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?

The challenge of recruiting families for research

Recruiting families for research:

It’s not easy finding families that are willing to participate in my research project. Only a very small percentage put their hand up to take part – and not all of those that want to be involved fit my selection criteria (with kids 12-17 years). One family that identified themselves as a step-family with an 18-year-old step-daughter was keen on sharing their experience. Another two-parent family with 14, 18 and 19-year-old kids all living at home, with their kids allegedly surgically attached to their laptops, have also responded to my recruiting call – but they are just outside of my desired parameters!

 It would be nice if I could recruit families within my wish list, but I think I will need to be flexible and extend my criteria upwards to accept the older teens (as it will be more difficult to get ethics approval to accept kids at the lower end – below 12 years of age). Then there is the problem of geographical distance. I have 2 other willing families that live 50 kms away from where I live – which takes the study out of the inner-Melbourne region (in terms of keeping the sample contained) and the logistics of getting to and from the household with ease is problematic. Perhaps it might be worth staying at these families’ houses for a week as a way of fully immersing myself in their everyday lives (this would need to be approved by them, of course).

How to recruit?

In the first instance I have contacted friends via email with information about my research, so that they can send it to the friends that they think might be interested in participating. So far I have received three responses from my friends alerting me to their actions (that they passed on the details)! Of those leads I have had two families offer their potential participation. So it seems my own friends have not provided the deluge of family participants I was hoping for!

 Then I decided to access some of the networks I belong to at RMIT University. A lot of my colleagues do not necessarily have children in the age range that I require, or friends with children 12 to 17 years! Of those that do, one actually offered me up names of people to follow-up without first introducing these families to me or my research project. This was akin to cold calling, and the referral process is an important aspect that helps the family be more open to the idea of at least listening to the research proposal. The connecting referral is critical in making the link between me and the research family. In another university network, a colleague put out an email to some of their friends, to which one responded immediately! I made contact with the mother of the family, spoke about the nature of the project, and she has agreed (on behalf of her family) to participate.

I have also tried to use Facebook to recruit some families – accessing some of the friends of friends’ networks. A few weeks ago I instant messaged a friend of a friend via Facebook. She is a sole parent with two teenage children. When I asked if she might be interested in participating in my research with a very brief outline, she said she would be happy to participate. After a little bit of ‘telephone tag’ I noticed that she was online on Facebook, and I took the opportunity to ‘instant message’ her to make contact. I was able to call her (on a landline telephone) to discuss her family’s potential participation. It turned out that she was fine with me interviewing her, but was uncomfortable about me participant-observing her family. After explaining that the observations were not clinical in nature, although they might feel intrusive, but would be negotiated and controlled by her, she declined. I was welcome to speak with her, and her kids (if they were willing) about their technology use, but she did not want her family to be part of my research. Which of course is absolutely fine. All families have the option of declining, or, if they do agree to be part of the research, they can quit at any time.

 Would I participate if I was asked?

This got me thinking: how willing would I be to have my family investigated by a relatively unknown researcher? If I knew the person that was referring the researcher, then I would certainly be more receptive to the idea. But that in itself would not be enough to for me to agree. I would need to be interested in the actual research topic. In this case though, it is not just me – I would also need to engage my family members, and given we are all intensely private individuals, this could be the biggest hurdle – gaining family members’ acquiescence! I would have to ‘pitch’ the project to my family members. I might be successful in gaining consent, but I would have to present some convincing arguments about why it would be good to participate. There is no financial or any other type of reward being offered – I would have to appeal to their own needs for improved insight into their own behaviours regarding technology and communication. Here are some other reasons that might help convince my family members to commit:

  • It might be fun.
  • We will be contributing to the completion of someone’s research.
  • We would be helping the researcher and/or university to improve knowledge in the field.
  • We might learn something! (About ourselves, about research processes, or about technology)
  • It would be a creative family project.
  • We will get to express what we think and feel about media and technologies and be listened to!
  • One day we might need to conduct research and recruit participants – there is research karma involved!
  • Because while we are being observed as a family, we can observe the researcher!
  • We’re doing it because I said so!

