Parenting & Media Environments
Parental Support in an Information Age:
Lessons from Parental Mediation of Rental Videos
Dept. of Communication
417 Kimpel Hall
University of Arkansas
Fayetteville, AR 72703
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The onset of an "Information Age" poses new questions for parents' control over
children's media use. This paper notes the increasing frequency with which
parents rely on the physical environment of their home and media mix to help
control children's media habits. Through qualitative interviews of four
families about their use of rental videotapes, the author concludes that there
are important elements to be considered in future studies of new technology in
Parents in our so-called Information Society do not have it easy. Sociological
research on families (e.g., Chase-Lansdale, Brooks-Gunn, & Zamsky, 1994; Demo,
1992; Elder, Conger, Foster, & Ardelt, 1992; Lino, 1993; Menaghan & Parcel,
1990; Presser, 1994) has shown that increasing numbers of parents work outside
the home, have less time with their children, and have trouble meeting the
financial and emotional demands of family life. This is especially true for
single-parent homes (Glick, 1994). Among the many concerns over this lack of
parent-child time, media are the most vociferously expressed. Without access to
their parents, children often are left with the television as their companions
and parents are (willingly or not) left with television as a caregiver. Given
this, and given the decades-old issues surrounding violent and sexual content,
parents are placed in difficult circumstances. Those who wish to control their
children's media use must do so with less contact time than previous generations
In this society, however, media environments are growing increasingly complex.
Over the last two decades, VCRs and remote controls changed the way we view and
experience television (Lindlof & Shatzer, 1990). Two-thirds of our televisions
are connected to a wide array of cable television channels (with content
standards all their own). Home computers have filtered their way into over 40%
of American homes and now growing numbers of these computers are connected to
the Internet. This alone presents parents with a complicated task of managing
children's media use -- and we have not begun to consider the impact of
combining these different media into one, digitally delivered system. This paper
attempts to assess how four families deal with such issues, specifically how
they use their media environment to control children's access to media
programming. The focus of this research is on these families' use of television
and VCRs, but the data below reveal a great deal about the way parenting styles
have changed in an evolving media environment. The physical domestic environment
has become an important element of parents' child rearing styles. Their efforts
in this regard may forecast the direction of parenting strategies in the "new
tech" household of the future.
Parental Control of Children's Media Use
Studies of parental rulemaking yielded mixed results. Many studies show a
negative relationship between rulemaking and the child's age (Brown, et al.,
1990; Desmond, Hirsch, Singer, & Singer, 1987; Gross & Walsh, 1980; Lin & Atkin,
1989). Many studies (Desmond, et al., 1987; Greenberg & Dominick, 1969; Gross &
Walsh, 1980; Lin & Atkin, 1989) found that the number of rules was negatively
related to number of children in the home, though they differed on whether
girls' or boys' viewing was more controlled. Among parents (especially mothers),
negative perceptions of TV effects and inductive childrearing styles were
correlated with increased mediation (Abelman, 1990). More importantly, however,
access to parents (especially mothers) was positively related to number and
enforcement of television rules (Gross & Walsh, 1980; Rossiter & Robertson,
1975), and the latter was negatively related to children's total amount of
viewing (Lin & Atkin, 1989).
Studies of "new media" in the home also yielded mixed results about parental
mediation. Atkin, Heeter, & Baldwin (1989) concluded that cable subscription
showed little relationship to rules for watching television, with children in
cable home watching more R-rated movies. Lin and Atkin (1989) found that child
ownership of media was negatively related to number of rules parents made for
viewing. Self-report studies (e.g., Atkin, Heeter, & Baldwin, 1989; Greenberg &
Heeter, 1987) found that parents in VCR households were no more likely to
mediate children's viewing (formally or informally) than those in broadcast-only
or cable-TV homes. The VCR did not make a significant impact on families'
decisions about which programs to view (Kim, Baran, & Massey, 1988), and viewing
in VCR- and cable-homes was not significantly greater than in broadcast-only
homes (Pinon, Huston, & Wright, 1989).
Studies of coviewing and mediation are a separate focus of this literature
(e.g., see the reviews of Abelman, 1990 and Desmond, Singer, & Singer, 1990).
These studies reached rather disappointing conclusions, arguing that parents
provide little mediation or interpretation of content for children, and that
many times children provide it for each other during shared viewing. Self-report
studies concluded that increased coviewing was mostly a matter of adults and
children being at home simultaneously (Field, 1987; St. Peters, Fitch, Huston,
Wright, & Eakins, 1991), not a matter of purposeful content mediation.
Alexander's (1990) literature review concluded that though a good deal of
children's time in front of the TV was spent with others, parents offered little
direct interpretation of content. Siblings offered much of this themselves. The
picture is one of viewing ruled by coincidence, not by parents:
Many of our observation grids present the picture of families' members alone
while together - children playing with toys, with the television on, while
parents talked with each other or viewed in relative isolation. (Desmond,
Singer, & Singer, 1990, p. 304)
The social psychology literature on parenting is rather extensive. Baumrind's
(1971) analysis of parental control and support presented one of the most
influential works to date. She explicated three distinct parenting styles in
that monograph. The first was called an authoritative style, in which parents
combined high levels of emotional support with inductive control strategies.
That is, adults provided warmth and affection to children. Disciplinary
measures were firm and consistent, but more often took the form of requests and
explanations rather than the use of force or punishment. Thus, emotional warmth
was used together with moderate discipline. Provision of such emotional support
with little or no disciplinary strategies was called a permissive style.
Parents who used coercive or forceful disciplinary strategies with little or no
emotional support were said to be using an authoritarian parenting style.
Baumrind argued that an authoritative style was most effective, producing
children with high self-esteem, more independence, social competence, a
cooperative spirit, and a better moral sense.
Another effort to study parent-child relationships is the research on family
communication patterns (Ritchie, 1991; Fitzpatrick & Ritchie, 1994) that are
specifically applied to family media use. This research characterized patterns
in parent-child communication that focused on two general goals: a perceived
need for family members either to agree on all matters or to accurately
understand each person's differing opinions. Austin (1993) added that children
in her studies more often thought of family relations in terms of parental
support. Krcmar (1996) applied this to television program selection. Her
conclusion was that parents and children draw on differing instances of
interaction in assessing control and support. Parents identified control with
the use of verbal directives, whereas children seemed to identify it with
parents' use of negative affect in all their communication. Parents perceived
themselves to use more support when they asked for children's input on program
selection, whereas children associated this with less frequent use of verbal
commands. Krcmar concluded that parents and children might be operating under
different, and evolving, theories of family relationships.
