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?

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:

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.


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.