment levels (Park et al., 2017), school grades and achievements and rates of dropout of children from migrant backgrounds (Liu & White, 2017), children’s wellbeing and mental health (cf. Allchin et al., 2016) and resilience (Çelik, 2017). Social class and social capital have been linked closely to the strength, quality and degree of parent networks, showing advantages for middle-class parents, as opposed to working-class parents, vulnerable parents, migrant parents amongst others (c.f. Rangel et al., 2020; Fong, 2019; Cappelletti, 2017). Other lines of exclusion prevail too, for instance, in relation to parents of children with special needs (Bussing et al, 2015; Caldas and Cornigans, 2015) or substantial gender barriers that continue to persist within parenting communities and public space (Brooks & Hodkinson 2020).

The mediated, and increasingly digital nature of parental interaction also paints a picture of inequity and complexity. On the one hand, some studies show numerous benefits, ranging from the role of WhatsApp groups in parental inclusion (c.f. Datlen and Pandolfi, 2020), to the role of instant messaging in communal coping (Roitman & Yeshua-Katz, 2021), or migrant mothers’ emotional care practices online (Veazey, 2020). But, here too, it appears clear that such benefits are often higher, for middle-class mothers, highly qualified, salaried/self-employed parents, who are perceived to be receiving full support from their partners and families (Pandya, 2021). In addition, these networked spaces are far from wholly inclusive or supportive, falling prey often to wider societal discourses around intensive mothering (cf. Das, 2019; Cheresheva, 2015). Equally, the vast majority of research on digital media and parent networks is on mothers and mothering communities and far less on fathers’ experiences (c.f. Ammari and Schoenebeck; 2016).

Early findings

This cross-national, qualitative project is currently underway in Austria, Denmark, Portugal and the UK. Interviews have been conducted with 4 households/parental units in each country over summer and autumn 2021, over videocalls. Recruitment sought to cover diversity in terms of socioeconomic status, migration status, considering families with at least one child up to 18. We have been flexible in combining interviews with individual parents, with joint interviews, in some cases of dual-parent households.

First, early findings indicate that parents who are well integrated and have a strong social network offline also tend to have strong networks online. In the UK data, it appeared for instance, that a single mother, who lacked family around her, benefited from a long-standing, pre-existing network of friends, whose children were the same age as her own, and this network had a strong offline connection through mutual support and childcare, and thus also had a strong, intimate online connection. For immigrant parents in Portugal, parents’ connections via the children provided a means of inclusion in the community. In both Danish and Austrian data, we found that these connections often began with parental units themselves – with partners being an integral part of the wider parent network.

Second, it appears that the strength of a network is not perceived with regards to quantity but to quality. Parents prefer smaller networks to larger ones and perceive those as stronger and more private; often they also only have a few networks whom they feel that they can trust. Early findings from Danish data reveal, for instance, that parental perceptions of the ‘strength’ of a network are often shaped by quality rather than quantity of network ties, and often – expert knowledge, or verifiable and reliable sources of information within networks determines its qualitative strength to parents. Austrian data aligns, in its finding that parents have qualitatively strong networks and also that they consider their partners as a very decisive part of their networks, and that small, significant groups seem preferable to big, anonymous groups, even if there are still boundaries to privacy in either case.

Third, there is significant disparity sometimes in the amount of trust parents feel able to place in state-supported institutional support avenues. In the data from the UK, where the public health system has faced significant austerity-related budget cuts, gradually thinning support on the ground, the narrative presented was largely one of individual strife and struggle, with very little reference to societal or institutional frameworks of support. This is a similar perception to that of Portuguese parents, who feel the public health and welfare system is insufficient, and middle-class families have to self-fund necessary support. In contrast, Danish data shows interviewees mentioning the welfare system as an important part of their parent support structures or ‘networks’, especially in times of financial insecurity (while being students, during Covid, etc.).

Fourth, exclusions from networks or parental isolation are uneven across the country datasets, but exclusion is nearly always shaped by significant experiences of structurally-shaped personal and socio-cultural struggles (see Rangel et al, 2020; Fong, 2019). In Portugal, it appeared that some families faced challenges related to migration, health difficulties which turned into financial difficulties, divorce and relationship breakdowns, and that these moments, in relation to raising children isolated the parents more as they did not find sufficient support in or through digital media. They reported individual tactics and strategies to tackle these challenges, in the face of inexistent or inadequate support from welfare, outlining an interplay of different challenges, including those posed by Covid restrictions, and children’s development. The findings from UK data echo this clearly. In the UK, one of the most striking instances of a largely isolated parental unit was one where significant mental health difficulties in a child had led to parents feeling incredibly isolated; and in another instance, where repeated experiences of racism, and racial micro-aggressions had led to a conscious parental decision to isolate from other parents. Driven by fear and anxiety over the possibilities of children too being exposed to the racism that parents had experienced, this decision was underlined by an equal amount of worrying about children’s futures and their own social isolation.

Conclusion

Early findings from this pilot reveal significant inequities in parent networks across the countries – with strongly networked parenting units in some instances, and in other cases, excluded and isolated households. We also see wide variation in degrees of digital dis/connection and the degree of reliance parents feel able to place on welfare and state support systems indicating significant cross-national disparities in the societal structures with which parenthood operates. We are also finding key vulnerabilities in households dealing with mental health, immigration or financial difficulties, and a significant impact of the COVID-19 pandemic across the board, but also notable differences between the countries involved which cannot be explained as individual-level differences between the households alone.