Media and Domestic Space
A common theme in all of this literature is the consideration of viewing
context. Some have argued that this should include the physical viewing
environment. Atkin, Greenberg, and Baldwin (1991), for example, suggest that
home "exosystem" variables may explain viewing patterns. The home "exosystem"
includes those material conditions (e.g., media ownership, subscription to cable
television, set location) that affect the lengths to which children and families
must go to use media. For example, families that locate the set in a remote
room of the house may be trying to reduce viewing time (Baker, 1996, April 29).
Among the findings of this study was a correlation between cable subscription
and increased television viewing. As reported above, however, these variables
did not appear to affect parental mediation. The implication is that the more a
family invests in media hardware and content, the greater each member's use of
media and the less children's viewing is regulated in the forms mentioned above.
Lindlof and Shatzer's (1990) qualitative observations of family viewing
suggested several significant influences on VCR use. Some of these concern
"access rights" (i.e., operating and viewing privileges). While young children
usually were not granted such rights, operational competence was a significant
control mechanism. That is, those who could operate the VCR took it upon
themselves to control others' access to it. The males in each family usually
occupied this role. More interesting, though, is the finding that in some of
those homes, parents controlled their children's training with VCRs and remote
controls so as to limit their access to content. It is difficult to watch a
violent show, for example, if a young child only knows how to work the power and
volume buttons on the remote.
Ethnographic studies of family life (e.g., Krendl, Clark, Dawson, & Troiano,
1993) have noted gendered patterns in how parents divide mediation tasks. In
these studies, males often assumed control of household media, but females often
controlled children's viewing. Mothers more often enforced rules and settled
children's viewing disputes, but exhibited less control over program selection
than either husbands or children. Krendl, et al. (1993) argued that this was
considered an extension of the mothers' other household tasks, which included
housework and child care. Morley (1986) explains this as a clash of work and
leisure spheres. Males' dominance of media technology springs from their vision
of the home as a place of relaxation after leaving the work world. Hence, family
members defined their domestic environment differently -- media included.
Spigel (1992) takes up these themes more extensively in her analysis of
television's adoption during the 1950s. Drawing data from contemporary women's
magazines and television programming, she explicates the nation's ambivalence
toward television. While Americans were enamored with the medium's ability to
serve as a window on the world, they were also fearful of its effects,
particularly on children. Consequently, television broadcasters and
manufacturers developed an extensive collection of advertising and advisory
messages that showed parents how to manage television's place in the home. Not
the least of these considerations was where to place the set. Many families
placed it in the middle of their living rooms with cabinets that blended with
the d cor. Others sought to hide the set in family or TV rooms or in special
cabinets that might hide the set when not in use and when entertaining guests.
Giving media the right amount, and the right kind, of space was, for 1950s
America, a primary step in controlling its place in family life. Parents of the
1990s might be turning to the same ideas.
The Domestic Media Mix
There can be little doubt that in a society that spends so much time with
media, media hardware has become a prime example of the consumer goods that
shape a family's definition of itself. Media researchers have fought to keep up
with rapid changes in media systems. While nearly every American home contains
a television set, acquisition of technologies like VCRs (now in 85% of all
homes) and computers (in about 40% of homes) is more recent (Technology in the
American household, 1994). A higher percentage of children than adults reported
using and owning many of these technologies (Livingstone & Gaskell, 1996).
VCRs, home theater systems, and Internet-TVs require televisions capable of
working with other media (e.g., stereos and computers). In addition, media
organizations continue to devise new means of content delivery through satellite
and fiber optic systems. Cable television, telephone, and video distribution
companies are all capable of delivering program content. In short, home media
are becoming an increasingly connected system, not just in terms of hardware but
There are also strong indications that our society's notions of parental
support are changing. Demo (1992) contends that parent-child relationships have
exhibited a pattern of "supportive detachment," in which parents provide for
children in increasingly distant ways. The demands of home and work have
removed adults from home life for longer periods of time each day.
Consequently, parents spend increasing amounts of time structuring children's
relationships rather than directly engaging with them. One might, for example,
spend a great deal of time choosing a new neighborhood, a school, or a child's
play group. Once these decisions are made, though, a great deal of the child's
time is spent away from parents (e.g., in daycare, school, or peer-activities).
Thus, though not uncaringly, parents have found that their child-rearing years
consist of low levels of face-to-face interaction and shared activities with
their kids. These forms of support, moreover, extend well past adolescence in
many cases. Demo's analysis concluded that contemporary children are more
seriously affected by the lack of these structural forms of support (e.g., loss
of socioeconomic resources, lack of parental involvement) than by any
traditionally held fears about the perils of a single-parent or divorce home.
Media audience research undoubtedly faces significant changes in this new
environment. With the spread of "old" technologies into more rooms of the home
(e.g., televisions in children's bedrooms) and the adoption of new technologies
(e.g., computers, CD-ROM), family media practices become even more complex and
difficult to observe (Livingstone & Gaskell, 1996). What were once common
viewing experiences for a family watching broadcast television are now very
diverse experiences with different media and content types. This article offers
some insights from a study of home video use that might prove useful. Parents'
use of video tapes and video hardware may reveal something about the ways in
which they will adopt new media technologies like computers.
Research Questions and Methods
A great deal of research has explored parents' mediation strategies for
children's media use. The bulk of this research has been done with television
content, but it is clear that the domestic media landscape is on the edge of
significant change. The rapid diffusion of cable television and VCRs
(especially to child owners) has shown us that families are quickly able to
assimilate new technologies in their daily routine. Computers' increasing
diffusion into American homes and the promises that come with new
information-delivery technologies afford us an opportunity to examine how
parents extend their mediation strategies to their physical environment. That
is, the advent of new communication technologies provides parents with the
chance to use the spatial arrangement of their homes as a mediation strategy.
This study asks how parents' employ such strategies with existing media and what
this might tell us about the manner in which computers, the Internet, and other
technologies will be assimilated within domestic space.
