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Digitally-mediated parent–baby touch and the formation of subjectivities

Jewitt, C; Leder Mackley, K; Price, S; (2021) Digitally-mediated parent–baby touch and the formation of subjectivities. Visual Communication 10.1177/1470357220961412. (In press). Green open access

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Abstract

This article examines how the use of emergent smart baby monitors re-mediates parent–baby touch, notions of connection, parental sensing and the interpretation of babies’ bodies, and contributes to the formation of subjectivities. Domestic baby monitors are a mid 20th-century phenomenon which normalizes parental anxieties. While baby monitoring is not new, the ‘next generation’ of wearable bio-sensing baby monitors offers a different relationship to the body via the physiological tracking of babies, and the sending of information or alerts to parents’ via connected mobile apps. These devices have been associated with creating unnecessary parental anxiety and the digital ‘replacement’ of parental touch, although little research exists on their use in the context of parent–infant interaction or touch. The authors present a qualitative case study of one such technology, Owlet, to explore how parents experienced, understood and negotiated the discourses of parent–infant touch that circulate around and through Owlet, with particular attention to the relationship between visual and tactile resources. The study focuses on both its multimodal design and take-up by parents through analysis of interviews with the Owlet designer, Owlet as a product, focus groups with parents and families’ home experiences of Owlet. Data is analysed through a tri-part lens, which first combines multimodal social semiotic and sensory ethnographic approaches, and then the analytical concept of governmentality. The findings are discussed in relation to four analytical themes: (1) creating a desire for digitally mediated touch; (2) spatiality of digitally mediated connection; (3) formulating the ‘right kind’ of touch; and (4) reconfiguring ‘knowing touch’. The authors discuss multimodal discourses pertinent to the shaping of parent–baby touch practices including: rationality and efficiency; individualism, autonomy and freedom; and self-improvement and empowerment. They conclude that the discourses that coalesce around Owlet contribute to the reconfiguration of parent–baby touch and the formation of neoliberal subjectivities.

Type: Article
Title: Digitally-mediated parent–baby touch and the formation of subjectivities
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1177/1470357220961412
Publisher version: https://doi.org/10.1177/1470357220961412
Language: English
Additional information: This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/open-access-at-sage).
Keywords: digital, parenting, multimodal, sensory ethnography, smart baby monitor, subjectivities, touch
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Education
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Education > UCL Institute of Education
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Education > UCL Institute of Education > IOE - Culture, Communication and Media
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10119831
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