Children in care: digital technology, a means of “creating family”?


The widespread use of screens is raising many concerns in the public space about the development of children as well as the risky practices of adolescents. Social reactions linked to their digital uses mainly focus on risks and dangers.

Questions of juvenile sexuality are attracting attention, whether it concerns the accessibility of pornographic content online , the exchange and dissemination of sexts or the prostitution of minors. On the school side, the emphasis is placed on harassment, with cyberbullying constituting a new category of everyday language and a public problem. Finally, for the neurological and cognitive development of children, exposure to screens is the subject of mobilization by public health experts.

Without wanting to ignore the reality of the risks and dangers that screens entail, the aim here is to shift the focus of the public problem towards uses which benefit from less visibility. However, in the diversity of technical devices, socio-digital uses fall within a wide spectrum of possibilities.

In view of the concerns publicly displayed today, being interested in their relational interest in minors concerned by a child protection measure can be akin to a form of provocation. Without developing an enchanted vision of the uses of these devices, it is important to understand in what and how they allow us to cling to social and family worlds.

Remember that the placement measure for educational assistance separates, in terms of place of living, child, siblings and parent in the name of danger for the minor (art. 375 of the civil code) . The rights of visitation, accommodation and correspondence awarded by the children’s judge to the parents ensure the maintenance of the family bond despite the separation.

Alongside these rights, and gradually, digital correspondences have developed which are today part of the “ordinary” nature of communication practices. They open up a field of possibilities in “making family” remotely. In the trajectories of minors separated from all or part of their entourage, on what registers is the mobilization of socio-digital devices carried out?

Adjusting the long-distance relationship

The first register is that of an adjustment of links in the socio-digital space. Socio-digital devices offer a scene which accompanies the residential trajectory of the minor (from the family of origin to the host family, from one place of reception to another, etc.) and the relational recompositions in his (or her) space (s) of life (staying in touch with a step-parent, a host sister, etc.). Socio-digital relationships may pre-exist or be activated during separation.

At the time of departure or recomposition, equipment or access rights are offered to minors: obtaining a smartphone, opening an account on a social network or even supporting young people on specific devices (exchanges video entry systems for example).

The choice of the mode of communication (see each other in video, send a written message, send a photo, publish a video on the networks, etc.) allows the minor to adjust the devices used to the type of relationship desired on a register ranging from form of continuous co-presence to one-off exchanges, from the mobilization of a multitude of applications to the exclusion of the socio-digital space. Technical transposition also recomposes the supports of the relationship and consequently leads it to transform.

In the context of sustained horizontal relationships, some siblings use socio-digital devices to extend the relationship at a distance despite the distance from living spaces and the lack of physical meetings. The exchanges are everyday stories which are supported by photos, text messages, telephone or video calls.

Younger people seek advice from elders. The older ones seek to control what happens in their absence, to keep an eye on family life, social activities and school work, as told by this young woman of 18, in reception at a children’s center with character. social :
“By text message, I ask (my sister) if she’s okay. If school goes well, if his grades go up. If football goes well. School isn’t really his thing. I try to follow a little. But I can’t connect to his thing (ENT). So, I ask him. And, I know if she’s lying. If she’s lying, it’s because she doesn’t want to give me all the grades she got. When she’s not lying, she tells me: “If you want, I’ll show you a photo.” She asks me, when she has arguments with her friends, when she wants to buy clothes and everything, I advise her a little. When we’re on Skype, she shows me outfits too. »

Find yourself

The second register concerns the activation of links via online network resources . In many placement situations, brothers and sisters have distant family experiences, sometimes residing with the mother, sometimes with the father, or possibly taken care of within the extended family (grandparents, uncle or aunt).

In the family trajectory, these very different lifestyles within siblings are fueled by marital breakdowns, family reconstitutions for one and/or the other parent, and parental difficulties in caring for the children. These different elements create tensions which can fuel distance in horizontal and vertical family relationships. The placement measure accentuates this phenomenon, because placement decisions are rarely synchronized for all siblings and the reception locations differ from one child to another.

Teddy has nine brothers and sisters and is the only child of his siblings to be placed. His parents had two children together but his sister lives with his father abroad and he has never lived with her. His father also has four children from two different unions whom Teddy has never met. His mother has five children, three of whom are with partners other than his father, and he lived for several years with his half-brother, now in the care of his stepfather.

Of variable size, family situations offer a framework of links which is nourished by places of life, marital trajectories, recompositions, ages and related experiences among siblings. Certain members of the family have only “crossed paths” in the past (when the arrival of some was after, or at the time of, the departure of others) or were informed late of mutual existences (when family secrets or conflicts have erased part of the family tree). In this case, the visibility of family networks through socio-digital networks allows unprecedented accessibility. It leads to activating or reactivating links with a parent or one who is recognized as such, whether father or mother, father-in-law or mother-in-law, foster parent, brother or sister, half-brother or half-brother. -sister,
“I think that if I hadn’t had the networks, I would have waited maybe another 10 years before finding them again. Because, already, my brother, my big brother and, my little sister, my other big brother, my little brothers. I don’t think I would have ever met them… In fact, without the Internet, I wouldn’t have been able to find them. » (Young man, 17 years old, MECS reception)

Meeting up and making contact does not predict the strength of ties for tomorrow but allows minors to participate in the constitution/reconstitution of their relational network.

Remember links

Finally, the third register accounts for the memorization of the links. Contact books in electronic memory, recorded archives or digital traces mark affiliations that are part of the minor’s trajectory.

However, because individual trajectories are inscribed on singular aspirations and experiences, because protection is part of a reception contract limited in time, having been part of the same family or host universe is not enough to want to feed the link. Therefore, without being ignored or undone, these links remain in memory and can potentially be mobilized.
“My big brother [lives 800 km away] now, actually, we’re a bit far away. So, I let him… live his life a little. But he is aware that I am there. That I’m still here. But we let ourselves live a little. My little sister is pretty much the same. She’s my real little sister. But since we were separated, and we both grew up, each on our own. Now it’s a little difficult to talk to him. » (Young man, 17 years old, MECS reception)

From continuity to rupture, from sharing daily life to waking up, the links can extend to the extended family and the frequencies, devices and recipients are managed according to mutual wishes, in an autonomous manner. Family relationships through digital correspondence adjust to individual circumstances more than to the way in which maintaining links is thought of by the child protection system.

Author Bio: Emilie Potin is a Sociologist – HDR lecturer at Rennes 2 University