To explore these issues, I conducted a set of in-depth interviews with families
in a Midwest university town and a nearby metropolitan city. In this study,
"family" was defined as any household with at least one adult and one or more
dependents under the age of 13. To recruit interview participants, I contacted
all video stores in the university town and ten stores from each geographic
quadrant of the metropolitan area, including grocery stores that fell into both
store types. I recruited family interview participants with a promotional flyer
that was initially distributed through video stores. To increase the response
rate, I distributed a second set through social service organizations (e.g.,
Boys' and Girls' Clubs, YMCAs, religious centers, and community health centers)
in both cities. The flyer offered participants free videos in return for their
participation. It then asked interested customers to call a toll-free number
for project information. After describing the study, I verified that
participating families included a child under 13 years old. I conducted the
interviews in each family's home for 60-90 minutes. At the conclusion of the
interview, I gave each family twenty dollars in video store gift certificates or
I designed the interviews to gather participants' perceptions of their
mediation practices, video stores, and video content. The family interviews
focused on attitudes toward media content, rental video's place among family
activities, use of VCRs and other media, rulemaking and mediation strategies,
the perceived existence of media rules, and use of media outside the home.
Families were interviewed as a group for several reasons. First, it provided a
chance to directly confront parents' and children's views of family media rules.
Second, it offered me a glimpse of how parents and children communicated with
one another, particularly in front of a visiting stranger. Third, it limited my
time in their home as much as possible. To realize these advantages, children
were asked to answer some questions (especially those about media rules) without
any interruptions from adults.
A principle weakness of this design is that family recruitment techniques
provided a motivated, self-selected sample. First, the promise of an incentive
necessarily influenced the sample in that heavy video users were attracted by
the monetary gift. Second, the flyer's overt request for opinions about video
content would have attracted participants with firmly established and
articulated views on media content. In addition, these families might have been
more likely to be involved in activities outside the home and possessed
extensive media resources. In either case, it is clear that this was a motivated
The Davies Family
The Davies family lives on the south side of the metropolitan city. Harold, a
43-year-old supermarket operations manager, and Jane, a 43-year-old full-time
mother and homemaker, are the married, biological parents of 15-year-old Tim and
11-year-old Sean. The homes in the Davies' subdivision are all rather large,
well maintained, and have large yards. While not a measure of their income,
their occupations and surroundings suggest the Davies live in a middle-class
The Davies family is a very unique case in an otherwise media-heavy culture.
Harold and Jane have not owned a television set for 23 years. Jane explained
that their previous set had broken down and they had decided television was
something they did not want any more. When the bought a VCR for Christmas, Tim
connected it to an old Amiga computer monitor in his parents' bedroom (where
their computer also sits). Tim is the appointed computer expert in this home,
helping his parents with the VCR and their computer's word processing software.
The Davies have stereos with cassette and CD players in their living room and in
Tim's room. There are clock radios in the parents' and Sean's bedrooms. Both
boys own Walkman radios. Beyond this, virtually every room in their home
contains books and magazines. The family also subscribes to the Sunday edition
of the local paper.
Their media environment is a direct reflection of the Davies' devout Christian
beliefs. Jane explained that when their old television broke down, they decided
that they would not replace it. They believe that there are better, more active
pursuits in their lives. The Davies also decided to home-school their children;
Jane is charged with this task. Both parents believe that current television
programming fails to live up to the moral standards they hold for themselves.
Jane also measures their video selections by their historical accuracy. The
family rejected the film Amadeus, for example, because she felt that the movie's
strong language and sexual content were not historically accurate given the
Mozart biographies she and her children had read. Consequently, this family
does not watch videos frequently and their preferences are much the same. They
generally enjoy family movies and documentaries. The boys are occasionally
permitted to watch episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation when they visit
their grandmother. When they do, Jane reports that she, Harold, and her mother
enjoy watching classic movies.
Jane and Harold believe the best way to judge video content (they do not own a
television) is by its moral message. Violent acts, per se, are not the point,
but the movie's treatment of those acts is important. The movie should show
that violence is the wrong course of action. By the same token, videos with no
violence may have an unacceptable moral message. They prefer to judge programs
for their general message rather than counting individual acts. Harold and Jane
both expressed reservations about current Hollywood movies. To their mind, the
presence of violent or sexual images is not only objectionable, but is
historically inaccurate as well:
J: The most recent we picked up was Amadeus . . . which was about Mozart . . .
as a youth and growing up . . . and we didn't get very far into that and we just
pulled it out, we decided it wasn't what we wanted to be seeing and instead we
got the encyclopedia out and read on his life and enjoyed that just as much.
H: Yeah, and it didn't seem like that the movie portrayed what his life was
about, according to what we read.
J: I think they picked up on a little tidbit here and there on his life and
built his whole character around it. (next utterance inaudible)
I. Why do you think they did that? I mean the people who made the film, why do
you think that they would do that?
H: Frightening when that's what the audience wants to see. That's what's going
to sell the video, more than just the actual character itself.
J: Well, I just read in the newspaper last Sunday and we would in no way get
this video, it's not something I would even consider, it's a new movie about the
Salem witch trials (The Crucible) and the movie according to the article I read
opens with these young girls frolicking naked at some sort of little party in
the woods, well, that's not true to history at the time the morals of the - and
those girls would not have been doing such an uninhibited thing but that's the
mentality of the movie makers, that put those things in there, so. I think that
kinda same thing happened with this Mozart film.
Jane educates her children at home and feels that their limited exposure to
television and videos has prevented the kind of intellectual decline she has
noticed in other children. Her sons share some of these views on content,
particularly when it comes to their peers who watch a lot of television. Sean
reported hearing a lot of conversation about television commercials and programs
among his peers, exchanges in which he could not and did not participate. When
asked if that was ever a difficult situation, he answered negatively. TV was
simply something his friends talked about; he talked with them about other
subjects. Tim noticed that many of his friends did not read books and paid
little attention to TV when they watched it. He felt that this made it harder
for them to earn high grades in school. For these reasons, Jane and Harold
maintained strict control over when and what their sons watch. Indeed, Jane
exercised final authority over all video content. She cannot understand how
other parents forbid their children to watch such content, but label it
acceptable for adults. This simply makes the content more enticing for
The Davies made very explicit distinctions between themselves and people who
watch a great deal of television. Each of them perceives a difference between
their interests and those of the boys' friends. The strength of these views is
reflected in the viewing rules the Davies reported in their home. Tim stated
that Harold and Jane must approve all video purchases, though they could be
watched at any time before his parents went to bed (the VCR and monitor are kept
in the parents' bedroom). Jane corrected him by adding that the boys may not
watch videos during their studies or until chores are done on Saturday. Harold
extended these comments by stating that he and Jane do not allow the boys to
watch videos all day long. Jane also stated that the boys had been trained from
an early age to find an approved program in their viewing guide rather than
flipping through channels to find something to watch. She further stated that
she limited their choices to shows she already knew and approved: "We only
watched what we already knew, what I could say yes to. If I wasn't sure, we
didn't watch it to find out." Though Sean did not offer all the rules, Jane
sees attributes her control to the fact that they do not own a television set:
The reason we have the VCR only and not go ahead and get the antenna and hook up
the television is because we've gone for 23 years without the television. And
we thought it was a good decision not to have one. We don't really want to
change that around. We have straight-A students, they are excellent readers,
and I think part of that is because they don't spend hours in front of the TV.
