Romancing the Phone

I wonder about the way we communicate as couples – whether it is as a familiar long-time married couple or, a couple in a new aspiring romance. What happens to the quixotic nature of romance over time? Do mobile technologies facilitate romantic moments? What and how does it add to a sense of togetherness for a couple in a family? Can text messages kill romance? I do not purport to know the answer to any of these questions specifically – but I am keen to reflect on them….

In the early days of a new romance, the anticipation of any contact can be anxiety provoking; while at the same time it can lift our spirits to places we didn’t know existed. The mobile phone becomes one of the focal points for romantic interaction – messages of yearning, looking forward to the next date, and letting the other person know that they are being thought of. Years later, when we become ensconced in the routine of family life, and the spark of romance is perhaps not ignited as often – what happens to those ‘sweet nothings’ that were once a rich part of the communication diet? What role do mobile technologies play in keeping romance alive in our relationships? Can information and communication technologies (ICTs) contribute to prolonging the honeymoon period, or in accelerating its demise?

Romance pre-Internet and mobile phones:
Before the mobile phone and Internet, what rituals were in place to facilitate the deployment of romantic messages? I recall flowers being sent with a message on a card, handwritten messages or letters declaring affection and illuminating positive attributes about the recipient. Other gestures include: handwritten poetry, a ‘mix-tape’ of favourite songs, post-it notes on the fridge, or a love letter in the lunchbox. Chocolatiers and florists were important in the earliest phase of romance. The old-fashioned answering machine attached to the telephone also provided a means of leaving a message for your loved one to hear (but you had to manually rewind the tape on the machine as remote message access was not available). We used to live in an age where the majority of households did not have telephones – and to pursue an intimate tête-à-tête with a loved one, private calls would be made in public telephone booths (though the smell of urine and vile graffiti was highly incongruent with the feelings of romance associated with such a call).

Communicating in the age of mobile connectivity:

A survey conducted by AT&T to gain insight into how text messaging is being used in the modern dating scene, found that 68% of texters admitted to sending a love note via text messaging, 67% have used text messaging to flirt, and 28% text at least three times a day with their spouse or significant other. Also, 52% of texters stated that “thinking of you” messages are the most common text types received from a date or partner.

Here is a list of the most common text message expressions of affection:
• I LUV U
• MISS U
• THINKIN BOUT U
• DINNER 2NITE?
• HEY BEAUTIFUL
• UR CUTE
• XOXO
• MUAH!

Simple? Yes. Eloquent? Well… something seems to be lost in the brevity of text-speak, but perhaps I am old-fashioned? Though I must admit, I utilise the mobile phone for the purpose of letting the recipient know that I am thinking of them: my daughter on her first day back at school; my partner at his new job; friends that I have not had any contact with for a while. It gives me the illusion of the benefit of immediacy – a shorthand version of a quick conversation that I don’t have time to make. I say ‘illusion’ because the receiver may not get (or read) the message immediately (and there have been times when ‘said message’ claims to have been sent by my phone, but does not make it to the inbox of the intended beneficiary)! However, when all technologies, interactions, time and space issues conspire successfully – a feeling of ‘connectedness’ or ‘cohesion’ with a loved one ensues.

Mediated interactions and connected presence:

Researchers and theorists acknowledge that these little communiqués are part of a tapestry of mundane interactions of which social (or family) cohesion is constructed and preserved. Erving Goffman introduced the idea that we extemporise our everyday sense of social order via small individually authored interaction rituals. These ‘mediated interactions’ using the mobile phone facilitate everyday connectedness and a sense of familial cohesion. Rich Ling argues that social cohesion is advanced by mobile communication due to enabling interactions beyond copresent situations by supporting ‘virtual connected presence’ (in other words, we don’t have to be physically present to be ‘present’). In terms of new technologies, mediated communication and relationship development, there have long been conflicting schools of thought. It is contended that new technologies have ‘double lives’ of positive and negative consequences – where on the one hand computer-mediated communication (CMC) is viewed as shallow and superficial, and on the other, it frees relationships from the confines of physical locality by changing the locus of communication and interaction. Given estimates that over 5 billion text messages are sent via mobiles per day – it is clearly a part of our daily interactions.

Once upon a time (in the age prior to mobile devices) we walked alone in the world – without any technology enabling perpetual contact. When I talk to research participants now, especially older teens, the prospect of being without their mobile is outrageous – many keep their phones on them at all times. In fact, the look on their faces when I ask them if they ever turn off their phone is one of incredulity – how could I even consider asking? Why would we ever need to turn it off? Ruth Rettie asserts that conceptually the mobile phone is linked to the idea of connectedness – and that this is the paradigm of mobile phone usage.

In terms of my original questions regarding mobile technologies and romance, it seems that there is a case for the affirmative – mobile communication provides a channel of interaction that:

  • facilitates degrees of micro-coordination – organising dates, times, meeting places
  • enables expressions of affection and phatic communication – by exchanging endearments at strategic times of the day; or text messages in anticipation of an event
  • and it can extend the interaction between lovers – according to Rich Ling, actual interaction and anticipation extends beyond copresence, and plays out over a longer time period (before and after the core event)
  • fosters increased impulsivity in calls and messages, which can nurture  intimacy, spontaneity and excitement

Of course, there is a flip side where these positives can go awry due to misunderstood messages, or unexpected events…. What do you think about mobile communication and romance?

