The development of the new digital media (especially Internet and cell phones) demands a new educational mediation by parents, different from the kind used for television. Lynn Schofield, professor at the University of Denver, holds this theory in her study on Parental Mediation ("Parental Mediation Theory", in Communication Theory, vol.21, 2011, pp. 323-34).
In addition to guiding the relationships that children establish with new media, parents share and learn new information, since they are also in a constantly changing atmosphere that deeply impacts the family. The impact not only concerns content, but even family relationships.
According to the author, before the digital era, scholars were interested in analyzing the methods developed by parents to mitigate the effects of the media on their children. In this context, besides suggesting a limit to the time spent before the television screen and studying the ways in which the programs shaped their children’s desires, specialists have also noted the importance of the parental role, as an agent in socializing their children in the use of media. The experts began to use the term parental mediation to express that essential role that parents had in the management and regulation of their children’s experiences with television.
But Schofield sustains that the Parental Mediation theory has some limits. In her opinion this theory is a hybrid of the communication theory which, though primarily rooted in the sociological and psychological effects of media, pointed to the importance of interpersonal communication between parents as children as its strong point. The first limit of this theory is its strong tie to a tradition of research on the effects of media where scholars tend to focus on the negative effects that the media have on children’s cognitive development. In this way, the other methods used by parents for educational and familial purposes, not directly related to the media, are forgotten. Furthermore, the author holds that little attention is given to social pressures that affect the way in which parents ought to exercise their mediation role, a very important aspect. The theory’s second limit is the lack of attention given to the adolescent period, where the parent-child relationships change considerably. A third limit is that the researchers were mainly focused on the television because it was the means that had acquired the greatest social force. The recent changes, however, demand an expansion of the study’s object. It is necessary to investigate how this theory could apply to relationships with the new digital media, computers, cell phones, or other tools capable of offering programs, games, information, entertainment…
Previous studies on parental educational mediation considered three modes of application:
a) Active mediation: implies the frequent conversation and exchange of impressions that parents have with their children about the content of what they see on television. It is the most effective method because it develops the capacity for independent judgment and critical thinking. It also diminishes the impact of certain programs’ negative content, while it increases an interest for media usage for public issues. This mediation has positive effects that go beyond the use of media because they are tied to key objectives of the family itself: reduce family conflict, generate greater stability, and favor socialization and family relationships.
b) Restrictive mediation: supposes the imposition of certain rules and regulations for children’s use of television. The studies show that there is a risk to generate a certain tension in the relationship with parents or to stimulate a desire to do what’s forbidden. The rules do not seem to be educational in themselves because what counts is that minors interiorly incorporate criteria to be able to act in the future in a manner coherent with that criteria.
c) Co-viewing: one of the most frequent types of mediation, similar to the first. It consists in sharing the use of media, without intervening.
Although these are three most frequent forms of mediation noted by various authors, it’s necessary to highlight the fact that many parents and educators either forsake their own role as mediator, or don’t exercise it. Among the possible reasons, some studies suggest that parents tend to overestimate the influence that media have on other children, and underestimate the influence it has on their own children. Often, a parent may see his child as more mature in respect to his peers, and with a greater capacity to progressively develop his own criteria for judging media content.
Furthermore, children are spending more and more time with electronic media, and less and less time with their parents. It is important therefore, to determine the contexts where mediation is produced.
To find the ways in which to correct these limits, Professor Schofield gathers some ethnographic studies on the family context where the relationship with the media is produced (with the resulting implications in the organization of the nuclear family and in the relationships among the members: coinciding schedules, themes, criteria…). She also analyzes recent studies in the areas of sociology, emotions, and the relationships between adults and children, as well as in the field of situational learning. These studies aim to increase attention to the needs that children have toward their own interests, seeing mediation from this perspective.
In conclusion, the author proposes a fourth model: the participatory learning model that takes recent advancements in sociology into account. Participatory learning, asserts the author, would be a fourth strategy that parents could use to educate their children, which takes the new media into account. This would avoid using methods of mediation that are only effective for traditional media, such as the television, and therefore inapt for current media. This also implies a change in the way to educate children. It involves the development of a new attitude in which parents also form themselves; an attitude that implies knowledge of their own children and of the media, using it together. Children can find dangers in new technologies, but they can also develop new capacities, strengthen personal relationships, generate individual and group creativity, and even acquire knowledge.
The article may interest parents who want to find scientific arguments about the ways to educate their children in using media. A disadvantage of the article is that it does not offer practical guidelines, only theories. Furthermore, it does not explicitly state that parents could have another reason for possibly denying their active role in the education of their children: the changes produced in the media are so great, and so constant, that they feel little prepared to offer guidance to their own children. How can one resolve this problem?