The Mayhew Family
The Mayhews live in an upper-middle class neighborhood in the university town.
Connie, a 41-year-old elementary teacher, and Keith, a 36-year-old lawyer, are
the married, biological parents of 13-year-old Mike and 4-year-old Amy. Their
neighborhood is well established and the streets are lined with clean sidewalks
and mature trees. The houses are generally in excellent condition and have
large, fenced yards. A large city park is located within two blocks of their
home. It is safe to call the Mayhew home media-saturated. The living room and
each member's bedroom are equipped with a television set and VCR (including
remote control devices). Each of these rooms also has a collection of
videotapes (movies and off-air recordings). Connie said that the VCR in their
room is used to tape shows for her elementary classroom. A fifth, portable set
resides in the kitchen. Portable stereo/CD players are located in the kitchen
and both children's rooms. The bedrooms and living room also contain a sizable
collection of books (a plastic crate of Amy's books also stays in the living
room). Mike's room also has a personal computer with a modem and CD-ROM drive.
Connie was careful to point out that the family watches more videotapes than
television programs. While the family can seldom find the time to go to movies
together, they often rent tapes. They watch many of these rentals on
weeknights, particularly Tuesdays (when new videos are released in stores).
Their television viewing is limited mostly to cable networks, especially the
Discovery Channel. Her viewing preferences come mostly from two types of movies
- foreign films and critics' Top Ten films. She makes a habit of renting these
from a local store that specializes in artistic and foreign films. Keith, on
the other hand, likes mysteries and action movies, as well as independent films
such as Reservoir Dogs and Fargo. Mike often watches less violent action movies
with his father, and the family usually watches G- or PG-rated comedies. Among
those, they all enjoy Three Stooges movies and films starring former Saturday
Night Live cast members (e.g., Chris Farley, Adam Sandler). Connie also
admitted that she is a tremendous fan of the daytime drama Days of Our Lives,
which she often watched with her siblings and sometimes watches with her
One of Connie's biggest concerns about television and video content is their
effect on children's intellectual skills. When asked about her family's shared
activities, she described the kind of influence media seemed to have on her
students and children in general:
I think it makes children lazy. I think it gives them something to do to occupy
their mind for a certain period of time without having to exert that extra
effort that it would take to read a book or to actually do something or
contemplate a story line in, in a film. That's why I think movies are a much
more acceptable way of, of, doing video than regular television, which is . . .
I would use the word inane or, you know, not a lot of substance for regular
television viewing. Some of it and, th--, th--, and, in other cases it, it's
very good. There's a lot of good documentary stuff that we watch and there's
some funny sitcoms that we watch. . . . 'cause the kids at school, you know,
there's kids that just do nothing but watch TV when they go home. And you can
really kinda tell, because it's very difficult to get them to do homework, to
get, get things from them because, it's so much easier just to watch TV and, I
don't know . . .I'm real upset with TV and, and parents and kids right now.
We're in the middle of trying to get these research projects done (chuckles) and
it's been like pullin' teeth to get 'em to go to the library. It's like, "I
have to leave my house?" "Mmm-hhmm. Yeah, yes you do. And I want five sources
and you cannot use just computer." And computers, too, almost, you know, now
I'll, most of the research material that I get from them will, we have kids that
turn in things with the Grollier and Encarta thing right on the bottom of the
page and they turn that in as if that's their own report. So, things that are
easy are what they look for first and, uh, it is difficult to get 'em away.
This perspective translates into several viewing practices and policies in the
Mayhew' home. The family members each reported watching videos 4-5 days per
week and television every day. Connie prefers having VCRs in both children's
rooms so that everyone can view videos. She feels that using video rentals is
an easier way to control what her children watch.
And like I said neither of the kids watch regular television programming, and
they never--they haven't really, they haven't grown up doing that. Both of 'em
got TVs and VCRs when they were probably, what, two? So that I could actually
control the kinds of things that they were watching and giving them videos
instead of cartoons that were on TV and that kind of thing.
Connie has approved a great deal of television and video viewing for her
children's school assignments. Mike, for example, was permitted to watch The
Graduate for a history report he wrote about the 1960s. In fact, she feels that
videos allow she and Keith to control Mike's access to mature subject matter.
My feeling about it is if -- if there's an adult theme that he would have a
question about -- I mean he's thirteen so -- you know -- that's the kind of
thing we're trying to gracefully approach. And, uh, my feeling is if Keith's
with him, he can explain it. And if there's something that comes up that Mike
has questions about -- I mean these aren't things we're gonna try and hide from
him and we do kind of want to spoon them out gently and -- and sort of in a
monitored fashion, so that's sort of been our approach to it. We're not gonna
mix in -- I mean totally triple X adult movies (laughter) I don't think we would
bring home, but an R -- occasional R is -- I think that's fine and that keeps
him from sneaking out with his friends and telling us he's going to some movie
and then trying to sneak in to an R at the theater.
Connie reported that most of their daily activities were scheduled, including
the children's homework time each weeknight. Viewing restrictions were centered
on school activities, then. Connie's regulation of her children's viewing
focuses as much on the amount of viewing as it does on program content. She
maintains viewing control, even when Keith and Mike rent videos for themselves.
