Media at Home: Interaction and Regulation in European Families
Dominique Pasquier

Introduction In this feature, Dominique Pasquier, director of research at the National Centre for Scientific Research in France, compares the different family interactions around the "old" screen medium of television with those around new digital technologies, such as computers or game consoles. She examines the implications of the expansion of media access at home as attitudes to parental authority, parental guidance and peer relations are transformed.

Although many families now own a number of different sets which may be watched independently, television appears to be the major focus for family interaction across Europe.

We asked around 11,000 children and young people in 11 European countries and in Israel about their use of old and new media. When we asked which activities, media and non-media related, children most often share with their parents, "watching television together" was top of the list in every country. Most children also say that they watch their favorite television program with other members of their family. Although, together with music, television is the main topic of discussion with friends, co-viewing with them is a rather unusual practice, except in Denmark and Sweden, countries where the peer culture of children is particularly well developed. Mothers appear to be central characters in co-viewing practices, although watching with a sibling is almost as common.

Qualitative observations and interviews confirm that this incorporation of television into the routines of daily life is more complete in families of lower socio-economic status. Such families often say they have developed habits and enjoyable rituals linked to specific programs. In comparison, for families of high socio-economic status, television viewing is more selective: the set is turned on for particular programs, rather than left more or less permanently switched on as it often is in families of lower socio-economic status.

Computers and games machines

With computers, whether used for games or other purposes, there is a very different pattern. Electronic games are much more likely to be played alone, and if they are played with someone else, this is almost never a parent and very seldom a sister. Thus, playing electronic games is a more solitary, male activity than watching television: it is also more peer than family-oriented. Answers to the question, "Who knows most about computers in your family?" confirm the gender effect: mothers and sisters are very seldom considered the most competent persons. This should be compared to the much higher degree of competence accredited to fathers: they are named by a third to half of children as those who know most about computers in the family. The referent adults for television are mothers, for computers they are fathers, although fathers play this guidance role much more often in high socio-economic status families than they do in those of low socio-economic status.

Different patterns of interaction in single-parent families

We investigated the case of single-parent families, which are more often than not single-mother families. Firstly, differences appear concerning the availability of equipment. On the one hand, children in single-parent families are less likely to have access to a computer at home (50 percent versus 62 percent in two-parent families): on the other, when they do have a computer at home, it is more likely to be located in their own bedrooms. The bedroom location is probably due to less frequent use of computers by mothers. However, it may also indicate that single mothers are particularly anxious to provide their children with the advantage of experience with computers. We do not notice such a consistent difference concerning television sets in the bedroom, although here too children from single-parent families, considering their financial disadvantage, are better equipped than we might have expected.

In most countries for children living in single-parent families, friends appear to be more significant companions for playing electronic games and for watching television than siblings. This is probably a consequence of single-parent families seldom being large families, but it is also possible that mothers compensate for a reduced family by being more tolerant to peer sociality at home.

Judgements about computer literacy among family members also show interesting differences. Single parents' children far less frequently designate their father as the most competent person in the family, and more often think that their mothers or themselves are the ones who know most. This shows that the absence of the father affects not only the possibility of shared use, which is obvious, but also the image of fathers and of males in general as referent persons for computer use.

Changing patterns of parental authority

Television and the telephone are the media most likely to be controlled by both parents in almost all countries. Control of the use of computers appears to be much weaker. Mothers usually control media use more than fathers, except for computer use, and this control decreases as the child grows up: the youngest age group is the most restricted. Socio-economic status has different effects depending on the medium and the country. In the majority of countries, but not in all, parents in high socio-economic status families are more likely than those in low socio-economic status families to control television viewing.

Qualitative data gathered in different countries give us more insight into forms of media control. Public debate and press campaigns usually focus on control regarding content (i.e. restrictions put on programs judged too violent or too sexually explicit). This concern is voiced in interviews with parents, who acknowledge the problem of violence or sex in television programs or electronic games, but think this is more likely to affect other children rather than their own. The topic of unsuitable programs is therefore high on the public agenda, but not so visible at the level of the family. In everyday life at home, control of unsuitable contents is usually seen as a problem only with younger children, mostly those aged under 10. Daily conflict around media is more often focused on the amount of television viewing or computer-game playing, and the interference of these with other activities like sleep or homework, rather than on the content of specific programs.

Main conclusions

If media in the past have led to more time being spent at home and more interaction occurring between family members, the new computer-based technologies are nowadays operating the reverse process. They are fostering new forms of peer sociability within the home which may have an effect on media regulation by parents, and on collective uses within the family. New patterns of interaction within the family, with more distinct territories marked according to gender and to age, seem likely to emerge.

First, computers and games machines appear to escape the traditional mediation of the mother between media and family life. They encourage interactions that are rarely intergenerational and, when they are, they are mostly linked to the father. As such, their introduction into the home may provoke an interesting re-balancing of family dynamics, giving a more active part to fathers in media guidance at home. However, we should acknowledge that these new links with fathers are strongly gender-segregated, and sons benefit much more often from them than daughters.

The second major trend we observe is the reconfiguration of the balance between family and peer relationships around media, a trend clearly linked to the previous one. Television appears to be a major focus for family patterns of interaction. Computer-based media are much more often connected to peer relations than they are to family life. Most parents' lack of skills is certainly one reason why this occurs: they cannot usually give the necessary help to improve performance with computers. But again, girls appear to be the main losers in this new configuration. Social cooperative networks around such media are largely male, and it is hard for girls to enter them.

As far as parental guidance is concerned, the greater lenience in controlling content is probably an expression, among other things, of changing patterns of parental authority. As sociologists of the family point out, nowadays children's duty is less to obey than to succeed at school, and decisions in families have been democratized toward co-operation between parents and children. This last trend would certainly help to explain why parental control of media has moved from restricting access to unsuitable content toward limiting time taken away from activities that might improve school performance, like homework and sleep. It might also explain why there are fewer restrictions on computers (and on books of course) compared to television. For all parents, the former are media which provide competencies needed at school and in later professional life.

This feature has been adapted from chapter 7 in the book Children and their changing media environment, edited by Sonia Livingstone and Moira Bovill, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001.