Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Digital by default: the new normal of family life under COVID-19

Sonia Livingstone (@Livingstone_S) leads the MacArthur Foundation-funded Parenting for a Digital Future project in the LSE Department of Media and Communications. Her Ted Talk on Parenting in the digital age, and recent podcast for Good Thinking explain some of these ideas further, and her book on Parenting for a Digital Future: How hopes and fears about technology shape children’s lives will be out in the summer.

This blog was originally posted on LSE on 5 May 2020 who have kindly allowed for it to be reposted here. 

Digital by default: the new normal of family life under COVID-19

Just a few weeks ago, children went to school, parents worried about their screen time at home, and the digital future was the stuff of science fiction. Under COVID-19, school has gone online, worries about screen time have gone through the roof, and life is fast becoming digital by default. Technology is the taken-for-granted means of playing, seeing family, doing schoolwork, hanging out with friends. Teachers, babysittersmuseums, youth clubs, social workers – the whole infrastructure of childhood has moved online. So have the threats to childhood – bullies, scammers, groomersfake news manufacturers and manipulators of all kinds.

No wonder that anxieties about the future are rising. As I learned when researching my forthcoming book with Alicia Blum-Ross, Parenting for a Digital Future, parents make sense of parenting by looking back to their own childhood and forward to their children’s adulthood. In that intergenerational space of recollection and imagination, parents frame their hopes and fears for their children, and figure out the steps they can and should take, given their particular circumstances.

But under Covid-19, it’s not just our childhood that feels far away, but our lives just a few months back. Our future just a few months hence is equally unclear – “when this is all over” is the new mantra, but we don’t know how to plan for it, and uncertainty is stressful.


What’s striking when people compare their own childhoods to those of today’s children – and never more so than now – is that digital technologies seem to crystallise the difference. Compared with earlier times, digital devices absorb children’s attention, dangle from their ears and accompany them everywhere. They clutter our homes, drain our finances, and seem to have become the focus of pleasures and worries, the means of delivering rewards and punishments, and the occasion for both family conflicts and shared togetherness. As we argue in our book, the very visibility of these technologies, along with a lively public and media debate over how parents are supposedly mis/managing them, gets everyone talking about them, keeping them top of mind.

But these highly visible digital innovations risk obscuring many other important influences on family life. Recent generations have seen many transformations – in demography, stratification, job security, welfare provision, family structure, migration, identity politics, and more. It is these that predominantly shape parental expectations and fuel their anxieties. It is these that imbue everyday technological decisions and conflicts with such emotional intensity. And it is these, far more than their screen time or social media habits, that account for the problems children and young people experience. It is, therefore, these major societal transformations that have resulted in families being so unequally positioned when faced with the challenge of being locked down, including as regards their capacity to embrace a digital-by-default life.

Perhaps because society has preferred to treat parents as a homogenous group, criticising their digital parenting while averting its gaze from the fundamentally unequal difficulties that beset them, that recent headlines have betrayed some surprise in reporting, among other Covid-19 news, the discovery that not all families can afford the technology or connectivity to support home-schooling, or that at-risk children are vulnerable to intensifying levels of offline and online abuse, or that children with special educational needs or other needs cannot be reached online by the systems of care that previously supported them offline.

While I have argued that the digital is sometimes too salient, distracting us from the fundamental social and political challenges that families face, that is not to say that the digital is irrelevant. Covid-19 has triggered a step-change in our digital lives, as in our health, economy and world politics. To support parents, and reduce their anxieties, we are witnessing an explosion of online resources for parents promising to optimise children’s online opportunities and help them combat the risks. For the most part this is exciting and welcome, though undoubtedly many organisations have an eye to their bottom line too. But much of this may not be as helpful as hoped.

As we heard in our fieldwork, parents can feel oppressed by generalised injunctions and exhortations about what they should do, especially when these are accompanied by tacit judgments about good and bad parenting – and good and bad parents. Parents are more often spoken for than heard – recipients of advice on all sides but too rarely invited to discuss their needs or co-produce resources. As a result, much of this online provision is created for “everychild” (typically an able-bodied middle-class child living in a nuclear family home with technologically-competent parents and fast broadband). Meanwhile, real parents are likely finding it difficult to locate, evaluate and select resources and guidance appropriate for their child and their family’s circumstances.

On the one hand, the new normal of digital family life is unfolding organically, as people adapt to unprecedented circumstances. A key message from our research is that the consequences will be diverse, as parents variously embrace, resist or find ways to balance the digital and non-digital, as well as the different dimensions of the digital. Geeky families may relish the chance to share their passion for technology and develop new expertise. Others will be resisting the onslaught of digital-by-default, whether because of the dystopian associations of a digital future, or because they are determined to hold onto other ways of living. Most will seek some kind of balance, though balancing, we learned from our research, can be as effortful as staying upright on a rolling log, and require a constant – and exhausting – monitoring of events and outcomes.

