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Technology at the service of maintaining relationships


By Juliano Oliveira

A child is playing with a technology device at the dinner table. Such an image might chills parents around the world. 

That is not the case of Susan Abel, mother of three and University of Southern Queensland PhD student. Her research is being fundamental to demonstrate the role of social media and technology in a long-distance family relationship.

“Families who are geographically separated – whether that’s a parent who is a fly-in-fly-out worker or a child who is attending boarding school – still want to maintain and nourish their relationships despite not sharing the same physical space,” Ms Abel said.

“My research is taking a closer look at the patterns of social media use by long-distance families and what practices are engaged in over social media.”

Rituals and simple routines of sending a message at the same time each day were essential to the families, what aroused commitment and adaptability.

“Families who live together can make new shared experiences to integrate into their stories. For those who are apart, relying on the same questions and answers at the same time every day can be comforting but runs the risk of becoming mundane,” she said.

“Social media gives separated family members the chance to offer virtual ‘taps on the shoulder’ to remind their loved ones their relationship is important, whether that’s by reacting to a photo on Facebook or a sending a message containing an emoji.”

One finding made by Ms Abel is that when family members are away from loved ones for a long time, there is a tendency to become overly optimistic, hiding bad news not to make the other person worry.

“However, forced positivity and withholding of information can often result in a weakened relationship because of the lack of open communication.”

Ms Abel said the need to understand social media’s role in maintaining relationships among long-distance families had become critical considering the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic has resulted in millions of families unexpectedly navigating separated relationships, and their regular family practices have been disrupted,” she said.

“For some families, there is no indication as to when they may be able to meet face-to-face again so social media is now a medium they can use more proactively to maintain their bonds as well as negotiate conflicts.”

Ms Abel’s research was recently published in New Media and Society.

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