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).

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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?

Teens, parties and Facebook

 

It is my daughter’s birthday next week and this has led me to thinking: what is the best way to celebrate a teenage birthday? Do we have a big bash and invite all of her friends for a party during the school holidays? Is it too late to get invitations out to ensure people attend? What is considered a ‘successful’ party? What if no one shows up? Do we use Facebook to alert and invite friends to a birthday event? Does she want a big party – or can it wait until her 16th?

How do teens want to celebrate their birthdays at 13, 14, or 15 years of age? In our case it will be an intimate event with family and a few friends, and undoubtedly celebrated over a few days (or weeks). At what point does the desire for a smashing party kick in? Is it at 16 (sweet or not)? Is home the ideal venue, a restaurant or scout/public hall? Do family members get an invite – or are they too uncool? How many people should be invited: 2, 2,000 or 200,000? How does social media change the way a party is arranged?

Last month a 15-year-old girl in Sydney’s north shore (known as ‘Jess’) was grappling with such a dilemma. Jess posted an invitation for her 16th birthday party on her Facebook page. According to a news report she wanted her school friends to come, and they could bring their friends too. In her haste she created an ‘open invitation’ included her home address and phone details, and hoped for a better outcome than the year before where only 2 guests attended her party. Within 24 hours she received 20,000 responses accepting the invitation, where she promptly shut the event down!

Viral party invitation
Unfortunately for Jess, someone re-activated her invitation (as a fake event) and it went viral, attracting almost 200,000 acceptances. The police were notified, the party cancelled, a public announcement made regarding the hoax, and her Facebook profile has been wiped. What started out as an innocent invitation to a 16 year-old girl’s party, turned into an out-of-control event of massive proportions. No individual wants a dud party, but they also don’t want a cancelled one either!

 

Facebook use: a lesson in social media use 
Parents are not always aware of their kids’ Facebook activities – but rather than ban them altogether (and turning social media into forbidden fruit that is all too tempting to access illicitly) – it is critical to educate our kids about privacy settings. Moreover, it is imperative for all of us to keep up-to-date with these settings, as they are constantly changing. Complacency is not an option (no matter how attractive)!

Communication is the key – even if our kids are not our ‘Facebook friends’ that should not be a barrier to good old-fashioned face-to-face communication. I think it is important to talk to our kids to try to find out what they are discovering via social media. In my research I am finding divergent philosophies regarding Internet use. Not all parents have Facebook accounts and thus no precondition of ‘friendship’ with their kids. However, these families appear to have open communication and trust inherent in their interactions. Also the parents believe that self-regulation is the best method for developing responsible teens. Others regulate the Internet via parental control software to ensure late night Internet activity is prohibited (self-regulation is difficult when some kids have no “off button”)!

There does not seem to be a definitive ‘best way’ of doing things – it will depend on the personality of the kids, the style of parenting we employ, and numerous other variables. What lessons can you share?

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?

Teens, technology and sharing information

Isn’t it funny when we as parents, or researchers, ask a young person, that is, adolescent, teenager, or young adult, what they think of all the new technology that is available? They look bewildered (or is that frustrated?), roll their eyes and remind us that there is nothing unusual in their experience – it is normal! Normal to have a Facebook account (Myspace lost its status as ‘cool’ very early); to Google for information regarding any query; to download music and videos; and ultimately to have an online presence and identity. But perhaps most significantly, it is normal behaviour to share information in the digital world.

Digital Footprints

When my daughter has her 21st birthday party (and it is still some years away yet) the advantage of digital technology is that I will be able to find a vast array of embarrassing moments at the click of a mouse, or finger swipe across a screen! All those digital images add up to a significant digital footprint.

In a poll conducted by AVG last year, the following information about digital downloads/uploads of images of very young children was ascertained:

1 – The average age at which a child acquires an online presence courtesy of their parents is at six months, and by the time they are two 81% of children have some kind of ‘digital footprint’.
2 – A third (33%) of children have had images posted online from birth
3 – A quarter (23%) of children have even had their pre-birth scans uploaded to the Internet by their parents
4 – Seven per cent (7%) of babies have even had an email address created for them by their parents
5 – More than 70% of mothers said they posted baby and toddler images online to share with friends and family

See: AVG Blogs | J.R. Smith http://jrsmith.blog.avg.com/2010/10/would-you-want-a-digital-footprint-from-birth.html#ixzz1ErsaHZYx

Unlike footprints in the sand, our digital footprints leave a trace that is not necessarily washed away – I am uncertain about whether this is something that we need to be concerned about. I have noticed that many parents create online profiles of their very young children on social networking sites as a means of sharing precious moments. Rather than being placed in private family photo albums, they are distributed in the public domain. It seems to be standard practice to share photographic memories online. It starts early, and then teens continue to interact, connect, play, explore, learn and communicate in the digital world. It is normal for these kids to post pictures of themselves in a variety of situations. It will make locating those amusing pictures for the purpose of celebrating a rite of passage into adulthood all the more trouble-free.

The Dilemma of the Digital Parent

In an age where digital devices proliferate, how is it changing the way we parent our children? Being a parent requires amazing skills including (but not limited to) being well versed in: management techniques, logistics, creativity, sociability, consultation, culinary endeavours, counselling, as well as dexterity, tolerance, having medical expertise (or at least basic nursing abilities), pragmatics and general knowledge. Factor in balancing work obligations, social connections and maintaining a home life – is it any wonder parents find  escape in their Facebook accounts, tweets and texts? The very same thing that they complain their kids do too much of!

Sherry Turkle has recently published a book ‘Alone Together’ that investigates parental use of technology and how it affects our children. Her study was conducted over 5 years, with 300 interviews of various family members. What she has surmised is that children often feel hurt, jealousy, and competition for attention. The difference in our communication with our kids can be influenced by whether our devices are switched on or off.