On the other hand, digital-by-default has long been government policy: a gradual but determined shift away from (expensive) in-person state provision towards all things digital. Among many other consequences of Covid-19, we are living through an extraordinary experiment in relying on our national digital infrastructure. And it is problematic in many ways. A long-standing concern has centred on the ways in which socio-economic inequalities mean that not all benefit fairly, with the resulting digital inequalities fuelling further socio-economic inequalities in a vicious cycle.

A more recent concern centres on datafication and digital surveillance, whether by the government or businesses or both, as ever more of our private lives move online, mediated by proprietary platforms whose activities are far from transparent and whose business interests may be quite different from the interests of children.

“When this is all over,” will we find that families’ well-meaning efforts to find ways for children to play, see family, do schoolwork and hang out with friends online under lockdown have hastened a digital future in which our lives are tracked and monetised in ways that few fully understand? Or will we find the public more resistant to all things digital, more aware of the value of alternative ways of living, more determined to find their own balance and have their voices heard?

Monday, 18 May 2020

The social life of self-harm, in lockdown

This blog was written by Liv*, an MSc student who has experience with self-harm, who keeps her contribution anonymous, with additional content by Baptiste Brossard, Lecturer in Sociology at Australian National University and Amy Chandler, Lecturer in Health in Social Science, and one of CRFR’s co-directors.

The social life of self-harm, in lockdown

There has been much written recently on the effects of the lock down on mental health. How do people react to being alone? How does isolation reinforce previous vulnerabilities, and give rise to the perceived need to reinvent one's everyday life in the face of rampant anxiety? 

Some of these questions may play out in particular ways for those who self-harm, or who have self-harmed in the past, and keep with them this "inclination" to self-harming. 

Sociological research on self-injury has shown how this practice is embedded within social situations, social contexts, socially-situated methods of coping and the material condition of living (Brossard 2018, Chandler 2016, Steggals et al 2020). In a state of lockdown, all of these are shifted and changed. It is too early to know how the lockdowns specifically affect those who self-injure, but we can get a sense of it from early testimonies. 

In this blog Liv shares her experience with us as an early step forward, not only towards better understanding the effects of the lock down, but also providing people who are concerned by self-harm with elements of reflection and, at least, the assurance that they are not alone in facing some of these difficulties. 


“I’m a European history Masters student studying the history of sexuality in the UK. I will start my PhD at one of the world’s best universities later this year. In my free-time I run, write, play music, and build model buildings. When there’s not a lockdown, I spend time with my friends and attend performing arts shows. 

I started self-harming when I was 17. Having felt different most of my life, and having moved school multiple times due to bullying, being different became even more apparent during my teen years. I play the bass, and I play even more when I go through rough periods because it’s my haven. My hands started getting sore from the many hours, and I started getting blood blisters around my nails. I felt such relief when they popped. Gradually, I intentionally held my hand in a position that could lead to bleeding just to feel that sensation. Later, I started hitting walls too. 

I stopped when I started university because things were great. Occasionally, I had thoughts, but they weren’t strong enough for me to act on them. I had been seeing someone for two years. We were great when things worked, but most of the time it was very unhealthy: love-bombing and manipulative. During our breakup they said: ‘you wouldn’t have to hurt yourself if you didn’t always fuck everything up’, even though they knew I had been clean for two years. They added: ‘if you ever hurt yourself again, I will never talk to you again’. That night, I cut myself for the first time with a knife. I think it was my way of telling myself they couldn’t come back into my life, and I fell back into my coping mechanism. I usually cut once per semester. I have the desire more often, but I can control it. It’s always more surface wounds so they are never deep, and I know where the safe spots are so that I don’t hurt myself too much. 

As a social scientist, I firmly believe our lockdown experience is shaped by our personal state when we enter isolation. Right before the lockdown, the person I had been dating for months ended things completely out of the blue. They broke up in public and in a place where I didn’t feel safe. Because it was unexpected, I didn’t know how to react. Next to me was a pinecone, and after sitting in silence, I picked it up and walked to a place where there weren’t people. For the first time in my life I cut in public and broad daylight. The pinecone was surprisingly sharp when I added pressure. Later, I had my first ever panic attack. The breakup didn’t cause it; the emotional trauma that it triggered did. 

I couldn’t settle in the lockdown before I had processed this. In the beginning, I had a blanket fort in my living room to shut out the world and care for myself. I was overwhelmed by thoughts – especially that I research sexuality but I continuously fail in my own life, I blamed myself, I re-played the breakup scene, and I couldn’t sleep. With the lockdown, I lost some of the structure that helped me manage my thoughts and feelings. I didn’t have my part-time job or classes, and I couldn’t meet up with friends either. With the virus, additional emotions arose. I got worried about when I can see my friends and family again (especially since I live abroad), I had concerns about living alone and getting sick – or my family getting sick. I have stronger urges, and I have definitely cut many more times than I usually do. I spent more time on social media to stay up to date. And it mainly made me more worried. So, I added app restrictions to my phone so that I’m not as exposed. I can text, but I have time restrictions on ‘scrolling’ apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This has significantly improved my mood. 

