Rutgers School of Communication and Information
What are you currently working on?
Two big ones at the moment: The first project examines how working-class Black and White families, in a shared community, view technology and its influence on their lives. They live in a community where two technological forces— automation and globalization— led, in the 1980s, to shutting down the steel mill that had provided residents with generations of stable, well-paid work. While this is a case study, it reflects a broader story of how social and economic forces have transformed work and education for the working class. Scholars know very little about how parents and children in such communities feel about and respond to these technological transformations. By interviewing parents and children in grades 4, 8, and 11, my team and I are investigating how parents and children may view technology as a disruptive force, or as a source of educational and occupational opportunity, for adults and kids. We are exploring how parents and children evaluate the value of a college education, compared with vocational programs or learning on the job, for securing work that provides economic stability, and possibilities for social mobility. We had completed the first round of interviews (with 4th graders and their parents) before the pandemic hit the U.S. in March, and it was absolutely fascinating. I’m looking forward to publishing results from those 70 or so in-depth interviews, and I’m really looking forward to getting back into the field when it is safe.
The second project, with Amy Jordan, is a survey of undergraduates across the U.S. and internationally about their remote learning in the spring term, with a focus on how digital inequality, among other factors, influenced those experiences. We’re in the midst of writing up that work now, both for submission to journals and for more public-facing outlets, because we really want the findings to inform how faculty and administrators will make a remote fall term better than the emergency conditions of the spring allowed for. We put together the top five lessons from students to faculty about making remote learning better. We are very grateful to the many CAMmers on JOCAM’s editorial board who helped us collect these data as quickly as we did!
What has been your most memorable project so far, and why?
This is a tough choice, but it’s the Opportunity for All? project that I led from 2013 to 2016, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. At that time, the Obama Administration had successfully connected just about every U.S. school to broadband, so attention started shifting to whether low-income students and families had digital access at home. We decided to ask them not only about their internet access and media environments, but a much broader range of questions. We asked about how parents and children, and siblings, help each other learn how to engage with digital technologies; how these technologies affect their connections with schools and communities; and what parents and children enjoy and worry about online. If you’d like to see what we found, the papers and chapters we wrote are here.
The project is memorable because of who it enabled me to work with. The first stage of the study was in-depth, hour-long interviews, in English and Spanish, with 170 Mexican-heritage parents and their elementary school-aged children (ages 6 to 13; 334 interviews in total) in three high-poverty, predominantly Latino districts in Arizona, California, and Colorado. Collecting those data meant assembling teams of 10 bilingual undergraduate and graduate students from universities across the U.S. We rented a big house, and we had an intense and really fun experience doing 100 to 120 interviews per district in just three weeks in each place. I had the chance to mentor and learn from some of the most talented young researchers I’ve ever met, and they are doing great things in academia, law, public policy, education, and media research now. My two closest collaborators were Carmen Gonzalez (now faculty at University of Washington, in Seattle) and Alexia Raynal (now a research associate at Center for Children and Technology in NYC).
Based on those interview findings, I led development of the first nationally representative survey of lower-income parents, of all backgrounds, with children ages 6 to 13, about these same issues. I was able to develop that survey and write up the results with the great Vicky Rideout, whose surveys continue to be the touchstones of CAM research, and I learned so much from her. And from Michael Levine and his colleagues at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, I learned how to translate empirical research into policy recommendations that actually reach decisionmakers. Our survey report was cited by the Federal Communications Commission in 2016 when they expanded the Lifeline Program to subsidize broadband access for Americans living in poverty. This project enabled me to discuss the issues I care most about—how digital equity can support more equitable opportunity for children and families— with policymakers at the U.S. Department of Education and local district leaders wanting to make a difference. My most memorable presentation—probably not just to date, but for my whole life—was in Salt Lake City, to the annual meeting of education leaders whose schools serve children whose parents are active members of the U.S. Armed Forces. I thought I knew what kinds of sacrifices these families make; after listening to the presentations that day after my own, I realized I had absolutely no idea how deep those sacrifices run.
Which achievement are you most proud of, and why?
It has be to co-editing Journal of Children and Media (JOCAM), which I have done with Amy Jordan since January of 2018. I work with the most stellar, international team of editors, and I get to read and help develop fascinating CAM scholarship from all over the world for publication. It is a serious responsibility and one that I love. It has been a great way to contribute to building and strengthening our fascinating field. Right now, I am especially excited about the special issue we have planned in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. You can read more about this issue (and learn how to submit) here!
What is an important question from parents and practitioners that we as academics
cannot provide a good answer to yet?
This is a great question. I think CAM researchers have come a long way in contextualizing media effects within the broader social circumstances families find themselves in. What I mean by that, is that CAM studies have largely moved away from simply controlling for sociodemographic differences, and toward considering how those differences can lead to different media and technology activities, perceptions, and outcomes. We are also doing more to look at families in their own right when it comes to differences in race/ethnicity, family structure, SES, and so forth, rather than explicitly or implicitly comparing them to some kind of “normal” that, in reality, doesn’t exist.
