Parenting Studying and Working at Home as an International Student Mother of Young Child(ren)
This blog post summarizes the paper “Parenting Studying and Working at Home: How International Student Mothers in the US Use Screen Media For and With Their Young Children” by Neelma Bhatti, Lindah Kotut, Derek Haqq, Timothy L. Stelter, Morva Saaty, Aisling Kelliher, D. Scott McCrickard. This paper will be presented at the 24th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW 2021) and will be published in The Proceedings of the ACM on Human Computer Interaction (PACM). The paper can be read here.
(Disclaimer: All images used in this post are owned by Neelma Bhatti.)
Screen media devices have gained a special status in modern parenting, where parents reach for the television, smartphones, or tablet devices in order to perform duties such as housework, meal preparation, basic personal hygiene, and now working from home under less than ideal conditions during COVID-19 global pandemic. The advent of the 2020 international lock-down (due to the pandemic) coincided with the beginning of our investigation into the experiences of a particular subset of parents who work from home while caring for children and also dealing with difficult socio-cultural challenges.
The struggle to adapt and subscribe to a multiplicity of roles including productive student, efficient mother, and dutiful partner sets international student mothers in the United States (US) apart as distinctive users of technology. These mothers often experience pregnancy and childbirth away from their family and friends during their graduate studies. So they may face several life disruptions simultaneously, such as moving to a new country which is culturally different than theirs, undertaking graduate studies, and becoming a new mother with little to no support structure. Their education is supported by scholarships, assistant-ships, grants, loans, and personal funds, due to which they often live in financially tight circumstances.
Their unique circumstances, responsibilities and values make it important to study their motivations from various perspectives in order to understand their technological choices. We emphasized on the domestic environment because this user group’s maximum time is often spend in the multipurpose home (site for domestic work, graduate studies, and childcare) in the presence of their young children. We were interested in understanding an under-studied community of international student mothers, the complexities and challenges of their ongoing lived experience, and the role of screen media in their lives inside the home.
We grounded our research in uses and gratifications theory, which perceives users as active seekers of gratifications from their media use, where gratifications are the diverse dimensions of user satisfaction provided by, and obtained from different kind of media.
While the approach assumes that users are active consumers making deliberate media choices, young children are often not capable of making conscious media choices, which makes them more dependent on parental preferences. Hence, in the context of screen media use by young children at home, the users (children) and seekers of gratifications from media (mothers) are two distinct but interdependent entities.Mothers are active seekers of gratifications from technology, whose sought gratifications are influenced by several factors such as socioeconomic context of the family and ages of children, which can alter the context of use of screen media.
To get a well-rounded view of the role of screen media in international student mothers’ lives, we investigated three aspects of their use: a) complexities and challenges of adapting to the multiple roles of parent, student, and spouse in the home, which could explain their context of use of screen media, b) the gratifications they seek from their children’s use, and the extent to which state of the art screen media devices and content are able to provide those gratifications to explore opportunities for design and, c) their perceptions around their children’s screen media use with their unique positioning as high-literate, culturally diverse foreign mothers.
We draw our findings from semi-structured interviews from12 international students from six different higher education institutions in the US who were mothers of children aged between six months to five years. Our participants described their diverse experiences as students and caregivers operating as single parents, temporary lone parents, or co-parents with other students, which gave an image of their time during and before the COVID-19 pandemic. The lack of a co-located familial or friend-support network was a major issue for our participants which has been previously reported in literature as a common phenomenon for new mothers. However, it was different for these mothers in the way that the support was not available to them due to geographical distance between their families, and the limited number of (if any) close friends in the US. Some mothers commented on how they bought screen media devices specifically to engage their children, but it ended up becoming an extended ‘member’ of the family who helped in engaging their children while they performed their time-sensitive chores. They also described using screen media devices with their children to communicate with distant family members, to engage in exercise and artistic activities, and to learn about their families’ cultural, spiritual, and religious beliefs.
Participants also talked about how they strive to achieve the student/carer expectations balance, which was starkly by one participant who talked about her choice of having only one child by quoting ‘advice’ from her academic advisor: “One day my advisor called, he did not have an intention to insult me, but he told me ‘please don’t have another baby during your PhD’, and I totally agree.” The apparent conflation of childbearing with childcare responsibilities in this incidence is unfortunately common within academia, to the extent that it can also become socially internalized.
We found potential for developing technology which can help mothers avoid possible time-consuming behavior disruptions, while keeping the child seamlessly engaged so that they can continue working without interruptions. Interactive shows with characters who can hold believable dialogue with children, as such a show could have the potential to help children with speech delays by encouraging them to participate in a conversation through the use of age appropriate, context specific questions. There are opportunities for developing screen based games which can help in facilitating conversation and interactivity between children and their distant relatives. These communications can have a positive impact on the mother’s perception of her child’s para-social relationship with screen media characters, as in this instance, they would instead be communicating with known people. Finally, anonymous peer support networks which can highlight the (possible) theory vs praxis of screen time recommendations may enable mothers to have a positive feeling about their choices, potentially leading to acceptance of technology in a positive way.
Full citation: Neelma Bhatti, Lindah Kotut, Derek Haqq, Timothy L. Stelter, Morva Saaty, Aisling Kelliher, and D. Scott McCrickard. 2021. Parenting, Studying and Working at Home in a Foreign Country: How International Student Mothers in the US Use Screen Media For and With Their Young Children. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 5, CSCW2, Article 440 (October 2021), 25 pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3479584.