It took the first month of my lockdown to settle because I first had to process my feelings. I wasn’t ready to learn yoga or various breathing techniques because the world around me had changed so much that I had to calm myself with something I knew worked. One day, I had worked by my sunny window all day. By the evening, I felt a bit warm, and I started freaking myself out, which physiologically didn’t help. I have not coughed at all, but I suddenly got very scared. I couldn’t focus on my essay. A shower didn’t help. Netflix didn’t help. I went to bed, but my thoughts kept racing. I put on a guided meditation to quiet my thoughts. It helped a bit. I rolled around for hours. I then said ‘right, you have 5 minutes and no tools’. I put on my headphones and started scratching my arm. When the time was up, I felt so calm that I fell asleep right away. The following morning, I felt so at peace that I could finish my essay. Now, I have about four good days and then a low day. I haven’t cut in 3.5 weeks. 

One of the things about being in isolation is that there are limitations to what is happening in our lives. We no longer talk about concerts, cinema trips, dinners, or theatre because that’s not happening. There’s a tendency to start conversations with ‘how are you coping?’ or ‘how’s lockdown life?’. For all of us, it can be exhausting to answer that question multiple times a day. Not because we don’t care, but because we might not want to talk about our feelings all the time. I have a friend who is older than me, and she used to struggle with self-harm in her 20s, and I know the lockdown also really affects her. Without planning it, we started sending songs to each other almost every day. That way, we don’t need to start a long conversation about our feelings. Sometimes, the song reflects our mood and other days we hear a song that reminds us of each other. It’s our way of saying ‘I’m here’ while giving each other space. With our moods dimmed in this world, intimacy can be negotiated differently. 

A close friend and I Skype watch movies together. We have Netflix on, and we do a countdown to synchronise the movie and talk while watching it. Both of us are in our mid-20s, and we watch animation movies and those family movies with talking animals because even though we are very close we just need something lighter than discussing our feelings. For me, it’s important that we feel what we need to feel and take one day at the time, but it’s also to not get overwhelmed by these things and thereby find ways to communicate without feeling a pressure to constantly discuss my inner life” 

Liv’s narrative is one of many lockdown stories, and many self-harm stories. The challenges faced, and the partial solutions found are likely to be familiar to many. What is particularly important to highlight, is the significance for Liv of her life before lockdown, of the way in which relationships with others so closely shape ‘self-harm’ itself, as well as attempts to live with and alongside the practice. Indeed, as we (Baptiste and Amy) have both found in our respective studies, self-harm can – for some – form a meaningful and valuable way of being in the world; and Liv shows some ways this has played out for her in conditions of lockdown, whilst also navigating a relationship breakdown.

Some of the solutions and ways of being Liv raises also underline the need for innovative ways of being together, maintaining relationships and intimacy virtually, or creatively. As we slowly settle into what seems like it will be a new normal, such approaches will be necessary – are necessary – for many of us. 

These points also raise the challenges that some may face – those already isolated, living the world as a place of isolation, or struggling with social connections before lockdown, are likely to bring these into this ‘new normal’. Situations will differ, as much as sharing some similarities; and as Liv notes, for those who self-harm, there may be many moments where self-harm is turned to more often, or in different ways, in order to navigate the lockdown world. 

Such challenges make the work of charities such as Self Injury Support ever more vital; in the links below you can find more information about self-harm in general, but also a package of materials developed by Self Injury Support, in collaboration and consultation with people who self-harm, which speaks directly to these issues. We’ve also included a link to the National Service User Network, which is putting together a whole series of videos by people with lived experience of mental health problems, talking about the impact of lockdown, including one with Naomi Salisbury, of SIS. 

*Liv chose to contribute her story anonymously, so this is a pseudonym. 

References and further reading 

https://www.selfinjurysupport.org.uk/experience-led-self-help-resource
https://www.nsun.org.uk/naomi-talks-about-self-injury-support

Brossard, B. (2018). Why do we hurt ourselves?: University of Indiana Press.

Chandler, A. (2016). Self-injury, medicine and society: authentic bodies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Steggals, P., Lawler, S., & Graham, R. (2020). The social life of self-injury: exploring the communicative dimension of a very personal practice. Sociology of Health & Illness, 42, 157-170.

Introducing The Centre for Transformative Change: Educational and Life Transitions (TCELT) blog

In today's post, CRFR Associate Director Professor Divya Jindal-Snape introduces the new TCELT blog series.  
    
There is a growing body of activity focused on collecting and disseminating the early experiences of COVID-19 and its wide-ranging impact on communities of research, policy and practice.

