More feminist beef: Anonymous public observations, parent-shaming and smart phones.

Starting about a month after smart phones became affordable for the non-millionaires among us, people have been wringing their hands and worrying about the children.  What will constant access to the interwebs do to the children?! And what will happen if, god forbid, PARENTS use smartphones in front of their kids?!?! Fueling this hand-wringing is a recent study of parent-child interactions in the presence of smart phones that got a lot of media attention. This is going to be a fun study to take down because it was so focused on gendered parent-shaming, and the methods were pretty unethical, featuring anonymously observing people in public,  a method I have always wanted to fight in a good, old-fashion feminist show down. Get ready, watching people and drawing conclusions instead of just fucking asking them.  And get ready, Patterns of mobile device use by caregivers and children during meals in fast food restaurants. You were never great.

Let’s talk about what the researchers, Radesky, Kisten, Zuckerman et al, did:  Imagine you’re sitting in McDonald’s eating a meal with your kid and your smartphone is on the table, next to your soda.  Your kid is rambling on about the stuff children talk about, and adults pretend to listen to although we already know exactly how that story about the red fire truck ends (“red! fire truck! red!”), and we are well aware of what a triangle looks like.  And you check your phone, text a friend, scroll facebook, or otherwise take in a small slice of adult interaction, despite your kid’s chatter.

Unless you are the self-absorbed asshole I lived with for far too long, you probably think that no one is paying all that much attention to you in that crowded McDonald’s.  This would not have been a safe assumption in 15 neighborhoods of Boston in the summer of 2014, because underpaid research assistants were watching and taking notes.  Specifically, the principal investigator, a pediatrician, and two college students, an anthropology major and someone with a background in child development started taking notes any time one or more adults walked in with one or more children they thought “looked” under 10. They took highly detailed notes, writing down anything the adult and child said, whether and how often they talked to each other, “interacted non-verbally”, and how the researchers felt about the quality of their interactions.  They also noticed and wrote down any time the parent or child glanced at, used or otherwise interacted with a smart phone.

If the family stayed more than 10 minutes, and if the researchers were seated somewhere that they could clearly see interactions between parent and kid, and parent and smartphone, the notes were entered into analysis.  It should be noted that the researchers felt that they if could clearly see the family’s backs (!), they were included.  They wrote down both their observations (“adult is holding a phone in one hand and a fry in the other while child looks at her burger”) and their interpretation of what they were observing (“middle child makes increasingly active bids for attention”). All in all, they observed 55 groups having meals, and 40 of these adults used a smart phone during the meal. The three observers then sat together and discussed what they saw and how they interpreted it.  Through these conversations, they developed a coding system, which they then applied to all their observations.  In other words, they read over their notes and subjectively came up with categories, or boxes, then put all their observation into the boxes they developed. Their boxes were highly uncreative, and impacted by their bias, to include things like “parental absorption” “modality of phone use” (ie texting vs talking) and “child’s bids for attention”.  One of the many problems with this is that researchers only wrote down what they thought was notable, and then they divided it into categories they created based again on what they found meaningful, not what actually happened.

The Boston University/Boston Medical Center institutional review board (IRB) deemed this research exempt from oversight. IRBs are the group charged with protecting the rights of people who participate in research, and the federal government requires that every institution that conducts research have an IRB.  Technically, according to federal regulation, research where people are observed anonymously does not need to be regulated because such research does not generate data that could be identifying of any individual, or their private health information. And that’s the rules according to the law, to quote Dwight Schrute, an ethically questionable fictional character.  But as the arc of history teaches us, legal and ethical are often wildly different, and, personally,  I believe that while observing another person without their knowledge or consent may not violate the letter of the law, it certainly violates something (or someone).

