"The panic about children and media ... is always and everywhere the same." (Buckingham & Jensen)
Panics over ‘new’ media – be it social media, television, or radio – are seen to recur, both across time and cultural contexts. Concerns about the internet and video games displaced fears about the influence of the cinema, music hall or popular literature. As a threat to upending the status quo, each new medium gives rise to similar apprehensions.
Scholars who are concerned with the way the theory of moral panics can be used to understand children and media – particularly from a sociological or cultural perspective – may benefit from Stanley Cohen’s conceptualisation:
“Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible.”
Building on the work of Cohen, Drotner developed a more exact term – “media panics” – to refer to concerns about media influence. Scholars have since taken these terms up and have applied them to areas such as social media and, more specifically, to the study of children’s media use.
The debate wages on between camps advocating for its utility and detractors who argue that “moral panic” is in danger of being over-extended to the point where it has refrained from carrying any substantial meaning or critical purchase. Regardless of your position, ‘new’ media offer enhanced opportunities for interaction, give unprecedented access to information and feedback, and enable multiple modalities. They potentially solve, as well as exacerbate, many dilemmas of family and social life. Thus, it has become necessary to rethink the relationship between media use and social support.
Social support: the role of children’s media use in family life and peer relations
Family Communication Patterns Theory (FCPT) aims to describe what family communication is and how it functions. FCPT is built around two orientations – conversation and conformity orientation. Conformity orientation refers to the degree to which families create an environment that emphasizes homogeneity of attitudes, beliefs, and values, while conversation orientation stresses the importance of participating freely in interactions about various topics.
Both orientations are part of family relationships and meaning-making. Furthermore, these communication patterns are integral to how families understand their connections, establish their expectations to one another, and assess the behaviour of family members.
Communication patterns are modeled by the examples of significant others. Hence, family members may imitate aspects of each other’s interactions and communications. However, digital media add an extra dimension to family communication patterns. For example, exposure to social media has not only shifted attention away from the family unit, but also patterns of communication have subsequently changed, thereby reshaping previously existing family dynamics. Younger generations are increasingly self-reliant for media use and influenced by peer networks early on.
With a new paradigm of person-specific media effects, the individual susceptibility model is a useful foundational theory to help ‘set the stage’ for this change. It helps support theorising and interpretation around interindividual differences between young people and offers very concrete suggestions as to where these differences can be situated and what might explain them. Differential susceptibility mechanisms explain that the effect of media on children and youth are likely to work differently for different people based on their social environment, developmental stage, and psychological predispositions.
Furthermore, peer popularity theory explains how there is a social order in peer groups, with peer acceptance and peer popularity as the rewards and peer rejection and exclusion as punishment. Through these mechanisms of reward and punishment, young people are socialised by the peer group. This theory can be used to frame why seemingly unconventional media behaviours can actually be strategically smart when understood within the reward system of the peer group.
Parental mediation theory
Scholars seeking to investigate factors from the family environment that might mitigate the negative effects of media on children might start their efforts from parental mediation. Rooted in the study of children’s TV use, parental mediation theories consider parents and caregivers as the main social agents in charge of supervising and guiding children’s usage by applying different strategies in order to ensure their wellbeing. According to Clark,
“What today is referred to as parental mediation theory has therefore long been a hybrid communication theory that, although rooted primarily in social/psychological media effects and information processing theories, also implicitly foregrounds the importance of interpersonal communication between parents and their children.”
This theory has evolved to consider the way parents and caregivers use interpersonal communication to mitigate the potential negative effects that media may have on their children in the digital realm.
While parents and caregivers implement a range of strategies, parental mediation can be typically divided into enabling mediation (when caregivers are favouring active co-use) and restrictive mediation (when using technical restrictions or limiting device use or time online). An empirical example of how theories of parental mediation and social support can be linked to evidence is offered by the project EU Kids Online – comparative research across many countries in Europe on how children engage with the internet, which used a comprehensive theoretical framework including the role of social support.
Digital parental mediation theories also take into account how children’s own characteristics and agency influence this process both regarding their relationship with their parents and caregivers, as well as their own process of internet use. In this way, they surpass approaches such as “media effects”, “technological-determinism”, and “adult-centrism”, among others, by being better able to recognise children’s rights and agency. Still, concerns about supporting children’s privacy in digital contexts are increasingly prominent as caregivers and children interact together with and through digital media, highlighting tensions when managing the disclosure of information and navigating privacy boundaries.
Communication privacy theory
Developed by Sandra Petronio, Communication privacy theory is based on three main theoretical tenets:
Privacy ownership – when individuals feel they own their personal information and have the authority to allow access to selected ‘co-owners’.
Privacy control – this indicates that even when providing access to other parties,
individuals still believe they are in control of their privacy.
Privacy turbulence – this occurs when people believe co-owners have breached their boundary expectations. Turbulence requires solutions on the side of the owner in order to claim first-level ownership, resulting in either relationship damage or improvement.
Although the theory is not necessarily focused on children and media, it provides a framework to study important concepts such as online privacy and representational agency. Also, it has been used by many scholars in the field to study how children understand privacy, regulate their boundaries and protect their representational agency. It has also been used to better understand occurrences where third parties create children’s online identities.