The Centre for Transformative Change: Educational and Life Transitions (TCELT) blog series is one such initiative. An inter-disciplinary and cross-university research centre based at Dundee University, the Centre's aim is to impact on international research, policy and practice in the context of educational and life transitions, and their implications for wellbeing through an international network of researchers, professionals and communities.

The COVID blog series is written by transitions researchers, practitioners and policy makers, as well as those who are experiencing these transitions. Issues covered research-informed perspectives on the impact of COVID on different types of transitions and wellbeing, and some strategies to support transitions that people are experiencing.

The aim is to provide rapid research-based information about the impact of COVID on educational and life transitions and to suggest strategies to enhance transition experiences. In so doing, it seeks to support families, professionals and policy makers with transitions due to COVID-19.

You can find more information about TCELT here: https://www.dundee.ac.uk/tcelt/ and more about the network here: https://www.dundee.ac.uk/tcelt/transitionsresearchers/.

Access the blog here: https://tceltintr679475724.wordpress.com/ and remember to follow the Centre on Twitter @IntrTcelt.

Professor Divya Jindal-Snape, Board of Directors  







Friday, 15 May 2020

Locking Down or Breaking Up: Newly Cohabitating Couples in the Time of Coronavirus

Isabel Quattlebaum is from the United States and is studying for an MSc in Counselling Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She participates in a discussion group on families and relationships under lockdown that is a spinoff of Lynn Jamieson’s Sociology class on Intimate Relationship. This blog is based on her personal experience. 


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The lockdown in the United Kingdom has changed relationships and dating drastically. Gone are the one night stands and the casual hook-ups, and budding relationships have either been put on hold or ramped up to warp-speed. Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer of England, gave some unexpected advice to new couples during a press briefing: move in together or face it alone. Specifically, Harries said that people should “test the strength of their relationship and decide whether one wishes to be permanently resident in another household." This announcement was a curveball hurtling towards the normative stages of the typical relationship that were hammered into me in the conservative southern US culture that I was raised in. Meet, go on a first date, spend time together more, make it official, spend even more time together, and then maybe consider moving in with each other after you are either extremely committed or preferably married. Where I am from, there may be no ‘right’ way to do a relationship, but there is a way that won’t make your church-going grandmother clutch her pearls. What I perceived to be the usual order of a relationship was just chucked out the window. New couples have shacked up together, bringing about a drastic change in both partner’s lifestyles and the nature of the relationship itself.

I usually live alone in a tiny studio apartment. My friends are spread out throughout Edinburgh, and few are within walking distance. I was anticipating the lockdown and decided to ask my boyfriend if he would let me move in with him if and when it happened. He readily agreed. His flatmate had recently gone back to her home country, so he was living alone too. At that point, we had been officially dating for about six weeks. Within days of bringing up the idea, I had thrown a hodge-podge of items into a suitcase and set up camp at his flat. My apprehension of living with a partner for the first time after what I considered to be much too short a courtship was dwarfed by the potential loneliness of my microscopic and isolated flat. Moving in together has accelerated our relationship greatly. A two and a half month relationship suddenly feels like a year has passed. Our daily routines have had to be adapted to accommodate one another at rapid speed. Part of my university coursework involves confidential conversations with classmates to practice our listening skills and semi-mimic a counseling session. This requires space and privacy, which in turn requires a compromise between my partner and I. Personal space in a small flat is hard to come by.

Moving in together in the time of coronavirus is drastically different than moving in with a partner during non-pandemic times. Typically, one or both partners is working during the day. With layoffs and work from home orders, couples can be spending 24 hours a day together. There is no rest for the weary in a cohabitating coron-ationship. There is also the added stress of the current world situation, with jobs and peoples’ health being threatened. This can give the usually happy milestone of living together a somber tone. Additionally, the new living situation can affect more than just the couple. One Edinburgh woman told me of her experience of her boyfriend moving in with her and her family during the lockdown. The house is packed with her four sisters, her mother and now her boyfriend. She credits her part-time job at a GP clinic as the saving grace for the relationship, giving her some much needed time away from the hectic household. As for how her family is handling it, she says “My family all love him. Perhaps more than they love me!” However, living in a house with so many people has made intimacy difficult, as she puts it: “(it) makes it quite hard to feel intimate when your 12-year-old sister is always hanging around.”

Various news outlets have been exploring the new wave of couples living together. The Wall Street Journal published an article at the end of March on couples in Paris adjusting to the lockdown. The couples interviewed had a range of reactions to their new living arrangement. For some, it has tightened their bond. For others, it is pushing it to its limit. One man said of his relationship, “We’re learning to get bored together. I am very worried about our relationship.” This brings up another interesting dimension to a new partnership. There are no more nights out together, romantic restaurant dinners or cinema dates. Boredom and complacency sets in quickly and can challenge a relationship whose foundation is still being forged. Personally, I have been trying to combat the monotony by planning elaborate themed dinners once a week, complete with costumes and a film whose genre matches the meal. So far, The Breakfast Club has accompanied pancakes and leg warmers, and a red velvet cake with jam ‘blood’, red wine and lots of dark eyeliner has preceded a screening of The Exorcist.