Consent and autonomy are big, far-reaching feminist ethical principles that I hold dear. The consent issues with this study are very clear-there wasn’t any.  People cannot consent to observation they don’t know about. And while one could argue that existing in public means we are inherently observable to other people, strangers who happen to see us in public generally aren’t using us to prove their hypotheses or build their careers (we’ll come back to a discussion of career-building at the end of this post).  Much like personal sex tapes that are made in the privacy of an intimate relationship you thought would last forever, and then put on you-tube after you break up, research that uses anonymous observation unethically change up the (often unspoken) expectations in a way that directly violates the principle of consent.   When we step out in public, we expect that other people will see us.  We don’t expect that they will observe us closely, take notes, deconstruct and analyze our behavior, our gestures, our tone of voice, and then publish their interpretations.  Especially not when we are categorically unable to consent to participation in their research because we don’t know and aren’t told that it’s happening.  Consent is wildly important, in sex, in life, in research. Does anyone want to argue me about this? If so, I’d ask what is so threatening about consent-do you think people would not engage if they weren’t coerced? Because without full, real consent, people are inherently being coerced, and taking away options and consent is about as unfeminist as it gets.

And, related to the feminist ethical principle of autonomy is the clear power differential between the researchers observing people and the research participants being observed. Just by being researchers, the observers have power, as they are the ones designing the study and telling the story.  The (un-consenting) people being observed do not, and their voices are not considered worth hearing.   In my intersectional feminist utopia, researchers would recognize each and every person is the expert in their own lives, and is the only person who can speak for themselves. No one else, no matter how powerful or privileged, has the right to speak for another person.  We can amplify each other’s voices, and we can ask questions and learn about another person, but I am violating your right to autonomy if I attempt to speak for you, or if I take away your opportunity to speak for yourself.  But in this study, and in most observations, the researchers interpret and speak for the people they observed.This hierarchical relationship between researcher and research participant is the sad, patriarchal tradition of research, but that doesn’t excuse it.  Observing people instead of asking them runs in direct opposition to the principle of autonomy, and the idea that people can interpret and speak to their lives so, so much better than researchers and observers ever will.

In addition to the feminist and ethical issues with anonymous observation, there are some important questions about the quality of data you get from this research method. Here’s another key detail about the study, taken directly from the study paper: “observations contributed to the data set if….the observer was close enough to record facial expressions and tones of voice of most members.” Except, and here’s the thing, facial expressions and tones of voice mean crucially different things to different people, and vary a lot by culture, language, age, gender and other social identities. When I’m outraged, like can’t contain it, about to punch a wall outraged, holy shit George Zimmerman/Darren Wilson/the anonymous officer who killed Sandra Bland and called it a suicide in an empty jail cell just got acquitted outraged, Daniel Pantaleo just got acquitted with a pay raise but Ramsey Orta who filmed it all is going to jail and they are spraying water canons on the prayer camp at Standing Rock in freezing weather outraged, my voice gets deadly quiet. I think I even smile. Watching me, (or creepily taking notes on me without my consent in a McDonald’s, if that’s your thing), you might think I was happy, or indifferent.  While I don’t think I have ever been that level of outraged around a child, and I like to think I would go for a walk and talk to another adult before engaging with a child if I was, you absolutely wouldn’t know the depth of my anger by observing my interaction.  You might even code me as having a positive, kind learning interaction with the kid, because, from the surface of things, I’m smiling and talking in a soft voice with my eyes laser focused on the other person.

And I learned this quiet anger because I’m a cisgender woman, assigned female at birth and raised in a family and culture where female anger is dangerous and unfeminine and no one (or at least not my mother) will love a girl who says or does anything about it when she is rightfully angry. And because good girls exist to make other comfortable at the expense of themselves, I often appear endlessly patient.  I’m not, by any means, but I smile and nod and smile and nod, and say the right thing, even though my mind is usually miles away, thinking about revolution and what it would take to create a world where people of all genders are valued equitably and emotional labor gets its due. Though I’ve come a long way from my limited family and culture, at my most emotional, I still revert back to the patriarchal idea that women should been barely seen and never heard, and I get dead quiet and plaster a smile on my face. My father was allowed to shout, roll his eyes, tell us to stop talking or go ask our mother, who smiled and pretended to listen, and an observer in McDonald’s would probably code it correctly if he was interacting angrily or impatiently with a child. And that is gender conditioning and the harmful impacts of patriarchy at work. But it also raises some serious issues with data quality and accuracy of what the researchers observed.