As parents we have often complained about the tunnel vision that our children get when in front of a screen (and screens are now as small as the palm of our hands). But we neglect to look at our own behaviour when it comes to digital technology. Are we (as parents) as addicted to our technology and the  connections provided as our kids? Is future family togetherness to be mediated by texts, tweets and social network status updates? Are we becoming less present to our kids?

Here’s an interesting quiz to determine your digital parenting style:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/resources/parents/#b2ans

This was my result on the Protection-Empowerment scale: Although you are concerned with protection, it is more important to you to empower your child and his or her use of digital media. You find ways to get involved and increase the benefits of digital media. You recommend Web sites to your child and suggest age appropriate ways for him or her to participate online.

 

Taking our technology from home and on holiday

Once upon a time information and communication technologies (ICTs) were unfamiliar and mysterious to us, simultaneously exciting and threatening. Over time, and with experimentation, our experience and confidence with it has increased. Now technology is like a family pet – a ‘domesticated animal’ and part of our everyday lives. It is familiar to us, it no longer holds exotic appeal, and is just a part of the mundane family routine.

 Our homes are filled with a plethora of technological devices including multiple television sets, personal computers, digital music players, fixed and mobile telephones, fax machines, DVD players and electronic game consoles – the family home is a communication hub, enabling family members to perform many activities in a variety of times and spaces. In many cases, the home is better equipped than our offices and work places! The Australian Media and Communication Authority (ACMA) has published numerous reports supporting the notion of ‘media rich’ family homes. It has been found that socio-economic and demographic characteristics, such as household income, parent education, whether we are couples, or single parents, or where we are located, are not barriers to accessing electronic media (at least in Australia). Some of the statistics and trends include:

  •  As at June 2010, approximately 89% of Australians aged 14 years and over were estimated to have used the Internet as some point in their life (ACMA Communications Report 2009-2010):
  • Of those Australians using the Internet, the home and work environment remained the most common sites of Internet use, with 95% of Internet use being at home, and 46% of Internet use at work (ACMA 2010)
  • Teens and young adults are the heaviest (online more than 15 hours per week) Internet users
  • We are increasingly accessing the Internet via mobile devices
  • Technological advances make new technology affordable and available – and families adapt and transform these technologies to meet their own purposes
  • Technology inhabits numerous sites in the home and in multiple quantities, pervading every nook in the domestic realm

 It is clear that our homes are embedded with technological devices – from the humble TV to complex home theatres; a dinosaur desktop computer to small laptops and tablet technology. Communicating, research, shopping, banking, entertainment and distractions are a click or finger swipe away.

 What happens when we leave the comfort of home? In our everyday lives we have access to wireless mobility via smart phones and other portable devices. Is this having an impact on how we spend our time? Could it be changing our habits and behaviours when we take a family outing or holiday?

 The summer holiday period has recently come to an end – a good time to reflect on what we did, how we did it, and what we managed to live without! I was able to take a few days away in Queensland (before the floods) and spend a few glorious days on the beach at Labrador. I am one of those people that prefer to be as unencumbered as possible when at the beach – so you generally won’t be able to contact me via mobile phone when I am enjoying the sun, sand, and surf. However, I wonder if I am in a minority – many people appeared to have their phones with them at the beach. Given that our mobiles are multi-functional devices, this is not surprising – we can take a photo of a great moment, keep in touch with loved ones, and send our bosses emails too (although that idea tends to negate the concept of being on holiday). However, remaining ‘connected’ via mobile devices on family outings appears to affect the quality of our interactions.

 What I observed in this beach environment were groups of mothers with their toddlers arranging themselves to have instant access to their Iphones or Blackberries (or other smart phones). Some of the mum’s did not let go of their phones for the duration of their beach stay. They were either talking on their phone, texting, or scrolling through information. At no point did they enter the water, or appear to play with their toddlers – always maintaining one hand and full eye contact with their smart screens. One toddler begged her mother for attention while the mother kept one hand on the phone, eyes locked on the screen, and the other hand was waving beckoningly in the air as if to convey “see, I am paying attention…watch the hand.” There were other parents that were more involved with their children, engaging in water play, sandcastle building and the locating of hermit crabs. Mobile phones were not in-hand, but when a ringtone was heard, play would be paused for the call to be answered, until the call was over. Reports in the media are surfacing about the ‘chronic media distraction’ that parents are suffering from by being stuck in the Blacberry zone  or continuously plugged in. Whilst at the beach, are we searching, scrolling and sending rather than slipping, slopping and slapping?

 I also spent some time on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, meandering my way through the foreshore of Rye and Rosebud. I walked through the camping grounds and saw some amazing setups that were the campers’ equivalent of the Taj Mahal. Many sites had their own TVs (that were left on, while the campers were out – same media habits, different location); most had radios/CD players, some had DVD players, laptops and numerous portable digital devices. The comforts of home can still be enjoyed while camping. Many holiday destinations offer wi fi connectivity – so we never have to miss out on Facebook updates, emails or our favourite TV shows. The mobile phone offers a great alternative to the baby monitoring device (though our babies are now teens – and they do not always respond to our prompts for information or attention)!

A lot of interpersonal interaction is being displaced by instant messaging (IM) or phone text-messages (SMS). This means that our intimate family conversations have a digital afterlife – I do not know what the implications of this phenomenon might be – other than the prospect of having traces of past conversations cut and paste to create new meanings in different contexts. Will we censor ourselves more? This is an entirely different topic that I will pursue in a future blog. In the meantime, I simply wanted to share some of my observations (and some of the photographs I took associated with them). It would be great to hear what other people have seen, heard or experienced in relation to family interactions, technology and being on holiday.