The Huffington Post has also covered this rapid change in address. Lydia Spencer-Elliot wrote a personal piece for the publication on her move into the family home of a man she had been dating casually for two months. She cites surface-level changes to the normalcy of the relationship, like her abandonment of the desire to impress her partner’s parents with her appearance and manners. She describes the “distasteful traits” that she would normally hide in the early stage of non-pandemic era relationships, now out in the open for the whole household to take in. This reminds me of an episode of the US hospital sitcom Scrubs, where a particularly eccentric character is given the advice to dole out his ‘crazy’ in small doses so as not to shock his date too much all at once. Unfortunately, after over a month in lockdown, I have discovered that it becomes difficult to hide from your partner that you have to unplug the hairdryer immediately after use not for energy conservation but out of fear of spontaneous combustion.

Coronavirus has changed the rules of dating overnight for many people. Difficult choices had to be made on the spot regarding isolating together or staying apart indefinitely. It will be interesting to follow up on the statuses of the relationships of those who moved in together under these circumstances and determine if adversity strengthens or damages the bonds. Will there be a baby boom, or will there be an uptick in blocked phone numbers and changed locks? Will intimacy blossom, or will it be squashed by cramped quarters and short tempers? Only time will tell, but for couples living together for the first time: good luck, stay safe, be kind to one another and remember to put the toilet seat down.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Stay-at-home measures and domestic violence amid Covid-19 crisis

Morena Tartari is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow (MSCA-IF), at the University of Antwerp who is in Edinburgh as a visiting Research Fellow at the School of Social and Political Science, The University of Edinburgh https://www.uantwerpen.be/en/staff/morena-tartari/

This is one of a small number of posts by postgraduate students participating in discussion sparked by Lynn Jamieson’s sociology class on Intimate Relationships.



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Media attention has picked up on the risk of an increase in domestic violence in conditions of lockdown under the Covid-19 emergency. It is obvious that being confined to the home with an abusive partner is likely to have dramatic affects on the everyday life of women in this situation. For obvious reasons, direct evidence of their experiences is very limited but reports are coming from third sector and professional organisations whose job it is to provide help and support. As an Italian national with an interest in comparative studies, I have been paying particular attention to evidence from charities and associations who provide help to women and mothers in Italy and Spain.

In Italy, where the Covid-19 crisis started last February, D.i.Re [1], the national network of the centres for women victims of domestic violence reported that domestic violence against women had tripled in recent weeks [2]. From March 2nd to April 5th eighty centres were contacted by 2.867 women. Among them, 806 women (28%) had contacted a centre for the first time. Requests for support had increased by 74.5% when compared to the monthly average recorded in the last survey in 2018. Centres have also intensified online support and focused their campaigns, suggesting to women to call the centre when they go outside for essential food, health, and work reasons.

My current research project [7] does not concern directly domestic violence, but a substantial number of women I interviewed in Italy last December were victims of abusive relationships. These interviews highlight a disjuncture between the everyday reality of these women, their concrete needs of protection for themselves and their children and the possibilities offered by law and judiciary procedures. Since these interviews were conducted before the Covid-19 pandemic, it is realistic to think that the condition of women at risk in forced isolation requires particular attention from authorities.

In Spain, according to the Delegación del Gobierno contra la Violencia de Género [4] (the Spanish government delegation against gender-based violence), from the lockdown’s starting date calls for help by women increased by 12.4% in the first two weeks (if compared with data from 2019), while online consultations to the helpline's website increased by 270%.

Local authorities have attempted to counter the phenomenon with creative methods. One such initiative enables women to go to their pharmacy and request a ‘Mascarilla 19’ (a face mask no 19) [5] [6]. This rescue code for victims of domestic violence alerts the pharmacist who should contact the authorities. This initiative started in the Canarias Islands, but the local authorities of other Spanish regions are looking for adopting this strategy. The need to use a code (the mask no 19) and a medium (the pharmacist) to alert the authorities indicates both the difficulty of interacting with people outside their families and the stigma related to the condition of being a victim of domestic violence. Strategies adopted by the French helplines have similar characteristics.

Forced physical and social isolation seems to have determined an international emergency due to domestic violence, starting with the first lockdown in China, last January, where the hashtag #AntiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic (translated from Chinese to the English language) trended on Twitter [7]. The UN Women has drawn attention to how domestic violence during the Covid-19 crisis can be compared with an increasing shadow pandemic [8].