 These are just a few of the possibilities – perhaps you can come up with some more!

 I’d like to believe that I would be able to convince my own family to participate in a research project like my own. And these days I do find myself agreeing to partake in focus groups or online surveys, because I know the difficulties in getting people to engage in research!

It’s a slow process, and so far I am still completing my pilot study with the pilot family, and have three other families that have agreed to participate. Only eight more to go! So, if you are willing to participate, or know of families that might be interested, please feel free to pass on this information and get in touch with me.

About my PhD

Welcome to my blog that explores the world of families and their use of media technologies! I am curious about how, and in what way technologies (such as Internet, mobile phones and even the television) shape our activities, and in turn, how those activities shape the use of technologies. Sounds complicated, but really I am identifying the fact that when we introduce a new media device into our home, it is novel and exciting. While we become familiar with the functionality and exotic applications of some devices, it can feel like the technology takes over our lives. In time though, we take control of the device and sometimes find completely new ways of using it (we take control over it)!

PhD Project

What am I doing?

I am currently working on a PhD research project that looks at how Australian (Melbourne) families interact with each other using the Internet, mobile phones and television. My purpose is to gain understanding of how these technologies are used in the home, and to gain insight into the dynamic interplay between families and technology use in their everyday activities. The focus is on how technologies facilitate the ways in which family members communicate and spend time with each other. At the moment, there is little consensus about how technologies affect family life and relationships – my aim is to cast some light on the area. This project is supported by the Smart Services Co-operative Research Centre, and is being conducted through RMIT University’s Graduate School of Business and Law.

Who can participate?

During 2010 and 2011 I will be recruiting families that wish to be involved in my research project. I am seeking families with children between the ages of 12 to 18 years. I am looking for a range of family situations such as intact families, single parent families, blended or step-families that live in the Melbourne metropolitan area.

What’s in it for me?

Ultimately you will be helping me gain a better understanding of the way Australian families interact with technology in the current environment and its consequences in shaping family activities. You will assist me in developing an updated snapshot of how communication technologies are used in the home and how these technologies affect, and are affected by, family members in their everyday activities. The research will offer information regarding the use of current technology, and identify potential needs that will benefit future technology development. Your input will also help Smart Services CRC who work with a range of government and industry partners to develop potential innovations and improvements. You will be contributing to important research, and there will be reports and papers generated from this research that you can obtain copies of, should you desire.

What’s in it for you?

Your family will get the opportunity to examine and reflect on your own technology use. You may find your research involvement thought-provoking, stimulating and fun, and that doing the research activities becomes an engaging shared family experience. It might generate a lot of thought about issues that come up, with the possibility of reflecting on identified issues as an individual, and within the family context. Most importantly you will be contributing to research that provides significant and valuable insights into how Australian families are using communication technologies, and the way technologies shape family activities.

I have a family with teens – what would I need to do?

If your family agrees to participate, you will be visited by me on a number of agreed occasions for interviews with all family members (together and separately). Some of these visits will be for formal in-depth interviews, and some will be more casual and relaxed. I will begin with a general discussion with the family, in which you will be asked some basic facts about yourself, and about your use of technologies.

Your family will be asked to monitor their use of technologies over a period of 4 weeks. You will be given a Research Kit that will provide some fun and interactive ways to do this. For example, you may take digital snapshots of family moments with technology! During the research period, I will be observing your family (at agreed times) whilst engaged in activities using technologies. Your family will also be asked to complete a questionnaire about family closeness that will take up to 15 minutes for each family member to complete.

How do I get involved?

If you would like to become involved in the project, you can contact me via email at or call me at RMIT University on 9925-1600. I will send you a project information pack and set up a time where I can meet with you and your family to discuss your participation, or answer any questions you might have.

You can also download a copy of the flyer for the project.