Reframing parental surveillance: Toward a multidimensional model


Over the past four decades, surveillance has emerged as a dominant organizing practice of late modernity, performed by individuals, corporations, organizations, and nation states (Lyon et al., 2012). Surveillance scholarship has consequently developed into an established field commonly addressing public, socio-political contexts of surveillance, from law enforcement and security (Marx, 1988) to corporate surveillance (Turow, 2006). However, in the last two decades, surveillance studies increasingly address personal relationships as a new surveillance context. A prominent manifestation of this new context is digital parental surveillance, which is becoming a norm in Western societies (Barron, 2014; Leaver, 2017).

Research on parental surveillance is conducted across various disciplines, and it commonly focuses on children, aiming to understand how they experience it and what might be the consequences on their long-term social skills, independence, resilience, and trust. However, parents’ perspectives, experiences, and motives have received little scholarly attention so far (see Bettany and Kerrane, 2016; Fotel and Thomsen, 2004).

This study focuses on parents. Applying reflexive thematic analysis to 24 semi-structured in-depth interviews with mothers of middle-school children, it asks how they understand, explain, and negotiate their surveillance ideologies and practices and what are the socio-cultural imageries that motivate their decisions and actions regarding parental surveillance. Drawing on a socio-material framework that stresses the role of new technologies in people's actual realities, the study rejects the presumed link between parental surveillance and strict parenting styles. By focusing on mothers who monitor their children rather than on the differences between those who monitor and those who do not, the study offers six criteria for defining and characterizing different familial surveillance climates, organizing these criteria in a three-tier model that demonstrates the multidimensionality of parental surveillance.

Theoretically, the study grows out from two societal trends. First, parental surveillance is increasingly coupled with notions of care, protection, and responsibility (Rooney, 2010). Such framing suggests that responsible and loving parents surveil their kids while a more permissive parenting equals neglect and irresponsibility. Therefore, many parents struggle with the fear of being seen as neglectful versus the will to provide independence for their children (Barron, 2014; Malone, 2007). Second, motivated by a spreading “culture of fear” (Furedi, 2006) and “politics of fear” (Altheide, 2006), society redefines childhood in ways that facilitate and legitimize new surveillance regimes. The ways parents perceive and manage risks facilitate the creation of risk-free environments, but more importantly – encourage parental styles that value restrictive control (Rooney, 2010; Stephenson, 2003). Drawing on these two points, this study aims to understand how mothers negotiate their own parental surveillance vis-à-vis the triangle of fear-protection-control.