Consider also the tired but common trope of the Angry Black Woman, a racist stereotype rooted in a racist culture, and serving the system of white supremacy by casting women of color as angry about everything, and nothing, and thus easier to dismiss.  By engaging this gaslighting stereotype, white supremacy attempts to locate the problem in the individual women who are angry about oppression, rather than the oppression itself. This means that as a white woman, I’m perceived as somewhat cute and punk rock when I’m angry, or even when I speak up without anger, but, all too often, a woman of color saying or doing exactly the same thing is perceived as “irrationally angry”, “out of control” or “threatening.”  And in a racist world, there are dire consequences of being perceived as threatening, as the families of Renisha McBride and so many others can attest. And so the stereotype seeks to serve as a social control and a means of perpetuating the injustice of white supremacy, which many writers discuss far more eloquently than me.

But the point I want to make with this is also about data quality, and how accurately the researchers coded parents’ interactions with their children. Remember, part of the social control exerted by this stereotype is that the same actions are coded and interpreted differently when a woman of color does them.  We have good data showing that highly trained mental health professionals read Black women and other women of color as angry when they themselves do not feel that way, as a result of the therapist’s exposure to the toxic culture of racism, regardless of her own race.

And if highly trained mental health professionals’ assessments of women of color are impacted by this tired old trope, do we really think that young research assistants and pediatricians who, as far as we know, do not have extensive training in counseling, observation or interpreting human emotion and behavior do not fall into this trap?  Even with diligent work, our learned racism impacts how we view the world. Undoing oppression is an ongoing commitment, and even then, implicit bias and internalized racism colors how we interpret other people’s interactions.  There is no mention whatsoever of racism anywhere in this study, leading me to believe that the authors are not even doing their own internal work to recognize when racism is at play. Which means that they are probably not functioning as video cameras. Instead, their observations of parent-child interactions are also impacted by their learned racism, and recording and interpreting their observations through a racist lens, possibly relying on tired but prevalent stereotypes. And so we have in this study a classic example of how researchers not only fail to engage in the long work of  dismantling the systems of oppression that cause us to view identical actions differently, but also inadvertently perpetuate such systems of oppression.

And even if by some miracle of luck, psychic ability and careful self-reflection that I’m fairly sure did not happen, let’s just imagine that the observers understood and coded all interactions correctly.  We’re still left with the fact that this study was conducted during July and August, when, you know, there is no school but parents still have to go to work.  Summer childcare options like camps are really expensive and not ubiquitous. And fast-food restaurants are where you go when you are tired and stressed and need to get food into your kid quick so you can move onto the next thing.  McDonald’s is not really known as the place you go for long, rambling, getting to know you conversations.  It’s a way station, not a destination.  Are patterns of smart phone use in a fast food restaurant (designed to be, well, fast) really representation of how parents use smart phones? Isn’t it more likely that you might have shit to take care of on your phone on a day that you run your kid to McDonald’s for dinner because you are too busy to cook or go somewhere less convenient and speedy? Does what you do on the kind of stressful summer day that ends in McDonald’s really speak for what you do?