This theory can be particularly useful to conceptualize sharenting and grand-sharenting, or a “double loss of agency”, with a first-level loss of agency occurring when third parties (such as parents) share about children without their consent and a second-level loss of agency occurring when a person external to the nuclear family (e.g., a grandparent) shares about the child without the child and the parents’ consent.
Hopefully, these foundational theories and frameworks provide a critical lens for researchers interrogating where moral panic is situated, how such practices reveal what ‘being young’ means in contemporary society, and the role of parents and families and the broader social community in monitoring multiple channels of communication with a view toward minimising the risks and harms of the digital world while taking full advantage of the benefits.
More resources on social support
Other areas of children’s digital lives in the theories toolkit
Media panic theories
Barker, M. & Petley, J. (2001). Ill effects : the media/violence debate (2nd ed.). Routledge.
Buckingham, D., & Strandgaard Jensen, H. (2012). Beyond “media panics”: Reconceptualising public debates about children and media. Journal of Children and Media, 6(4), 413–429.
Cohen, S. (1972). Folk devils and moral panics. MacGibbon and Kee.
Drotner, K. (1999). Dangerous media? Panic discourses and dilemmas of modernity. Paedagogica Historica, 35(3), 593–691.
Finkelhor, D. (2011). The Internet, Youth Safety and the Problem of "Juvenoia". University of New Hampshire, Crimes against Children Research Center
Clark, L. S. (2011). Parental mediation theory for the digital age. Communication Theory, 21, 323- 343.
Livingstone, S., & Helsper. E. (2008). Parental mediation of children’s Internet use. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 52, 581-599.
Livingstone, S., Ólafsson, K., Helsper, E. J., Lupiáñez-Villanueva, F., Veltri, G. A., & Folkvord, F. (2017). Maximizing opportunities and minimizing risks for children online: the role of digital skills in emerging strategies of parental mediation. Journal of Communication, 67 (1). pp. 82-105.
Mascheroni, G., Ponte, C. & Jorge, A. (2018). Introduction. In G. Mascheroni, C. Ponte & A. Jorge (eds.). Digital Parenting: The Challenges for Families in the Digital Age (pp. 9–16). Nordicom.
Modecki, K. L., Goldberg, R. E., Wisniewski, P., & Orben, A. (2022). What Is Digital Parenting? A Systematic Review of Past Measurement and Blueprint for the Future. Perspectives on Psychological Science.
Nikken, P. & Schols, M. (2015). How and why parents guide the media use of young children. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24, 3423-3435.
Valkenburg, P.M., Krcmar, M., Peters , L.P., & Marseille, N.M., (1999). Developing a scale to assess three styles of television mediation: “Instructive mediation,” “restrictive mediation,” and “social coviewing”. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 43, 52-66.
Communication privacy theory
Ammari, T., Kumar, P., Lampe, C., & Schoenebeck, S. (2015, April). Managing children's online identities: How parents decide what to disclose about their children online. In Proceedings of the 33rd annual ACM conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 1895-1904).
Child, J. T., & Westermann, D. A. (2013). Let's be Facebook friends: Exploring parental Facebook friend requests from a communication privacy management (CPM) perspective. Journal of Family Communication, 13(1), 46-59.
Cino, D. (2022). Beyond the Surface: Sharenting as a Source of Family Quandaries: Mapping Parents’ Social Media Dilemmas. Western Journal of Communication, 86(1), 128–153.
Damkjaer, M. S. (2018). Sharenting = good parenting? Four parental approaches to sharenting on Facebook. In G. Mascheroni, C. Ponte, & A. Jorge (Eds.), Digital parenting. The challenges for families in the digital age (pp. 209–218). Nordicom, The Clearinghouse Yearbook.
Petronio, S. (2002). The boundaries of privacy: Dialectics of disclosure. State University of New York Press.
Petronio, S., Child, J. T., & Hall, R. D. (2021). Communication privacy management theory: Significance for interpersonal communication. In Engaging theories in interpersonal communication, (pp. 314-327). Routledge.
Walrave, M., Verswijvel, K., Ouvrein, G., Staes, L., Hallam, L., & Hardies, K. (2022). The Limits of Sharenting: Exploring Parents’ and Adolescents’ Sharenting Boundaries Through the Lens of Communication Privacy Management Theory. Frontiers in Education, 7, 803393.
Coie, J. D., Dodge, K. A., & Coppotelli, H. (1982). Dimensions and types of social status: A cross-age perspective. Developmental Psychology, 18, 557–569.
Coleman J. (1961). The adolescent society. Free Press.
Corsaro, W.A., & Eder, D. (1990). Children’s Peer Cultures. Annual Review of Sociology, 16, 197-220.
Fitzpatrick, M. A. (2004). Family Communication Patterns Theory: Observations on Its Development and Application. Journal of Family Communication, 4(3–4), 167–179.
Koerner, A. F., Schrodt, P., & Fitzpatrick, M. A. (2017). Family communication patterns theory: A grand theory of family communication. In Engaging theories in family communication, (pp. 142–153). Routledge.
Nichols, S., & Selim, N. (2022). Digitally Mediated Parenting: A Review of the Literature. Societies, 12(2), 60.
Paus-Hasebrink, I. (2019). The role of media within young people’s socialization: A theoretical approach. Communications, 44(4), 407–426.
Valkenburg, P. M., & Peter, J. (2013). The differential susceptibility to media effects model. Journal of communication, 63(2), 221-243.