When ‘wassup?’ can be construed as important communication (or, the magical unicorn text message is meaningful)

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While we may ‘pooh pooh’ what we consider banal and inane digital communications, they provide some of the most connecting and cohesive interactions we can have as human beings. The silly emoticon or joke (that we don’t get); the merged phrase: ‘wassup?’; the outrageous ‘selfie’ taken by your son or daughter showing a new haircut or colour, a nose piercing (ugh), or outfit they are trying on. The affordances of information and communication technologies (ICTs) enables these interactions with such ease, we barely notice them – except when we want the direct attention of our children!

Confronted with kids whose faces are constantly lit up by the small screens in their hands, as parents we tend to describe our kids’ behaviours as ‘banal,’ ‘inane,’ and somehow unimportant in the scheme of things. The paradox is that it is important! The everyday mundane aspect of these techno-social interactions ensures our teens remain connected with their close friends and family members. Of course, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing…

Informal communications is the key here – phatic,* idle, nonsensical communication is the stuff that keeps families connected. It’s not spoken about because it appears to be invisible. Parents are quick to point out that their kids are having inane interactions with their friends, but not so quick to notice their own ‘inane moments’ that keep communication lines open, flexible and fun. Prior to digital devices we did it differently – via the landline, or secret words or phrases for things. It is generally not documented because it is considered a silly, in the moment, almost embarrassing interaction between family members – it is taken for granted and unnoticed.

So, how do we know it’s good? Is it the number of times a day that these interactions occur? Given we are not in our children’s company at all times, is it reasonable to expect communication morning, noon and night? Herein lies the kicker to the paradox – if we expect it, then that ruins (or nullifies) the joy of the impulsivity that the interaction tends to carry with it. It has been identified that we have a number of differing types of phatic interactions* – from acknowledging someone’s presence, simple informing, to a more complex social connection. I know that as a parent of a teenager, I thoroughly enjoy receiving an impulsive, spontaneous message from my daughter that alerts me to the fact that I am in her consciousness – and I am certain that our kids feel the same, as long as we don’t cross the line to stalking or badgering! Depending on where our teenage kids are developmentally, they will be more sensitive to certain types of communication and their delivery. I’m not sure exactly how and when these lines are traipsed over, but it can be a function of being too busy to pay attention. So, the next time you get an impromptu text message with a magical motivational unicorn attached, embrace it for the joy your daughter had in finding that unicorn and sending it your way (I certainly did)!

*Phatic is defined as denoting or relating to language used for general purposes of social interaction, rather than to convey information or ask questions. Utterances such as ‘hello, how are you?’ and ‘nice morning, isn’t it?’ are phatic (Oxford English Dictionary).

Family 2.0 – Communication via technology

Prompts via text message, instant message, or an actual mobile call are considered more expedient than face-to-face communication within the household – mobile technology functions as a domestic intercom unit.

Mobile phones function as a family intercom

My daughter was at a birthday party recently, where she regaled me with a tale of how the family logistically came together for the ritual of lighting the candles on the birthday cake. The 14-year-old birthday girl was having a slumber party with 3 of her girlfriends. Her 12-year-old sister also had a friend stay overnight. As the small party of girls gathered around the birthday cake (a beautifully decorated sponge filled with cream), the younger sister was upstairs in her bedroom with her friend. To alert her youngest daughter of the impending candle lighting, the mother picked up her mobile phone and proceeded to call her youngest daughter to tell her to come downstairs.

There was no attempt to call up to her, nor was anyone ordered to go and tell the younger sister to come down. No raised voices, or potential resentment for having to go and collect the missing party members – just a quick call to be told to come downstairs. The mobile telephone offers convenience – never having to yell upstairs, or across rooms! Of course, had the younger sister not answered her mobile phone, then the (old-fashioned) alternatives would undoubtedly be pursued.

Mobiles keeping us together separately?

My teenage stepdaughters, and many friends (parents included) also admit to using their mobiles, or Facebook to alert each other when dinner is ready, or if they have something to tell each other, but cannot be bothered physically moving into the space where the other sister is.  Prompts via text message, instant message, or an actual mobile call are considered more expedient than face-to-face communication within the household – mobile technology functions as a domestic intercom unit. Is there a reliance on mobiles to keep family members connected within their homes?

