Exploring, Through Design, The Complex Role of Smartphones for Mothers and Young Children

By Paulina Yurman

These critical and experimental design proposals are part of my practice based PhD. My work explores the complex role of smartphones for mothers and their young children. For many mothers, surrounding resources are used and adapted to respond to multiple internal and external demands. During childcare, smartphones are often used for work or as a connection with the outside world, and at other times to keep children quiet or entertained. Transforming from tool into toy, they become objects of competition for parental attention, but they also turn the mother into a rival as their use is often shared. They represent work, autonomy or distraction for the mother, but also play and pacification for the child, becoming a sort of contemporary transitional object for both. As a result, smartphones offer multiple and competing discourses, creating tensions that this research explores.

In my research I have created a series of symbolic, provocative, dysfunctional and narrative design proposals. These propositions are not intended to be read as designs for the commercial market, but rather as comments on the complex, often competing roles of smartphones in this particular situation. They invoke practices that often take place in private and they have been used in workshops with participants to engage in conversation and reflection about the complex role of smartphones during childcare. The proposals represent the possibilities for design to expose and critique current scenarios, and to explore potentials for change. Some of these objects are shown here.

Three of my critical artefacts are on display at the Freud Museum, as part of their Play and Psychoanalysis exhibition, held until 10th September 2017. I will also be talking about my work on Wednesday 9th August, 14:00 at the Freud Museum.

Watercolour Sketches (2016): The phone as a form of childcare, as a mediator between the mother’s and the child’s needs, as a sort of toy/pet, as a sort of transitional object, and as an object of rivalry

Sketching in watercolour allowed me to develop a visual language in which themes developed, merged and transformed. It was a process of unraveling ideas, not too dissimilar to the creative research that occurs through writing. The sketching process gave way to the development of experimental objects, which were material representations of the themes explored.

Ambivalent Objects 1, 2016 (3D printed bottle holders, bottle, smartphone, modified laptop packaging)

These objects represent the use of the smartphone as a sort of pacifier, evoking practices that are at times ridden with guilt and ambivalence. The initial response from participants towards these objects was of rejection or cynicism. However, after further conversation there emerged admissions that they represent a continuation of existing practices such as feeding children in front of the TV. Despite the initial rejection of the narratives they represent, some participants also made suggestions about how to make them more ergonomic, waterproof and where they would sell well as products. The conversations that these artefacts produced reflect our ambivalent attitudes towards smartphones during childcare, technologies that bring both intrusion and relief.

Ambivalent Object 2, 2016 (acrylic, wood, bottle top, smartphone, cord)

This pull along artefact makes use of the symbolism in psychoanalysis, which features the breast as a representation of the nurturing function of the mother. This proposal integrates the phone and breast as portable comforting objects, the pulling cord is a metaphor for the umbilical. It is a sort of designed transitional object. From participants, this object produced rejection for its combination of phone and toy, but it also prompted conversations about existing uses of the phone as a sort of pacifier. A psychoanalyst called it a ‘maternal ambivalence object’.

An Uncanny Pet, 2016 (synthetic fur, smartphone, smartphone charger)

A charging station for the phone. Playing with the idea of the phone as a sort of neutral family member, similar to a pet, this proposal uses this metaphor to create a situation where the phone is put to sleep while it charges (snoring and with its eyes closed). It makes the phone temporarily unavailable.

Sleep is a significant aspect of a child and mother’s routine. Putting the phone to sleep here represents an act of taking a break from its presence, consciously albeit temporarily. Participants could easily understand the metaphor, and suggested that it would not only discourage a child from ‘waking’ the phone up, but would also force the mother to take a break from checking her phone while it sleeps. One mother offered to host the design at home with her two children. In contrast to the previous critical design propositions, this proposal represents the transformative potential of design, offering a more positive and hopeful compromise with the presence of technology in family life.

Paulina Yurman is a designer and researcher, currently doing a PhD at Goldsmiths. Her research, called Designing for Ambivalence, investigates the tensions brought by smartphones to mothers and their young children.