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.

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.

Shiny, bright new things

As we demand to have the next, newest, more shiny brighter version of the thing we had before, (iphone 4, 4G, new generation iPad, Android technology, etc), what are the emotions attached to the ‘old’ thing? Is it contempt or disappointment because it has become slow and obsolete (and so quickly)? Each newer generational ‘thing’ has better inbuilt processing, more power, is smaller to carry, comes in a variety of colours and shapes, and can clean your house and prepare your evening meal (I wish) too! Once upon a time we had the same TV or fridge for over 20 years (okay – I had a Westinghouse fridge that was my parents’ before it became mine, until it imploded at 35 years – a very good innings). Now we seem to replace our technology at regular intervals.

Teens and mobile devices

Children may misplace their mobile phones, and while parents wait a few weeks to see if it will turn up, they are resigned to the fact that it will be replaced with a new one. In my own research so far, all the families have experienced the ‘missing mobile’ by one of their teens. One teen claimed the dog ate her phone! Another 13-year-old teen took her brand new Blackberry to the beach and swam with it. Only when she had to call her parents to pick her up, did she realise that her smart phone was missing (still swimming without her)! Similar instances occur with gaming apparatus, digital cameras, and mp3 players. I have also heard stories from teens about their own desire for newer, better phones and how they purposely ‘misplace’ or destroy their unwanted device in order to get an updated one.

Nostalgia for the old?

It seems that there is little or no nostalgia associated to our technological gadgets. Marketing departments perpetuate the need for the new – and yet, some of the old stuff does become valuable (eventually). Our children have enormous influence over our purchase decisions, and this has an impact on the moral economy of the household. We are encouraged to dispose of our unused technology (for the potential harm caused to the environment) – there is no room for nostalgic mementos in this context.

This sparks a memory associated with a Dr Seuss story: The Lorax, where the Once-ler developed the “thneed” which is a fine something-that-all-people-need! It’s a shirt. It’s a sock. It’s a glove! It’s a hat! But it has other uses, yes, far beyond that. You can use it for carpets, for pillows, for sheets, for curtains! Or covers for bicycle seats!

“I meant no harm. I most truly did not.

But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got.

I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads.

I biggered my wagons. I biggered the loads

of the Thneeds I shipped out. I was shipping them forth

to the South! To the East! To the West! To the North!

I went right on biggering … selling more Thneeds.

And I biggered my money, which everyone needs.”

And again it seems that history repeats…………

A very short story on the history of technology acceptance

Looking at my surroundings while attempting to work, I was struck by the titles of some of the books on the shelves (otherwise known as my library) in my study (which is an ode to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, where I am able to contemplate all things). Obviously these books are related to the field of my research, but take a look and see what comes to mind…

Alone Together – Sherry Turkle
The Second Self – Sherry Turkle
New Tech, New Ties – Rich Ling
Distracted – Maggie Jackson
Cyburbia – James Harkin
The Winter of Our Disconnect – Susan Maushart
Hamlet’s Blackberry – William Powers
The Wired Homestead – Turow & Kavanaugh
Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out – Ito, Baumer, Bittanti, et al
Modern Media in the Home – Mackay & Ivey
Enough – John Naish
The Shallows – Nicholas Carr
The Dumbest Generation – Mark Bauerlein
Amusing Ourselves to Death – Neil Postman

All except Neil Postman’s 1985 book were published between 2003 and 2011. What do the titles of these books suggest to us about human interaction? Do they strike you as ebulliently positive? Are they steeped in existential ponderings about how humans ‘be’ in the modern techno-filled world? What is the overriding theme espoused? Is there any hope? Are we communicating more, or less, or just differently? Where did it start, and does it have an end?

A Brief Historical Perspective
Developed in the 1830s the telegraph was considered an innovative and new communications technology that allowed people to correspond across vast distances. It was considered to be:

“A worldwide communications network whose cables spanned continents and oceans, it revolutionized business practice, gave rise to new forms of crime, and inundated its users with a deluge of information. Romances blossomed over the wires. Secret codes were devised by some users and cracked by others. The benefits of the network were relentlessly hyped by its advocates and dismissed by the skeptics. Governments and regulators tried and failed to control the new medium. Attitudes toward everything from newsgathering to diplomacy had to be completely rethought. Meanwhile, out on the wires, a technological subculture with its own customs and vocabulary was establishing itself.” (The Victorian Internet, Standage, 1998)

Moral panic
Ten years after its introduction, the telephone was invented, creating more hype, fear and conflicting emotions about the possible effects on society, and more importantly, the family. Telephones would make people lazy according to some – and that face-to-face communication would decline. The same utopian and dystopian views were championed with the launch of the horseless carriage, the wireless radio, the television, and, it would seem, every new technological innovation.

“Utopian statements which idealised the new medium as an ultimate expression of technological and social progress were met by equally dystopian discourses which warned of (its) devastating effects on family relationships and the efficient functioning of the household” (Spigel 1992, p. 3). While Spigel was referring to the medium of television, the same can be said for most new media and ICTs – each new medium brings with it a concomitant moral panic about its potential social and familial effects.

Is history on continual repeat?