Video stores are also a controlled aspect of the Mayhews' activities. Connie
stated that they do not usually visit on weekends because the stores are so
busy. They usually rent videos on Tuesdays because that is when new releases
are made available. While Connie prefers to shop alone, particularly at the
foreign and independent video store, she does like the kids' areas at mainstream
stores. She believes it makes it easier to monitor her children and makes them
better behaved than other kids she sees. During their visits, Connie reports,
impulse buys are never an issue because she and the children agree on what will
be purchased prior to their visit. This is most often a problem with her
She'll tell us she wants something, ya know. She'll find something she wants in
there, but she knows if we go there we're there to get videos and not to get
other things, so . . .It's not too difficult to get her out of there.
The Richards Family
The Richards are an African-American family living in one of the metropolitan
city's downtown fringe neighborhoods. Lee, 31 years old, and Vera, 34, are the
married, biological parents of five children: Vincent (age 9), Sarah (age 7),
Rueben (age 6), Lee Jr. (age 4), and Sophia (age 3). Lee's mother also lives
with the family, though she did not participate in this interview. Lee works
two jobs as a customer service representative for a telephone company and as an
overnight receiver for a local department store. Vera works as a nursing
director at a local hospital. Their neighborhood, while not run down, shows
many signs of age. Several of the houses on their block are deteriorating and
in need of repair. A large hospital, strip malls, and factories occupy the
areas around their neighborhood. There is no video store in any of the shopping
centers. Vera reported that the nearest one was in a neighboring suburb twenty
minutes from their home.
The Richards' home is full of media hardware in various states of repair. The
living room contains a large TV set with a wooden cabinet, on top of which rests
a smaller plastic set. Only the smaller set works, and it is connected to a
36-channel basic cable package. The family also subscribes to HBO and The
Disney Channel. Lee and Vera's bedroom contains two TVs and two VCRs, though
only one TV was connected to a VCR at the time. To watch rented videos, the
family must use Lee's TV and VCR. Lee's mother has a TV in her room, as do
their sons (though the latter set does not work). There are two stereos in the
house (living room and master bedroom), both of which had cassette decks and
turntables. The family reported subscribing to the local newspaper (for Lee's
mother) and owning several kids books, which Vera stored in the master bedroom.
The children's rooms do not contain any TV sets or radios, though Vincent said
he had a radio that did not work. When they do watch a tape, however, the family
"invades Lee's territory" (as Vera put it) because his is the only VCR connected
to a TV.
There are distinct media preferences among the members of this family. Lee's
preference for martial-arts and pro-wrestling videos does not sit well with
Vera, who finds the content inappropriate for their children. She enjoys
comedies, Discovery Channel documentaries, children's animated features, and
kids' sing-a-long tapes. Neither parent watches the other's videos, though Vera
said she would watch Lee's videos with him when they were dating. Lee said that
he refused to watch any of Vera's tapes, even during their courtship. After
their marriage, they simply began watching their preferred tapes by themselves.
The children's favorite movies all consisted of recent animated Disney features
(e.g., Pocahontas and The Lion King). Vera stated that they also enjoy
Spanish-language sing-along tapes while they learn the language. She further
reported that this is the reason why they consciously bought separate television
sets. While she would watch Lee's videos to spend time with him while they were
dating, the two of them seldom watch the same content now. Lee's machines are
kept in their room because it is easier for Vera to lock the children out of the
bedroom when he is watching objectionable material.
This poses some interesting dilemmas when it comes to monitoring their
children's viewing. Because Vera includes children's tapes among her favorites,
it usually falls to her to supervise their children's viewing. Consequently,
the children's video preferences are much the same as Vera's. Previously this
family had two VCRs, so they could each watch their tapes and the kids could
co-view with whomever they choose Lee will occasionally let the children watch
his tapes and shows, though Vera usually objects to this. She feels that the
children "act out too much" after watching videos with violent content. Vera has
also recently begun screening videos for sexual content (mostly kissing) because
their oldest son has "discovered girls." If she and Lee want to watch their own
videos (or do anything else for that matter), they must wait until the children
are in bed:
'Cause not all of them (the kids) go to school, so it has to be after they go to
sleep. And you have to make sure they're asleep because we've got several that
like to play possum. You think they're asleep on you got somethin' on the TV
that you didn't want them to see and you turn around and there's a pair of eyes
sticking around the corner up over the mattress, usually -- his (she points to
her oldest son).
Control over technology clearly rests with Lee. He runs the VCR most frequently
because he likes electronics and operating the equipment. He stated that Vera
does not know how to program the machine; she said that is why she has Lee. The
oldest three children reported that they know how to run the VCR and can record
or play a tape. Only their father can program the VCR, though. Lee regularly
programs the VCR to record a Monday night wrestling show, but he thinks someone
is messing with the machine because it is rarely successfully recorded. Vera
reported that the kids have foiled several attempts to keep them away from the
VCR and the tapes. Playing children have broken several VCRs and remote control
devices. In addition, the family owns an old Sega 16-bit game system, which Lee
sometimes connects to his television. He usually rents games, but sometimes
buys a game tied to one of his favorite shows (e.g., WWF wrestling or Star
Trek). He reported that sometimes he permits the children to play the games
with him, but the system is not constantly connected to his set. He called
video games "more a destination decision."
When the Richards shop for videos, Lee usually shops alone in the store. Vera
supervises the children in the kids' section. Lee goes in alone while kids wait
in car with their mother. The reason is that, according to Lee, the visit lasts
30-60 minutes when they shop together. When the children shop with their
parents, they reported that they must agree on the videos they will watch. If
they don't agree, Vera offers 4-5 choices, then asks the kids to choose among
them. If they narrow the choices down to two tapes, then they try to watch
both. Vera feels Blockbuster is a better place because it is large and contains
a kids' playhouse. The aisles are parallel to this area, making it an easier
place to leave children so she can shop and watch them at the same time. She
reported being comfortable in the nearest Blockbuster store:
As long as I can see them. 'Cause I mean I'll walk away and look at a tape, but
I won't go to another part of the store where I can't see 'em. Just call me
paranoid. But there's just, it's just too much goin' on, it's too easy. . .for
a child to disappear. So, they can stay up there and play, but I always know
where they are.
Lee says they look for longest rental period for lowest fee. They stopped
shopping at other stores when a Blockbuster opened in a neighboring part of
town. That location permits a longer rental period (three days). Vera also
mentioned several times that they get tapes from the library. As a result, Lee
says they buy more tapes than they rent. They purchase most of their tapes at
discount department stores.
