Parents talking algorithms

By Ranjana Das

How might algorithms shape everyday practices and decisions in parenting? How do parents understand, resist or work within algorithmic systems? How do parents feel about algorithmic futures?

My new book – Parents Talking Algorithms – will draw out the nuances of what happens when parents go about their everyday life making decisions in parenting and coping with parenthood in a world increasingly shaped by algorithms. Based on the experiences of parents of children aged o to 18, across England, I explore how aware parents are of algorithmic shaping in banal and even mundane processes of parenting – from searching for information, engaging with the news, seeking fellowship, to sharing, sharenting, or perhaps shopping for products or experiences, approaching algorithms in their children’s lives, and indeed thinking about algorithmic futures

Behind these apparently banal, everyday practices, lie personal philosophies and circumstances shaping parenthood and parenting – where, the often gendered, and classed, impetus to make the best possible decisions for children, has been much discussed within the sociology of intensive parenting and parenting cultures. But equally – in contemporary mediated, and datafied societies – behind these unnoticeable everyday practices of parenting, lies obscure, and rarely thought about technological rules – algorithms, increasingly driven by artificial intelligence. And, scholarship in user-centric algorithm studies is burgeoning on how aware people might be of these rules underneath the bonnet of the media and technologies we engage with.

My book sits at the intersections of the sociology of parenthood and user-centric algorithm studies. I draw upon research which involves “think-aloud” interviews, where parents browse through the apps, portals and websites they frequent on an everyday basis, as we talk through their awareness, understanding, feelings and decisions around algorithmic shaping. Much about algorithms, and AI-powered algorithmic shaping is difficult to speak about in fieldwork – and the think-aloud nature of the interviews makes the abstract concrete. In addition I use vignettes – fictional narratives about fictitious parents encountering an algorithmically shaped parenting journey – as prompts to think through some of the more obscure and fleeting aspects of algorithmic shaping. Vignettes have proved to be enormously beneficial in a related project exploring citizens’ views on data-driven media personalisation.

My ongoing fieldwork reveals much about the role of algorithmic selection and ranking of search results when a parent seeks information, the filtering of a feed which offers glimpses into the apparently perfect parenting journeys of others, the subtle prompts to consume certain products and experiences, or the punctuation of everyday parenthood with news of risks and crises. These are but a few of the many circumstances where algorithmic shaping, ever so gently, or subtly, meets parenting and parenthood.

A particular focus of this work is on parents’ algorithm literacies – which I situate within a long tradition of scholarship on media and digital literacies, which itself sits within the backdrop of many decades of research into audience interpretation. This means, I am interested in working out parents’ awareness, understanding, feelings and practices around algorithms, and tease out what this means for their parenting, building upon scholarship on how algorithms and users are in recursive relationships of mutual domestication.

I am very grateful to the University of Surrey’s sabbatical scheme to be able to take on this work, and to have been able to discuss it with colleagues at the University of Bergen recently on an Erasmus visit. I look forward to taking this work to colleagues at Malmo University, Sweden this summer, on a Data and Society fellowship.

Please note that articles published on this blog reflect the views of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Sociology.