And let’s talk about the relationship between poverty and stress, and how difficult it is to do the shit load of work we demand from people living in poverty in exchange for the privilege of food, shelter and other basic human rights. Work several jobs, none of which pay a living wage, wait in endless lines, spend half the morning at the Department of Human Services office to verify that no, still none of your jobs pay a living wage, and yes, you still need that 75 dollars in food stamps to make it work, skipping meals yourself so you can feed your kid, and then wait in another line for some 21 year old, fresh out of college WIC worker to lecture you about how it’s sooo important to avoid fast food and practice good nutrition, like for example cooking meals at home, in the time you don’t have between jobs and waiting in lines.  The researchers state that they observed parents of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds by visiting fast food restaurants in 15 neighborhoods, which they feel represented a wide range of income levels.  Sure, I can buy that, though Boston is gentrifying so rapidly that rents here are some of the highest in the country, and many low income people and communities have already been pushed out.  But McDonald’s? People go there because it’s cheap, not because it’s good.  And prices are consistent.  Whatever the income level of the neighborhood you’re in, observing people in fast food restaurants means you are observing people who come for the fast food prices, and isn’t it long past time that the rich stopped viewing the poor as living experiments?

So this flawed study happened, and it came out with the main findings that parents sometimes ignore their kids in favor of their smart phone. This upsets the researchers, who use words and phrases like “absorbed”, “bids for attention”,”long-term effects of ‘present-absence'”, “provocative behavior” and “daily interaction that is so important to child development”.  There’s this great sentence: “In addition, caregivers absorbed in devices frequently ignored the child’s behavior for a while and then reacted with a scolding tone of voice, gave repeated instructions in a somewhat robotic manner (eg, without looking at the child or relevant to child behavior), seemed insensitive to the child’s expressed needs (Table 2, excerpt 2), or used physical responses (eg, one female adult kicked a child’s foot under the table; another female caregiver pushed a young boy’s hands away when he was trying to repeatedly lift her face up from looking at a tablet screen).”  The researchers hope that their “classification scheme” of parent behaviors with their smart phones can be used for further study of how parents should balance their awful desire to look at their smart phone with their parental duties that they are clearly neglecting with their “constant absorption” with their phone while their child “increases their bids for attention”.

In other words, parent shaming is the main finding of this study.  Parents are daring to look at something other than their child, for once, and the researchers strongly imply parents are failing in their duty to meet their children’s basic human needs.  And the media picked up where the researchers left off, such an the NPR story that talks about the “deep emotional consequences” of parents “ignoring their child in favor of their cell phone.”  The story also features this dramatic story from Dr. Radesky, the study’s lead author, describing “a mother placing her phone in the stroller between herself and the baby. “The baby was making faces and smiling at the mom,” Radesky says, “and the mom wasn’t picking up any of it; she was just watching a YouTube video.” The horror!

In reality, though, we simply don’t know how parents momentarily looking away from their children to interact with a smart phone impacts kids.  We can’t know.  Children are constantly changing and growing, and smart phones simply haven’t been around long enough for us to know anything at all about their effects on kids.  What I do know, however, is that the idea that parents should be constantly, constantly interacting with their kids is some highly gendered, Victorian era madonna/whore dichotomy, woman-as-empty-vessel bullshit.  Really and truly.  Let’s think about the repressive Victorian gender norms that dictated that proper white women were chaste madonnas who cared for nothing but their children.  These norms enabled white supremacy by dictating that women of color  would never achieve proper womanhood, because proper womanhood was predicated on whiteness.  And these norms cast all women who thought about anything but serving their husband and children as wanton whores who were unfit for motherhood, and therefore deserving of their pariah status.  Because god forbid a mother think her own thoughts, or watch a video on youtube while her baby sits in the stroller.  Notice any patterns? Are these patterns misogynistic as fuck?