References

[1] www.direcontrolaviolenza.it
[2] www.direcontrolaviolenza.it/violenza-covid19-2867-donne-si-sono-rivolte-ai-centri-antiviolenza-d-i-re-durante-il-lockdown/
[3] STRESS-Mums project: www.stressmums.eu and https://cordis.europa.eu/project/id/843976
[4] www.violenciagenero.igualdad.gob.es
[5] www.mbs.news/c/2020/04/mascarilla-19-rescue-code-for-victims-of-domestic-violence-in-spain.html
[6] www.elespanol.com/mujer/al-dia/20200324/mascarilla-grito-auxilio-mujeres-maltratadas-farmacia/477202689_0.html
[7] www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-51705199
[8] www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/4/statement-ed-phumzile-violence-against-women-during-pandemic

Some online resources giving sources of help in Scotland

https://womensaid.scot/
https://edinwomensaid.co.uk
https://www.scottishwomensrightscentre.org.uk/
https://www.zerotolerance.org.uk/
https://shaktiedinburgh.co.uk/
https://www.mygov.scot/domestic-abuse/support-for-female-victims/

The national UK helpline
https://www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/

This guide by Dr Alison Gregory makes suggestions about how to start the conversation if you suspect somebody you know is in a domestic situation where they are at risk.
https://safelives.org.uk/sites/default/files/resources/Friends%20and%20family%20blog%20covid-19.pdf

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Research with young environmental activists in the UK: challenges and opportunities presented by COVID Lockdown to the researcher and the researched

Today’s post is written by Dena Arya who is a PhD Research Student in Politics and International Relations at Nottingham Trent University. 


It's time for climate action, copyright Dena Ayra

Dena’s life experiences bring a unique mix of skills and understandings to her-research area. Having grown up in the UK as a refugee and worked as a BME female for over a decade in the youth and community sector, she has a distinct position from which to engage in understandings of power in marginalised spaces. Her journey through the youth and community sector began working at Enfield Council’s Children’s Services. Here she supported vulnerable young people and their families. During this time budgets were slashed, and youth centres closed down. To understand the structural causes of this disarmament, she undertook an MA in International Social Policy with a focus on youth and citizenship policy. Post-MA her focus has been youth and community engagement and social research. These experiences have led to her methodological interests being centred on co-produced and youth-led qualitative research. 

Her research interest in youth political participation stems from the early days of the financial crisis. In her practice with young people, she has witnessed the developing socio-economic pressure they face and the ways in which they navigate this. Further, her interest in environmental politics stems from her own environmental activism that she has been involved with as a young person and adult, resulting in projects with NGO’s in India and Slovakia. The culmination of her vocational and voluntary experiences as well as her personal experiences of environmental and social justice activism have led to her PhD research interests.

Research with young environmental activists in the UK: challenges and opportunities presented by COVID Lockdown to the researcher and the researched

Like many researchers, particularly those whose focus is empirical, my data collection was stopped in its tracks in the days leading up to lock down in the UK in March 2020. Along with my research grinding to a halt, so did my ability to think beyond the basics in those days. This rotated around; how could I keep myself and family safe, what information I needed to absorb and what I needed to discard in the assault of the media ‘infodemic’ on COVID and if washing my food shopping was taking it a step too far!

As the weeks passed the disbelief began to subside as many tried to find a ‘new normal’. I started to remember some of what I had put down in trying to understand what had been happening to the world around me. I remembered to wash my hair, brush my teeth and that I was doing a PhD, somethings I had all but forgotten about in the haze of those early lockdown days.

As the amnesia lifted, I remembered my networks of young research participants. I was two months into data collection in a PhD in Politics and International relations at Nottingham Trent University when the pandemic spun out of control. I remembered that young people across the country were struggling with the shock of what had happened, some only weeks and months away from sitting GCSE’s and A Levels. I remembered that before I was a PhD researcher, I was a youth worker and that my involvement with my participants would always be from the position of a youth worker-researcher.


Some personal context; I worked in the youth sector in the UK for over a decade before embarking on my PhD. Over this period, I had the privilege of working with groups of young people who consequently inspired me to carry out youth-led academic research. The focus of my research is how economic inequality impacts the way in which young people engage in environmental politics in the UK. As these months pass, I find myself more and more certain that this is worthwhile intellectual pursuit as the relationship between COVID, inequality and climate change become apparent.

During lockdown, I have observed a range of constraints and opportunities to research with young environmental activists. These observations may be useful more widely for researchers engaging with young people to reflect on when making data collection plans in the coming weeks of lockdown and subsequent months of social distancing, where meeting young people face to face will not be possible.

Pre-lock down I would have met potential participants at protests, events, conferences and other such data locations. I would have built trust, rapport and relationship in an organic and spontaneous manner, but during lockdown none of this was longer possible. Whilst as a researcher this has been a challenge, some young activists have highlighted this shift as an opportunity for building networks. Some are finding that they are better able to build networks that they were not doing as well offline. This is mainly due to activism coming off the streets, out of community centres, building occupations and schools, onto online platforms like Zoom, Slack, Discord and Signal.