There has been some research investigating communication behaviour patterns between parents and their teenage children – with a focus on text messaging as the key method of communication. In 2008, a survey conducted by AT&T and Synovate found that 73% of parents think teens are more responsive to text messages than to other forms of communication, and 56% say it makes their children easier to reach. The mobile phone provides an unobtrusive way for families to stay connected throughout the day for purposes of logistical coordination, sending reminders for activities, or letting family members know they are being thought of. I can only assume that the majority of communication examined here was while family members were dispersed between home and other destinations.

More contact equals less togetherness (and more co-dependence)?

This leads me to ponder about the way family members maintain connectedness, and how connected is connected enough? Susan Maushart asked the same question and wrote a book about her journey. In her family, she observed that “the more we seemed to communicate as individuals, the less we seemed to cohere as a family” (p. 6). With the convenience of SMS, IM, email and social networking, we can remain connected with our family members without being with them. On the one hand, this is great – to be able to let family members know what is happening, when you will be home, what’s for dinner or that you are thinking of them. On the other hand, at what point do these messages (examples include: whassup? BBIAB = be back in a bit, E2EG = ear-to-ear grin, where’s the vegemite?) become inane, trivial and irritating? Do these digital exchanges promote loving relationships and enhance family satisfaction? Or do they encourage co-dependence among family members? Also, is the digital contact different for different family structures or contexts? I have noticed (anecdotally) that single parents may inculcate greater dependence via mobile devices as a means for perpetuating contact with their children. The family dynamic (patterns of relating to each other) is different, and as such the technology may be used differently when compared to two-parent households. How does your family maintain  connectedness?

Home is where the hearth is

Digital and media devices seem to permeate our homes, and, given that many of these gadgets or tools are firmly entrenched (and probably taken for granted), how are they changing the way we parent our children? For years the TV (and it has now been around for over half a century) has also been affectionately referred to as ‘the babysitter’ (certainly for much younger children). A search on the Internet will provide ample evidence of the apparent negative consequences of ‘too much TV viewing.’ The argument has raged for many years, and more recently the BBC has alerted us to a report on the longitudinal impact of TV viewing and the likelihood that kids will do poorly at school, among other problems down the track. In Australia, there have been attempts to address some of the issues at government policy level – albeit not without its critics condemning the fantasy associated with implementation.

‘Electronic hearth’ of the home

Of course, we are not just dealing with television are we? We now have mobile phones and smart devices that provide a small screen to view at any time of the day – and not just TV viewing. Movies can be downloaded onto the Ipod Touch, the computer and smart phone; programs can be streamed from any of these media appliances. The TV is the “electronic hearth” of the home (and most lounge/family rooms are testament to the hearth-like nature, where furniture is placed around the TV which acts as a centre for entertainment). Perhaps now it is more of a ‘digital hearth’ combining a variety of media hardware and software, including music, gaming, movies, and printing facilities (for all those photos taken from smart phones). Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect gaming system captures movement with motion sensing controllers via a 3D camera – evolving the electronic hearth into a more active and virtual play space, with movement sensing technology also adding to the electronic hub.

Staying inside

Are Playstations, wii’s and Xboxes lying dormant in houses due to their novelty having worn off? What is the newest gadget that keeps our kids indoors in front of the screen? I am aware that there are parents out there that feel pressured by their children to purchase the latest, newest, most updated device – and some of the kids’ arguments can be compelling: “We will be physically working out on the virtual track!” The wii was very popular for providing a physical workout – until the kids figured out how to use the ‘racquets’ with minimal hand movements! Or the novelty wore off – no longer providing exotic appeal and diminishing in use. The next generation Kinect gaming system is currently selling at a rapid rate, achieving record sales. This lends support to the notion that new and novel technology is highly appealing (see Shiny, Bright New Things post). Are these electronic devices keeping us indoors?

Added to this is parents’ fear of the potential danger to their children if they ‘hang out’ after school. The University of Western Australia conducted a study that found parental anxiety was a barrier to children’s physical activity such as walking or cycling to school and playing at parks. In this context, it is not surprising that we are happy to collude with our children’s desires for virtual games that they can play indoors rather than be outside where it is potentially perilous.