And honestly, what is wrong with not having your parent’s undivided attention every single minute of the day? Is it terrible to have to talk to your brother or eat your fries while your mom texts a friend? Are children actually being harmed by their parents’ connections with the outside world? I would argue that the opposite might be true, that an ongoing text exchange with a friend helps parents keep depression at bay, and helps them maintain their own identities, and that’s good for kids.  Except, in a patriarchal and racist culture, it’s also threatening when parents, and particularly non-male parents, attempt to have identities of their own, beyond parenting. Because we like women to be empty vessels waiting for children, particularly women of color, because it is so much harder to justify enslaving and raping women when they have humanity and identities of their very own, outside of their roles as mothers and care-takers.  So yeah, stay off your smart phone, and stop resisting gender binaries, racist attempts at dehumanizing, heteronormativity and the powerful cultural shit show that quietly insists that good women should be nothing more than making other people comfortable at the expense of themselves.  It’s just like teaching a woman to read; the blood might flow away from her uterus towards the revolution.

Also, can we talk about how this study is so worried about kids’ exposures to smart phones but gives no fucks at all about kids’ exposures to poverty and oppression? As we discussed, parents might be momentarily distracted by their phone, but trying to survive while living in poverty takes significantly more attention than checking for texts ever could?  Attempting to insulate your kids against the world’s racism for as long as you can while also teaching them to obey all commands from discriminatory cops (who we all know might shot anyway) has got to take more time than a you-tube video. This study was funded by a charitable foundation focused on children’s well being.  While I don’t have the budget breakdown, research is not cheap, and I can’t help but wonder what could have been achieved with the money spent on determining that parents sometimes look at their phones in public and children react a variety of ways.

Like most studies, this one ends in a call for more research, in this case to determine some other small facts about parental smart phone use.  What about a call for free, high quality summer childcare? Or year round free, high quality child care and paid parental leave like almost every other nation in the world? What about increasing teachers’ pay? Universal pre-school? An increase in food stamps, or accessible medical care? What about shutting down the school to prison pipeline? An end to child welfare system over-surveillance of communities of color and police brutality? A living wage for the parents who take their kids to McDonald’s at the end of a long, stressful, underpaid day? I’m willing to bet it all that any one of these things would impact child development far, far more than smart phone use ever could.  There’s no way parental smart phone use could ever hold a candle to the raging dumpster fire of poverty, inequity and oppression that ensures that 1 in 5 children in this country don’t have reliable access to food.

Finally, there is the question of who the researchers serve. Based on all the ways this study shames parents and perpetuates injustices, the researchers here are not serving children and parents, or the communities in which they live. It should be noted that in the two years since this study was published, the lead author has gone on to become an “expert” in children and screen time, including writing new guidelines about kids and technology for the American Academy of Pediatrics.  I’m not against ambition, particularly women’s ambition in fields like research that have traditionally hostile to achievement by people who do not present as white and male. But I am against building a research career on the backs of parents and communities by conducting crappy studies that perpetuate oppression.

And I’m staunchly opposed to claiming expertise about people whose voices are never mentioned, and who you don’t think to listen to. This makes me wonder if pediatricians, who have such limited interactions with children-20 minutes in a doctor’s office hardly shows who a child is and what they need-are really the people who should be advising us about how to parent.  Since when has parental smart phone use been under the purview of medicine? Can pediatricians actually claim expertise here, even putting aside the very real problems with this study? Are we ok with medicalizing every last bit of parent-child interaction? Especially considering the tradition of pediatrics focuses on children, not families as a unit, and often views parents as adversaries and obstacles, not team mates. Could we ask a community elder who does not pathologize parents and kids, or even a family practice doctor if we are desperate for medical authority?  A McDonald’s assistant manager?

Bottom line, you absolutely can’t interpret someone’s actions through your own biased lens when they don’t even know they are being observed and then claim authority or expertise.  The expertise belongs to the people being watched, the parents who are actively doing the work of raising kids in a world where everything slants uphill.  They alone have the expertise needed to interpret their lives, and have strong voices and authority that researchers in this case chose to ignore.

So text away, and no worries about the kids.  The kids are fine, because you’ve taught them to be resilient in a world full of inequities that are so much more pressing than the fact that parents are people who love their kids and sometimes scroll facebook.

Love and solidarity,




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