Despite this, and critically many young activists raise concerns that the lockdown and the ensuing restriction of large public gatherings, and with-it direct activism, means that they no longer feel seen or heard. Prior to the lock down momentum was building both in Extinction Rebellion Youth and the UK Climate Strike Network. National and international protests and weeks of actions were about to take place. The COVID pandemic put a stop to all of it. Although the Fridays For Future movement exists online with Digital Strikes and Fridays For Future online webinars and talks every Friday, it has drastically reduced the feeling of being seen and heard for many young activists and climate strikers. This is not true for all young activists, especially those from rural areas who even before the pandemic depended on the internet to be seen and heard. Some young people who live in rural spaces are finding that they are able to attend more meetings and get more engaged in environmental action. Before they would have had to have travelled to attend planning meetings or strikes. Online platforms have in some ways been an equaliser between urban and rural climate strikers. Despite the shift online, some young activists, part of Extinction Rebellion Youth continue to take part in direct action in the form of die-ins and protests outside buildings and land linked to the creation of the High Speed 2 (HS2). Many young people do not feel safe, able or are willing to risk arrest to take part in direct-action during lock down.


As a researcher with ethics boards to answer to, I too am not able to take the risk to attend these actions. So, my attention has turned to the online world. This shift in attention has not come without its challenges. Engaging with potential participants via their social media comes with profound ethical considerations. Age, consent, public profiles, data protection and online safety of young people to name but a few are factors that have to be taken into account. Even if access challenges such as these are overcome, young activists feeling safe online is also an important consideration. Some young activists are increasingly concerned about surveillance online, choosing not to discuss some matters with me on platforms like WhatsApp or Zoom, opting instead for encrypted platforms like Signal and Telegram. There have been historic issues of surveillance and undercover police infiltrating environmentalist groups. Some young activists have reflected that using platforms created by private corporations means that none of their anti-establishment actions are safeguarded against police interference and surveillance. This also raises ethical questions for me as a researcher as I attend online planning meetings of young activists where I carry out ethnography.

There have in this time been some unexpected opportunities bot for research and activism. I have been able to engage more deeply and with more frequency with the young activist that I had built networks with prior to the lock down. Acquiring reliable and in-depth data requires relationships that go beyond the researcher and the researched. Young people’s engagement, either in consultation, co-production or research can result in participants feeling like nothing more than data points. To do the labour required to create relationships with participants that are not seen as tokenistic, are imbedded in mutual aid and co-operation and built across horizontal lines of power, will yield more authentic understandings of the social phenomena we are observing as researchers. With this in mind, during lock down I have been involved in a variety of activities with my participants which have included; sharing articles and reading materials, running and being a part of reading groups, having video calls simply to chat and share lockdown blues, helping with job applications and personal statements, supporting with school work, attending climate pub-quizzes or quite simple checking in with a text message. At times this has meant exposing myself emotionally to my participants. whilst they have been struggling with the effects of being indoors for weeks on end, so have I. Reflecting on my conflict regarding how much to share and how honest to be through the process has been an important part of development as a researcher.

Call out climate criminals, copyright Dena Ayra

None of the above would have been possible without the extra time that both participants and I have had on our hands. Whilst some young people are attending online classes through school, others have been furloughed from their jobs or lost their zero-hour contract jobs. Almost all the young people I know have moved back or already live with family, parents or guardians. Consequently, opportunities have arisen in access to under 18s parental consent. Anyone who has worked in the youth sector can tell you that getting a young person to take a letter home, get it signed and bring it back can sometimes feel like the success of the century. Whilst young people are at home during lock down, many times with one or both parents in the other room, getting signed parental consent has far less complicated and increased the likelihood of doing research with this younger and harder to access age group.

For some the vacuum created by less schoolwork and little to no employment has given young environmentalists more time for activism. For some that looks like educationals and planning meetings, for others national and regional networking on platforms such as Slack and Zoom. Others against the odds are busy managing plans for direct action. Some are working on more electoral forms of engagement such as national and regional youth councils. Many are self-educating collectively and individually. Young activists have seen a clear link between COVID, capitalism and climate change. Overall young activists appear to be as motivated and as ready to act as before the pandemic hit. Far from destroying the environmental youth movement, it seems from my observations to be generating a new momentum, albeit in unforeseen ways.

These observations require deeper investigation and my work as a researcher is far from over. Whilst this pandemic has forced researchers like me to re-think their methodological approaches as well as the nature of data collection, ethics and access, it has by no means stopped my research in its tracks. I had imagined spending the past two months darting up and down the UK, meeting young activists at demonstrations and actions across the country, hearing chants, photographing placards and listening to impassioned speeches over megaphones. Instead I have been invited into Slack meetings, ‘Zoomed’, had long discussions over Discord and got cramp in my thump messaging over Signal and Telegram. This intimate, and might I add totally free expect for the cost of my broadband, way of building relationship during this tragic time in human history has coloured the kinds of stories my PhD will tell. I in no way intend to paint this as a ‘blessing in disguise’ or see the pandemic as ‘useful’ to research with young activist. Instead, I realise that despite the challenges, now more than ever research with young people is imperative and we need to use our tools, in any way that we can to make their voices heard.

