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?

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.

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…………

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.

 

Parenting in the Facebook Age

With over 500 million users (Facebook statistics), Facebook is clearly embraced worldwide. The social networking site is increasingly prevalent in of the world of families, and becoming more of a parental concern. A survey by AOL (AOL survey 2010) alerts us to the fact that teens using Facebook do not personally know all the friends they have accepted. When you look at some of the figures in terms of the sheer number of ‘friends’ some of these teenagers have got – I wonder if it is possible to know them all? My stepdaughters at 13 and 15 years of age have almost 400, and over 700 ‘friends’ respectively (and these figures do not remain static). My own daughter presents the polar opposite experience: she has no Facebook friends – she absolutely refuses to start a Facebook account (and let me be honest here, there is a part of me that is very proud and supportive of her social networking rebellion – LOL).

I hear stories from some of the teens that I have researched, and from conversations with my own daughter’s friends about how they use the social networking site. Part of the use is related to filling in time – ‘doing something while there is nothing to do.’ Or having it on in the background – an ambient reminder that they are connected to other folk that are also doing homework, listening to music, and stalking their favourite friends (or ex-friends) on Facebook! The main reason underlying the activity is to be connected to their peers (or at least avoid being ostracised); remaining in the loop; and keeping up with what is going on at all times. Is there also a social imperative to accumulate as many friends as possible?

Is this what social networking is about for teens – connecting with as many people as possible? There is no ubiquitous response to such a question. Every individual’s experience is unique – but there are emerging patterns. According to Facebook statistics the average number of friends per person is 130. For teens this figure can go much higher.

When I talk to kids about Facebook, one of their first questions to me is: “How many friends do you have?” When I announce that I have fewer than 100, I can see them rolling their eyes (as I have exposed my ‘loser’ status due to my apparent lack of friends). I candidly inform them that I have declined numerous friend requests (and I admitted to ‘unfriending’ a few, thus making my list even smaller; and then there are those that ‘unfriend’ me). They look at me incredulously and ask, “Why would you do that?” And I tell them that I prefer to connect with people who I actually know, and am not merely distantly acquainted with (among other reasons). This seems counter-intuitive to their own need to collect as many friends as possible to develop a superior (revered?) status among their peers.

I cannot imagine knowing such a vast number of people – certainly not as ‘friends.’ Though I can attest to ‘knowing’ a considerable quantity of people, due to the nature of my work – teaching and researching at a university exposes you to hundreds of students, staff and other colleagues. I could also include all the people I went to primary school with, high school, and university (undergrad and postgrad). Are they my friends on Facebook? No. I am not even a Facebook friend with my PhD supervisor – that would be too much like being friends with a parent (and my own parents are not at all interested in joining the Facebook revolution)! But that is my unique experience. The teen experience according to the AOL/Nielsen survey was that over half of them claimed they did not personally know all of their Facebook friends, while the parents knew half or less of their kids friends online.

Clearly parents are concerned about the Facebook phenomenon. The AOL survey identified that 70% of parents are friends with their kids on Facebook. However, almost a third of teens desired to ‘unfriend’ their parents, with twice as many teens wanting to ditch mum as a friend rather than dad (although mum is more likely to have a Facebook profile than dad). For 41% of teens, getting access to Facebook was conditional on being mum’s ‘friend.’ The study was jointly conducted with Nielsen and surveyed over 1,000 parents, and 500 children between the ages 13 to 17 years in an online poll. The remaining 59% is what I wonder about? Do their parents know that they are on Facebook? If 30% of teens want to ‘unfriend’ their parents, can we assume there are 70% of teens that are content with the status quo? There are cases where the child requests the friendship of the parent, and that of the parents’ friends. This could be a strategic move to populate the friend list quickly.

While teens are exploring their identity and gaining independence via social networking sites, having parents monitor their actions can be a disincentive to post inappropriate comments. Alternatively, Facebook provides a window to information that is otherwise unknown to parents. “I didn’t know my son was in a relationship until I saw that his Facebook status had changed” said one parent to me about being ‘friends’ with their son. The ‘friending’ issue has stimulated the production of a variety of sites including http://www.myparentsjoinedfacebook.com, that receive numerous examples from teens (and others’), about embarrassing comments posted by parents on their Facebook pages. There is even a YouTube video on the topic: My mum’s on Facebook! which has received over 1.2 million views! The web also provides information on parenting issues: Facebook tips for parents.

So what is a modern-day parent to do? Is Facebook a phase that your teen will grow out of (and how many years will it last)? Or will they move to tweeting?