‘Unpaid digital care work’: Moms shoulder stressful duty, study find

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In recent years, “emotional labor” has become synonymous with invisible, gendered disparities in housework, parenting and social life. But moms may face another unseen burden, research published in June suggests: the task of overseeing and managing their children’s digital lives.

In a study in the journal New Media & Society, an Australian researcher reviewed existing literature and then interviewed 17 mothers of 9- to 16-year-olds to learn more about what she calls “unpaid digital care work.”

The mothers, all heterosexual co-parents, intervened in their children’s use of technology, performing work that was “intense, constant and unyielding, and takes a physical and emotional toll on mothers.”

They spoke about expending considerable energy on their kids’ digital use, stressing over the potential risk of online engagement, scams and other dangers, and establishing rules and boundaries about how their children use computers and phones.

That labor included another facet: “negotiating the terms of children’s media access with skeptical partners” who were either ambivalent about whether to allow their kids to use social media and other technologies or lenient about their children’s digital media consumption.

Overall, the analysis found, mothers attempted to stay informed about how their children were using their screen time and tried to mold their children into “responsible digital citizens.”

Despite the frustrations and labor associated with overseeing digital media use, many told the researcher they saw the phone as a way to stay in touch with their children and keep them safe and occupied. But this “digital umbilical cord” could provoke anxiety, too, as when children failed or refused to respond to text messages or forgot their phones.

“The increased use of digital devices is having a bigger impact on mums in terms of demanding more time, energy and mental and cognitive work, which can also affect their career choices and paid work patterns,” Fae Heaselgrave, a communications researcher and lecturer at the University of South Australia who conducted the study, said in a news release.

Future research is needed to understand more about how much unpaid and unacknowledged time mothers spend on their children’s digital care and the role it plays in parenting, she says.

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