Bubble-wrapped kids

Shifts in Australian family life have led to changes in daily activity and routine, where parents’ perceptions of ‘stranger danger’ are distorted and impact the level of children’s independence and physical activities. Kids become ‘bubble-wrapped.’ In a report on the growing backlash against over-parenting, a link has been identified between the peace and prosperity of the 21st century, the rise of fear and anxiety despite crime statistics decreasing, and parents not letting their kids out of their sight. The percentage of kids walking or biking to school dropped from 41% in 1969 to 13% in 2001 (in the US).

Parents are happy to buy electronic devices as a means of keeping their children safe from the dangers that might be lurking on the streets. I have friends that have bought Xboxes and wii’s for their children, because they would prefer their kids to be active indoors rather than outside where they cannot supervise them (it is unsafe ‘out there’).

Paradoxical dilemma for parents

I began this post with the notion of the TV as babysitter. Now we have other devices taking on the ‘babysitting’ role, or at least entertaining the children until we get home from work. Do we prefer that our kids sit at home in front of the TV, wii or X-Box, rather than actually go outside and play in an ever-increasing dangerous world (even if it is only in our own minds)? Are we increasingly becoming ‘helicopter parents?’ Lenore Skenazy states that ”overparenting is equated to good parenting but by keeping our children from the ‘everydayness’ of life we’ve taken away the chance of them noticing something on their own or interacting with someone on their own.” She shared her story of allowing her 9-year-old son to take the subway home alone, and got lambasted by the media for it. How should parents manage the issue of encouraging independence? Are children acting independently via their digital devices? Is there a difference between roaming the streets and roaming the Internet when it comes to protecting our kids (metaphorically speaking)? I don’t have the answers, but I am trying to give my daughter more freedom to explore the outside world, and encourage her to be more active outdoors (not that she takes it up too often)! How can we regulate the level of electronic activity our kids are involved with when the devices are small and portable? Is our own electronic activity having an impact on the way we interact with our kids? How can we, as parents, dictate boundaries when our own behaviours with technology might be contradicting those we desire in our kids? Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have the capacity to alienate family members from each other and of connecting them – how is the paradox playing out in your families?

Fascinating facts and trends about families and their interactions with technologies

  • At June 2010, 77% of the population aged 14 years and over had access to the internet at home, 40% at work and 15% at locations other than home or work.
  • At June 2010, approximately 89% of Australians aged 14 years and over were estimated to have used the internet at some point in their life.
  • Of those Australians using the internet, the home and work environment remained the most common sites of internet use with 95% of internet users using the internet at home and 46% at their place of work during June 2010.
  • During the month of June 2010, 79% of persons using the internet via a computer went online for communication purposes (email, instant messaging or VoIP), 75% for research and information purposes, 64% for banking and finance related activities and 61% general browsing.
  • There is an ongoing trend to more frequent internet use in Australia – that over the last five years (2005 to 2010), the proportion of heavy internet users (online for more than 15 hours a week) in the Australian population has doubled
  • 95% of all families in Australia have more access to ICTs than any other unit (couples, individuals etc)

Sources of information: ABS 2010; ACMA 2009-10 Report 1: Australia in the digital economy: the shift to the online environment

Source: ACMA Use of electronic media and communications: Early childhood to teenage years (2009) p.1

The above graph demonstrates that TV is still the medium that is used most – but this data does not capture information about streaming of programs as opposed to viewing them in real time. I am also uncertain about whether information is being captured when DVDs or TV shows are being watched in cars and on portable devices in the family context.

What do these research facts tell us?

  • The home has become a busy communication hub, with continuing technological advances making new technology affordable and available, and families adapt and transform these technologies to meet their own purposes.

That the increasing complexity of family interactions in an online environment AND the increasing numbers of information and communication technologies (ICTs) involved in those interactions is changing the way we work, play and relate to each other.

  • The ability to be in multiple places simultaneously redefines ‘togetherness’, and the way we attend to others. For example: If you are chatting to your daughter on the mobile phone, while she is instant messaging her friends – does that constitute family time together? If dad is watching TV with his son, while the son is text messaging his mates – are they spending time together?
  • Email, the Internet, mobile phone, social networking sites, Instant Messaging (IM) and Short Message Service (SMS) texting provide family members a means to communicate and maintain a sense of ‘connectedness’ with each other.
  • Families seem to be living more and more moments ‘on air’ so that virtual family ties co-exist with face-to-face time.
  • Family togetherness becomes disembodied and fragmented; nevertheless, togetherness can be experienced whilst being separate.