Families and relationships amidst the Covid-19 pandemic: Call for blog submissions

COVID-19 is impacting on all aspects of family life and personal relationships, as well as on our formal and informal systems of social care. How are we ‘doing’ family life and practicing intimacies during lockdown? What are the consequence on our intergenerational relations – with the youngest and oldest – and how are we protecting those most vulnerable? And what effect has physical distancing had on our connections to strangers, to community life, to civil society and the environment around us?

At CRFR we are inviting our network of researchers, policy makers and practitioners to share their experiences and reflections. How has the pandemic affected the community in which you live and work? What are the challenges you have faced so far, and what are your expectations – good and bad – for the future?

Photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash

COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic, with households and communities facing significant restrictions on their everyday life. The most immediate impact of the lockdown has been on our families and relationships. For those now working at home this has meant having to spend more time - like it or not – with members of our own households, physically distanced from wider family, friends and everyday social contacts. Children are at home from school, forcing some parents into the monumental task of juggling paid work from home with child care and home-schooling. Couples are reflecting on the consequences of this unexpected togetherness on their relationship, while those living alone are having to cope with only remote interactions. Our everyday connections to strangers have also been altered – in the shops that remain open and in our public spaces we are navigating around each other; stepping off pavements and crossing roads to maintain distance. We have yet to find a collective means of responding to the transgressions that occur – like everything else, we are all finding our way round this ‘new normal’. Necessity being the mother of invention, this distance has provoked new ways of retaining our social connections with each other. Social spaces, whether the pub, club, public library, gym or theatre have transitioned into on-line spaces, while family gatherings and chats to elderly relatives are being practiced via video conferencing.

The tag-line, “we are all in this together” works well when we think about the speed with which we have re-established our social lives on-line. However, the narrative of the coronavirus as a “great leveller” has already begun to unravel. While the effects of COVID-19 are universal, these effects are not experienced equally or evenly, and for many are serving to reinforce current hierarchies and exclusions. As with the austerity measures that preceded the pandemic, those with greater economic and social capital are better placed to navigate the worst effects of the lockdown. More affluent households typically have larger houses and gardens, better access to the internet and technology, and greater social and digital capital through which to access practical and emotional support (on-line deliveries, home-based exercise, home school resources). So, while some households are enjoying Waitrose home deliveries, the functioning of our society continues to be reliant on the lowest-paid workers who are not only unable to quarantine themselves, but are also less likely to have secure employment or stable housing.

Such inequity is, of course, also intersectional. In the UK, it has been reported that low-paid women are at a higher risk of exposure to Covid-19 as they are more likely to be in frontline jobs such as social care, nursing and pharmacy. And there are already indications that there has been a rise in the incidence of domestic abuse directly attributable to Stay at Home. Meanwhile, the mortality trends emerging in the UK and globally reveals a racially disproportionate rate of death, with the pandemic bringing poverty and ethnicity together in a 'perfect storm'.

On the other side of the coin, the pandemic has nourished localism, cooperation, mutual support. In Scotland over 60,000 people registered for a volunteering campaign to help tackle the Covid-19 crisis. Social media is bursting with accounts of locally based initiatives which are helping the most vulnerable, and of the everyday kindnesses of neighbours, frontline workers and strangers. These experiences, alongside widely reported positive environmental impacts, narrate the virus as a means through which individuals can deepen social connections to families, friends, neighbours and community.

As we all navigate the early days of the pandemic, the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships welcomes blog submissions issues from academics and practitioners working within the field of families and relationships. Submissions can include, but are not limited to, reflections on the topics discussed above, as well as reflections on the long-term effects of the coronavirus on service delivery, funding and practice. We are also keen to learn more about how COVID-19 and the prospect of long-term physical distancing is re-shaping the design and delivery of research fieldwork and writing projects. Covid 19 caused the cancellation of CRFR’s international conference Intersectionality, Families Relationships.  A number of the participants have promised to write blogs for us and these will appear in the coming weeks.  

We welcome reflections on personal experience as well as our more usual style of pieces informed by research or professional practice. You may also submit diaries, photos or other visuals. Your contributions should be between 600-1,500 words and should be submitted in Word format to Helen Walker (helen.walker@ed.ac.uk). For referencing, the use of hyperlinks (instead of footnotes) is preferred, where possible. Please include the author’s full name, current institution and occupation in a short bio at the end of the document. The contributions will be reviewed by CRFR co-directors and we aim to get back to you with decisions within a fortnight of submission. 

Amy Chandler, Emma Davidson, Jenni Harden and Lynn Jamieson