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.

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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?

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.

Family 2.0 Communication

‘Family version 2.0’ is utlising omnipresent media and technology to enable the management of busy households, and to negotiate and mediate between traditional and modern family values.

Research commissioned by Yahoo and OMD in 2006:  It’s a Family Affair: the Media Evolution of Global Families in a Digital Age investigated how family life is enhanced by today’s technology. The research project combined results from polling more than 4,500 online families in 16 countries with in-home interviews and scrapbooks tracking media and technology usage by families in seven countries. Consistent global themes include a revival in traditional values, and an acknowledgment that the “always on” nature of technology emphasises the need to also focus on low-tech activities such as playing board games and dining together. Does this mean that families might be doing more activities together, albeit at times separately? Even traditional board games are available as ‘apps’ on the iPad or smart phones – you don’t need to be in the same room to make your moves on the board. In fact, I noticed a young man (late teens/early twenties) with his girlfriend, while waiting for a take away meal (to have dinner with my family) take out his Iphone from his back pocket intermittently during the 20 minute wait. I was sitting beside him and saw that he was making a move on a Backgammon board via his screen – clearly playing a game with someone else. It has been some years since I last played Backgammon – and was delighted at the idea that it is still being played electronically (though I can’t imagine rolling the dice via a phone is nearly as exciting as the real thing – but I’m old fashioned that way)!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Technology enhances communication
The Yahoo study found that parents and children, far from being divided by technological advances, were actually taking control of that technology and simultaneously integrating it, using it to increase control of their own lives. Seventy percent of respondents said that technology allowed them to stay in better touch with family. Mobile phones are a means of communication for 29 percent of families, and instant messaging for 25 percent.

And in my own research this finding is being echoed – that mobile devices aid communication in the family context. These devices are also increasing the amount of activities that we are doing at any one time.

The 43 hour day

By combining previously individual pursuits such as watching the TV, surfing the internet, using email and listening to MP3s all in the same room at the same time, the survey claims that families are reporting up to 43 hours of daily activities in each 24 hour period. Multi-tasking extends our daily activities – we pack a lot more into our time (whether this is quality time spent will be discussed in a future blog).

The Yahoo/OMD study was conducted 5 years ago, and a lot can happen in that time.  The picture of Family 2.0 is a paradoxical portrait – where it seems families are more connected due to technology, but spending time apart doing things together. I will provide greater detail to that picture in future blogs.

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.

 

How are families spending their time?

According to a study by coca-cola (Coca-Cola Happiness Barometer May 2010: http://openhappiness.digitalnewsagency.com) the greatest source of happiness is human rather than virtual interaction. It goes on to specify that real world contact with family and partners provides a greater source of joy for 77% of respondents than virtual alternatives. The study investigated 16 countries (of which Australia was not one of them), and found that the top five happiest countries are:
1. Mexico
2. Philippines
3. Argentina
4. South Africa and
5. Romania.

Catching up with loved ones in the evening rated highly for 39%, and eating with the family was also considered a source of pleasure for 22% of surveyed respondents. So what does this actually mean? While we may prefer to spend face-to-face time together, this does not necessarily translate into actual time spent together. In a report cited in theage.com.au in April 21, 2009, it was claimed that 22% of Australian families eat together four times or less per week. This report was prepared for Continental in 2008 (Because Family Mealtimes Matter). This study found that 60% of families always, or often, have the TV on during meals.

Perhaps all the families surveyed had teenagers! Teens have a natural inclination to separate from the family and pursue their own lives – it is a biological and developmental imperative (and one that I most avidly remember acting out of). Nevertheless, there is a desire for togetherness, and the family meal helps facilitate this (even if dad is checking his blackberry for messages from the office, mum is checking her emails, and the kids are either on facebook giving the family meal a review, or texting friends about meeting up after dinner, while at the table).

It would appear that we are spending more time with online media (ACMA – Trends in media use by children and young people …). Potentially more so now, given that our mobile devices are capable of providing access to a variety of media: from TV programs, music, YouTube, to facebook and twitter (provided you have a smart phone)! How are we spending our time? If technology is making our lives easier, and enabling us to work from home – does that mean we are doing more work at home? How much time do we spend with our families? It certainly feels like there is not enough hours in the day – but there is research that states that we are actually spending more time with our children than our parents before us (Surprisingly, time spent with family has grown).

There is much contradictory information – and not enough about what is happening in Australian families. This is why I am attempting to make a difference, by addressing the knowledge gap. I am trying to find out how families are interacting together.