The Vance Family
Charlotte Vance and her husband Craig live in a rural area outside the
university town. They share a three-bedroom mobile home with two adolescent
sons from Craig's first marriage and twin three-year-old girls from their
marriage. Craig is a construction worker, Charlotte is a full-time mother and
homemaker. The area in which the Vances live is not well to do and it is
relatively remote. It is a 30-minute drive through winding roads between the
town and their home. Few of the farms surrounding their property were still
operating and fewer homes are in close proximity to one another. The night of
this interview, only Charlotte and the twins were home. She explained that her
husband's job and their sons' school sports schedules left little time for them
to do anything together.
The Vance home is quite small in comparison with other participants in this
study. Their mobile home is about fourteen feet wide and no more than ninety
feet long. The living room and kitchen are an open area. Their 31-inch
television sits on an entertainment center with the family's VCR and stereo.
Charlotte explained that they used to lock up "racy videos" (i.e., those with
sexual content) until the lock was broken. A second, smaller TV and an old
two-head VCR are kept on a wheeled cart to accommodate their children's viewing
preferences. The cart is moved between the boys' and girls' rooms when they
want to watch something other than what the parents play on their main set.
Print media is limited to the local paper (for her husband and the boys),
Glamour and Cosmo (for Charlotte), and a Dr. Suess and Disney books for the
girls. While the Vances do not own a library of videotapes, they do maintain a
library of movies recorded off the air. Most of these are children's shows
according to Charlotte.
This family makes extensive use of their VCRs because they are not able to
receive broadcast television signals and because cable service does not extend
to their rural area. Consequently, Charlotte reported that they usually rent up
to 18 movies per week. Because new movies cost three dollars per day, many of
their selections are catalog releases that cost one dollar for three days at the
local grocery store. Most of these tapes, according to her, are her husband's
choices - action movies with stars like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold
Schwarzenegger. The boys like action adventure, martial arts, and
slasher/horror movies, though Charlotte said she does not usually rent those.
They sometimes rent her selections, usually movies with stars like Goldie Hawn,
Meryl Streep, and Tom Cruise. The girls' viewing consists mostly of kids' new
releases, particularly Disney cartoon features. As with most preschool
children, they prefer to watch these movies repeatedly.
Charlotte's biggest dilemma in supervising the children's viewing is dealing
with the disparity in video preferences between her teenage stepsons and her
young daughters. While she and Craig find that their preferences lean more
toward acceptable movies for the girls, the boys' viewing demands more
The boys like action adventure, kick--anything with Jean Claude Van Damme in it
with the kick-boxing type thing. Um, they like thriller movies like the
Halloweens and stuff like that. Where normally Craig and I never watch those.
We will if the boys insist on it, but basically we don't watch those type of
movies. Um, they like sports movies, too. Craig and I like more drama and
based on a true story and family shows, prob'ly a lot more so now since we've
had the girls.
The portable TV/VCR cart is one solution, but it does not help Charlotte screen
out all the violent and sexual content she would like. She believes that the
boys' biological mother is much more permissive with them and, as a result, it
is difficult for her to enforce stricter rules. Part of the problem is the
technological difference between Charlotte's home and that of Craig's first
C: And they have a satellite dish over there so I know they can bring in a
lot of stuff on the dish too but we just have an antennae -- we get like four
channels-- so I don't know what they bring in over there to watch. I've heard
them (the boys) talk about some stuff that's really bizarre in my thinking that
you can just get over, you know, the TV through the satellite dish.
I: Can you give me an example of stuff. . .?
C: Um, like there's like a show they were talking about where it like a blood
sport type thing where it was actual killing and stuff or just like totally
getting a guy into a coma state-- like kick boxing fighting type stuff. And in
my opinion I'd rather them watch things with partial nudity if it's love scenes,
you know, and done in good taste, as compared to all the violence and stuff.
The boys' insistence often leaves her choosing between violent and sexual
videos. Given this kind of choice, Charlotte reports that she would permit such
viewing herself rather than dealing with a more serious conflict. The TV/VCR
cart, then, serves more to confine viewing rather than to restrict it. If the
boys want to watch something in which no one else is interested or in which
there is objectionable material, the portable TV/VCR can be moved to their
As one might expect, a family with such a steady diet of rental videos knows a
lot about video stores. Charlotte reported being on a first-name basis with the
clerks and manager of the local grocery store's video department. On several
occasions, she has called them to reserve a movie so that Craig may pick it up
on the way home from work. They plan a great deal of their viewing around the
video-release schedules of most stores. Tuesdays are usually the day that new
releases are made available, so Charlotte makes sure to put her name on a
reserve list for those movies. They have also accumulated late fees on several
occasions. When the family is low on money, Charlotte said that they avoid the
store charging them late fees and shop somewhere else for a while. This,
according to her, means that there have been times when the Vances juggle late
fees at several stores - determining where they owe the least amount and
Twin three-year-olds also make it difficult for Charlotte to shop in video
stores. The size of the store is the biggest issue here; chain stores are often
to big to keep children in sight unless they provide a specific, easily
monitored area in which children can play. However, she admits this may be
Yeah. I do. I'm, you know, my sister thinks I'm just real over protective, but
I guess I've watched a lot of movies (laughter) is why and like with my husband
travels out of town and . . . You know, from all the movies I've seen and how
few seconds it takes for a kid to be gone. I'm -- and living out here I really
don't have that much contact with anybody--so then when I do go somewhere I'm
really on alert all the time -- like if we go to a swimming pool or something or
a park during the summer time--I don't -- I can't go somewhere and just relax
myself. I always have to --- be in contact with my kids.
Tie-in merchandise (e.g., toys, snacks) are sometimes a problem with her girls,
though Charlotte feels she is successful at delaying such purchases until the
family can visit the local K-Mart. Her stepsons, on the other hand, seldom shop
with the family (especially in the grocery store). Further complicating
matters, Charlotte reported that even when the boys accompany the family to a
video store, they sometimes meet up with friends and go out with them rather
than staying home. Charlotte explained this when I asked her if the boys ever
shopped with the family at video stores:
If it's like just a video store stop then they'll go, but if it's a grocery
store the whole, you know the weekly grocery thing they're very rarely around. .
. . Um, they'll hang around through about halfway through the store and then
they'll go outside or, you know, they'll see somebody they know and take off or
one of my um stepsons chews Skoal so he's always wantin' to split and go have a
chew. You know, so he goes outside to do that, you know, 'cause he can't do it
in the car, so . . .