The question I don’t think we can answer yet, concretely, is how much children’s media and technology use “matter” in a practical sense. For example, professional class parents worry endlessly about how much screen time their children are getting, versus engaging in more “constructive” activities. We already know that these kids have so many developmental advantages, in the form of safe communities, high quality schools, after-school enrichment opportunities, parents who can afford therapeutic interventions as needed, and so forth. Does the playing Fortnite really matter in that broader scheme of things? This question, in a practical sense, matters more now in the face of the pandemic, because screen time guidelines basically got tossed. That’s not a bad thing—it was an appropriate response to a radically changed reality. But I do wonder how we’ll emerge from this period with new perspectives on how we answer questions about how much, and how, time with media and tech affect children’s development, independent of the wildly unequal socioeconomic forces that are more broadly at play in their daily lives.
What would be your work motto?
Can I pick two? The first is, always be learning. I’ve worked on projects that are really distinctive from each other—everything from how children of immigrants broker technology for their parents, to how diverse families navigate the family courts, and working class families’ perspectives on technology and opportunity. Each project required a LOT of learning at the outset to figure out the best questions to ask, once my interest was piqued. It means I’ve gone deep and wide into research far from CAM, including cross-disciplinary work on immigration, legal, and labor history, and brought it back to central CAM concerns. It’s made my life so much more interesting.
The second is, never ask a question you know the answer to. My advisor used to tell me that was a form of intellectual death; as scholars, we are so fortunate to have so much freedom to follow questions that captivate us. It is a waste to do otherwise. There’s another lesson in this motto though: the answers we uncover must emerge from the data. Follow the evidence where it leads, not where you think it should, and not where you would like it to. That is what separates scholarship from opinion, and I am a big believer that presenting carefully collected and analyzed evidence is a powerful way to advocate for social change at all levels, especially in an increasingly partisan world.
Which of your publications is your favorite, and why?
Kids in the Middle is the book that evolved out of my dissertation. It examines how children of immigrants, if they are the primary English speakers in their households, contribute to how their families integrate into their new communities by brokering language, cultural norms and popular culture, and media and technology, for their families. When I started that project, immigration-related issues were almost totally absent from communication and media scholarship, including CAM research. And, immigration scholars didn’t take children of immigrants’ contributions seriously; they looked at children’s outcomes (e.g., educational attainment, English proficiency) as indicators of how successful parents’ efforts to integrate had been.
That never felt like the whole story to me. I immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager, from South Africa. Even with English-speaking, highly educated parents, our family was worked collaboratively to figure out how things worked here. Immigration made us a team. I went to graduate school because I wanted to understand, empirically, what that kind of teamwork does in, and for, families that do not have the privileges my family arrived with, including English proficiency, education, and legal residency status. Kids in the Middle shows how social integration is a family project: parents’ experiences are shaped by how their children help them (often long into adulthood), and children of immigrants’ development is shaped by the help they give their families. I still keep in touch with the families who were part of that project, and that book will always be my first “baby.”
If you had unlimited resources, what kind of project would you want to do and why?
I would adapt Sonia Livingstone’s incredible EU Kids Project to the United States, to establish how media and technology use affect diverse children’s development, in context of all the sociodemographic differences that we know shape children’s opportunities. I’d select a large number of families—since we’re dreaming, why not 2,000?—representative of U.S. diversity by region, community, racial/ethnic backgrounds, language proficiency and residency status, socioeconomic status and social class, and family structure, and follow them from age 2 to 18, collecting survey, interview, and observational (both in-person and virtual) data.
I would staff that program by starting another dream program: a formal, ongoing undergraduate and graduate research training program, so that students get to learn research by actually doing it. It would draw in talented students, with an emphasis on first-generation college students, and teach them research design and execution from start to finish by working, over a year or more, on actual research. The program would create opportunities to teach and learn between more and less experienced students as well. I think this kind of sustained exposure to the research process is how we meaningfully address the diversity pipeline problem in the academy, and would open up graduate study to students who would never have known those options existed (or existed for them). And, for students who decide the scholarly life is not for them, they would have tangible, high-value skills to offer employers, giving them an advantage on the interview and in the work they choose in any field. The University of California-San Diego has a terrific program like this, focused on longitudinal data collection of seasonal migrants between Mexico and the U.S. Many of the students who interviewed families with me for the Opportunity for All? project were alums of this excellent program.
If you had to give one piece of advice to young CAM scholars, what would it be?
Take full advantage of everything this wonderful division has to offer. For example, unlike larger and more hierarchical divisions of the ICA, our members at every level (including the most senior scholars) are approachable and happy to connect with junior scholars. So, if you’re inspired by someone’s work, have questions about how they do their research, or anything else—reach out! It’s a wonderful way to build community.
Who would you like to put in the spotlight next, and why?
I’d like to nominate Brad Bond. He is JOCAM’s new Review and Commentary Editor, so I know what wonderful perspectives he brings to CAM research in that role. I’m very interested in how he would answer these excellent questions!
To download a copy of this edition of CAMmer in the spotlight click here.