Parents in this study used the same kinds of time and content restrictions
identified since the earliest rulemaking studies. To this, many parents have
added informal, structural constraints. Many parents are able to exert their
control structurally, by creating an acceptable media environment. This may
involve the purchase of multiple televisions and VCRs or the refusal to purchase
a television. This issue is much the same today as it was during the period
Spigel (1992) analyzed. Families still fret over media's prominence in their
lives; many still try to control this by assigning television sets a peripheral
space in the home. Spigel's analysis included articles and advertisements in
popular magazines, including advice articles in women's journals. While
parenting magazines have taken over these functions in present-day America,
advice has turned up even in business journals (Baker, 1996, April 29). From
these interviews, though, several social structures would seem indicative of
parents' varying abilities to provide Demo's (1992) notion of supportive
Expressions of Parental Authority
Some families discussed in this article made varying efforts to place the TV
somewhere other than their principal living areas. The Davies'
computer/television monitor was kept in the parents' bedroom to keep it out of
their entertainment areas. More importantly, though, it still limited video's
place in their home. By relegating it to a peripheral location, the Davies are
able to demonstrate their objections to having any media content in their home.
At the same time, they can physically limit their children's access to those
occasions when it is appropriate for them to be in their parents' room. This
contributes to the time and content regulations that Jane and Harold described
during their interview. In this way it is a very direct expression of their
parental authority and control.
This case is, at bottom, similar to the Mayhews, who made extra televisions and
VCRs available to their children. Connie felt that the VCR gave her the kind of
control she lacked in television viewing. She could maintain some say over
which tapes to buy; the family could stop a program or zip through it.
Television simply spilled into their living rooms. Interestingly, though, this
rationale does not explain why her children's sets are cable-connected. No
mention was made of a need for parental approval if the children wanted to watch
a cable program in their room. Connie clearly saw her control being expressed
through her media purchases. Videos were by far her preference because an adult
was needed to make such purchases. This, however, may explain why she reported
that most of their television use was with rented videos on the VCR. In this
family, control is not directed through interaction as strongly as the Davies
household. While both families consciously structured their physical media
environment, the Mayhews did so in a very different manner.
The case was quite different for Charlotte Vance, however. Because she saw
herself potentially at odds with her stepsons and their biological mother, the
TV/VCR cart in their home was a matter of compromise. Charlotte sees her
stepsons at an age where they are less willing to spend time with the family and
eager to view violent and/or sexual content. In fact, she perceives that they
are permitted to watch such content in their biological mother's home. Her
admission that she would rather permit nudity than violence is, in part, also an
admission that she would rather compromise than place any undue stress on this
remarried family. The mobile cart, provided when children want to watch
something that others do not, is an acceptable solution to this dilemma.
Viewing requests can be granted because the media environment can accommodate
competing preferences. The physical structure of their home makes it possible
to mediate viewing, though in this case the mediation is directed more toward
the parents and young girls rather than the boys. This supplants any occasion
for a direct engagement in video mediation. In all these cases, media placement
was a direct reflection of parents' core concerns for limiting the medium's
place in daily life. It is clear that multiple sets are one means toward this
end, but not for everyone. The use of those sets, and their ability to limit or
extend competing viewing preferences, also reflects the extent to which parents
directly express their authority and control.
Social Class & Media Environments
It is equally clear that, when it comes to the physical structure of the home
and the hardware of its domestic mix, social class is an important
consideration. Giddens' (1979; 1984) theory of structuration holds that, while
all social actors are empowered to create, innovate, and reinforce social
structures, they have differing access to the social tools necessary for this
task. Many, be it through monetary or intellectual wealth, are more empowered
to affect social structures. Certain types of social capital (and monetary as
well) are requisites for affecting changes in law or social policy, for
instance. Those with the knowledge, material possessions, and social networks
have more direct ties with these structures that, in turn, affect their social
This theoretical principle is perhaps best illustrated in the Richards family.
No rental video stores are located in their urban neighborhood, nor in any of
the shopping plazas near their neighborhood. To rent videos, they must make a
twenty-minute drive to a store that sells, as both Vera and Lee complained,
low-quality tapes. Many are damaged or irreparable when the Richards rent them,
a point which caused them some consternation (as discussed above). In addition,
though the number of televisions and VCRs in their home was impressive, very few
of them were in good repair and continuously connected. Hence, Lee preferred to
purchase tapes, but wasn't able to do so very often. Obviously, with five young
children, it is an expensive proposition for the family to go to a movie
theater. Video is both a convenience and an economic necessity for Lee and
Vera. At the same time, this family's video collection and media environment
seem quite literally built around Lee. The functioning VCR is connected to his
television and is located in the parents' bedroom. If the children watch a
video, as Vera put it, they must "invade his space." While their tape
collection included some children's videos, the bulk of Lee's tape buying
conformed to his viewing preferences. The children more often rented tapes and
only purchased those that they wanted to see repeatedly.
Contrast this with the Mayhew family, for example. Each home has multiple
television sets, though the Mayhews sets are all new or recent purchases, and
multiple VCRs, which in this house are all fully functional. With added
material wealth, Connie is able to structure a media environment that gives her
optimum control over the children's viewing while not forcing the accommodations
and "invasions" common to the Richards' home. While Connie was able to maintain
content control, Vera Richards reported that their children sometimes sneaked
into the room to watch videos with their parents. At other times, Lee would
permit the older boys to view his wrestling videos during his viewing events.
Though Vera objected to these events, she and Lee seemed to have made their
competing preferences a physical part of the home -- separate TV sets, separate
VCRs, and separate standards for the content they shared with their children on
that hardware. Purchasing televisions and VCRs for five children, even renting
each parents' preferred videos, meant a more significant investment of time and
household resources for the Richards.
The Vances are in a similar position, theoretically. Their sizable weekly
rental bill and sometimes-hefty few late fees meant that this family had to
learn to be resourceful this family had become in their video buying. to be
sure. Charlotte reported that her business relationship with video store clerks
had become cordial, though. They often held tapes until her husband could pick
them up on his way home from work. On those days when Charlotte avoided those
stores, in her apparent guilt and lack of additional money, she was also dealing
with a new set of clerks. Never in this interview did she mention their
assistance in selecting appropriate content, though. Connie Mayhew, on the
other hand, knew the manager of a video chain store from her son's youth
baseball league. She reported that this personal connection made it easier for
her to ask him about children's tapes. This connection made him trustworthy.
As for Charlotte Vance, we can only guess as to why these subjects do not come
up in her account of their video shopping habits. It seems reasonable to
surmise that, given their track record with late fees, other matters are more
pressing in her mind.
This is not to suggest the social class is a dominant element in all families'
video rental use. These cases do suggest, however, that some have the social
and cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1984) that allows them to make certain choices.
If the Davies or the Mayhews do not find a certain video in one store, they can
easily visit another store close by. Several different stores are within a
short drive of their home. Charlotte Vance cannot do this. Any visit to the
video store is a longer drive made with small children. If the first store does
not have the tape they seek, she will only visit another if they do not have
excessive late fees pending. More often, though, she makes her choice of tapes
by calling in a request and, if available, having her husband purchase the tape.
The Richards are also subject to these kinds of logistical and geographic
constraints. This, combined with the limit number of functional TVs and VCRs in
their home, places constraints on their mediation practices to which at least
one parent is unwilling to conform. These choices are displayed, then, in the
physical media environment. Some families are able to make greater use of that
environment to control children's viewing. Others do not have such a choice in
mediation strategies. Nonetheless, the media environment is an important
structural tool upon which these families can rely more or less often than
Media and Social Position
There is much in this data to suggest that the identity of both the family and
its individual members is reflected in their media environment. Silverstone
(1994) and Baudrillard (1985) have suggested that both programming and media
hardware have taken their places amidst a sea of consumer goods in capitalist
societies. Viewers can express their cultural identity by communicating in
television programming's shared symbol systems, in the types of media they own,
and in the display of home media. Hence, the purchase of a big screen
television set, a hi-fi VCR, a home theater system, or a multimedia computer and
Internet access are each more significant to some consumers than others. One's
identity as being informed, computer savvy, a sports fan, or a movie buff can be
made manifest through the purchase of certain technologies. Bourdieu's (1984)
work suggests that these sorts of purchases and symbols become cultural capital
that viewers use to claim a distinct social position. These positions are
intended to claim cultural superiority for one's collected tastes in cultural
objects. One may, for example, stake claims of one's Internet prowess through
one's display of computer equipment in the home. Bourdieu suggests that
distinctions between high and popular art are based in such cultural struggles.
These families demonstrate an awareness that the hardware they own and its
location communicates something about their social position in relation to other
families. The Davies, for instance, stake a great deal of their identity as
intelligent, moral, and caring parents in the fact that they use an old computer
monitor as a VCR monitor. Their son Tim is the only person in the house that
understands how to connect the two machines, but the entire family sees them as
an expression of their distaste for popular television. Connie Mayhew, on the
other hand, believes that by making hardware more accessible, she is able to
control her children's viewing material and provide them with a more diverse,
flexible information environment. This was an important reason why she reported
that their cable television viewing was confined mostly to networks like The
Discovery Channel. Lacking these options, Vera Richards expressed this notion
more through her video content preferences. Most of her favorite videos are
children's tapes and she has strong reservations to the types of content her
husband enjoys. These objections may be subtly expressed in the placement of
their sole VCR in Lee and Vera's bedroom rather than in the living room.
Because Lee uses the machine most frequently, and because Vera objects to most
of his viewing matter, it may be easier to keep children away from the VCR if it
is not in a common area.
Studying "New Tech's" Arrival in the Home
Though not directed primarily at families' adoption of new media technologies,
this data has much to offer future studies of this phenomenon. Even before most
American homes have entered the "Information Age," these families illustrate how
some parents are already making use of an increasingly complex media landscape
to demonstrate Demo's (1992) notion of supportive detachment. The ways they
have each structure their home media environment suggests one reason why so many
parents do not practice the types of mediation that other researchers (e.g.,
Desmond, Singer, & Singer, 1990) recommend. It is easier to keep media than
children in a well-defined space. It is easier to block access to certain
channels than to find time to coview and interpret content with children.
Acquisition of media with advanced features or capabilities (e.g., a hi-fi VCR
or home theater system) is seen as making videos even more entertaining and
certainly a more practical alternative to taking the family on a different
recreational outing (especially if that family has several children).
The computer's diffusion into American homes heightens the prospects for
supportive detachment as a parenting style. While certainly not a universally
affordable technology, the medium's growing presence in homes and its falling
prices have made them accessible to nearly half of American households. One
need not buy into the utopian rhetoric of full-blown, digital media convergence
to see how these sorts of parenting practices may grow. Internet blocking
devices, such as NetNannyRand SafeSurfR, have been readily available for a few
years. New computer systems from virtually every manufacturer enable parents to
create password-enabled use of Internet software. While not all parents will
have the technical knowledge necessary for all of these strategies, their
options are by no means limited. Parents purchasing home computers today will
face the same dilemmas their parents faced when purchasing television sets in
decades past (Spigel, 1992). While some have houses that will accommodate a
"home office," other families must make space for the technology in a room
already dedicated to other activities. This study's data indicate that these
spatial considerations are a potentially fruitful area of research.
The data in this study also suggest that class and social position are
important considerations in any research on families' acquisition and use of new
technologies. The fact that a computer purchased two years ago is considered
"outdated" by faster, more powerful, more expensive machines, suggests that
there is a plethora of analysis to be done on how parents respond in their media
environment. The computer's role as the latest "window on the world" most
certainly influenced the Mayhews, who purchased a computer for themselves and
one for their son. Indeed, Connie's reaction to the technology and its effects
on her own students' work ethic (above) suggests the very ambivalence about
which Spigel (1992) speaks. As computers' cultural meaning shifts from that of
a strictly informational tool to another entertainment alternative, this
ambivalence may grow -- forcing parents to consider how they will control their
children's use of yet another medium.
So parents of "Information Age children" may not have it easy. While jobs,
careers, and myriad other commitments pull them away from home, media have been
one influence on their children that pull them back. Unable to spread
themselves so thinly, the parents in this article have demonstrated that their
physical environment is but another structural tool upon which they can lean.
All of this suggests that in our rush to study quantitative issues associated
with media effects traditions (e.g., who purchases computers, the uses for those
machines, their effects on children), we might also take time to study how
families define a physical place for new media. More importantly, we might ask
what that process reveals about our cultural and private meanings for these
technologies in domestic life.
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