Family Communication in the Age of Digital and Social Media

by Carol J. Bruess (Volume editor)
©2015 Textbook XIII, 518 Pages
Series: Lifespan Communication, Volume 9


Family Communication in the Age of Digital and Social Media is an innovative collection of contemporary data-driven research and theorizing about how digital and social media are affecting and changing nearly every aspect of family interaction over the lifespan. The research and thinking featured in the book reflects the intense growth of interest in families in the digital age. Chapters explore communication among couples, families, parents, adolescents, and emerging adults as their realities are created, impacted, changed, structured, improved, influenced and/or inhibited by cell phones, smartphones, personal desktop and laptop computers, MP3 players, e-tablets, e-readers, email, Facebook, photo sharing, Skype, Twitter, SnapChat, blogs, Instagram, and other emerging technologies. Each chapter significantly advances thinking about how digital media have become deeply embedded in the lives of families and couples, as well as how they are affecting the very ways we as twenty-first-century communicators see ourselves and, by extension, conceive of and behave in our most intimate and longest-lasting relationships.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Series Editor’s Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Section I: Plugged-In Families: Characteristics, Frameworks, and New Realities in a Digital Age
  • 1. Research on Technology and the Family: From Misconceptions to More Accurate Understandings
  • 2. Privacy Management Matters in Digital Family Communication
  • 3. Global Families in a Digital Age
  • 4. The Couple and Family Technology Framework
  • 5. Exploring the Interaction of Media Richness and Family Characteristics in Computer-Mediated Communication
  • 6. Facebook Family Rituals: An Investigation
  • Section II: Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood in a Digital Age
  • 7. Adolescent Use of Visual Media in Social Technologies: The Appeal, Risks, and Role of Parental Communication in Shaping Adolescent Behavior
  • 8. Navigating Emerging Adulthood with Communication Technology
  • 9. Staying Connected: Supportive Communication During the College Transition
  • Section III: Couples in a Digital Age
  • 10. What Marriage and Family Therapists Tell Us about Improving Couple Relationships through Technology
  • 11. “Technoference”: Everyday Intrusions and Interruptions of Technology in Couple and Family Relationships
  • 12. Love Letters Lost?: Gender and the Preservation of Digital and Paper Communication from Romantic Relationships
  • 13. “Unplugging the Power Cord”: Uncovering Hidden Power Structures via Mobile Communication Technology Use within the Traditional Marital Dyad
  • 14. Couples’ Communication of Rules and Boundaries for Social Networking Site Use
  • 15. Creating Couples’ Identities: Telling and Distorting via “Wedsite” Relationship Narratives
  • Section IV: Parenting in a Digital Age
  • 16. Social Context Influences on Parenting: A Theoretical Model of the Role of Social Media
  • 17. Gr8 Textpectations: Parents’ Experiences of Anxiety in Response to Adolescent Mobile Phone Delays
  • 18. Parental Uncertainty and Information Seeking on Facebook
  • 19. Parents’ Use of New Media for Communication about Parenting: A Consideration of Demographic Differences
  • 20. Digital Generation Differences in Parent–Adolescent Relationships
  • 21. Nonresidential Parenting and New Media Technologies: A Double-Edged Sword
  • Section V: A Practical Tool for Understanding and Helping Families in a Digital Age
  • 22. The Technology-Focused Genogram: A Tool for Exploring Intergenerational Family Communication Patterns around Technology Use
  • Contributors
  • Subject Index
  • Series index

← x | xi → Foreword


Marquette University

I am delighted to write the foreword for this important volume. This book, which explores challenges and opportunities experienced by families communicating in the era of digital and social media, is both fresh and timely. The topic is a critical one, as all the authors in this volume acknowledge when they cite the ubiquity of social media, as well as the enormous impact social media exert on family communication practices. This idea was vividly brought home to me because during the time I was preparing this foreword, the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage was announced. The way the decision was communicated highlights how social media intertwines with issues of family. Partners texted one another, #SCOTUSmarriage became a trending hashtag on Instagram, Facebook profile pictures were overlaid with rainbow filters, and families appeared on social media expressing their feelings about this landmark decision that clarified the definition of marriage. Certainly, now the time is ripe for scholars to examine relationships among family and technologically assisted communication.

This book, expertly edited by Carol J. Bruess, brings together an interdisciplinary group of authors to do just that. Family Communication in the Age of Digital and Social Media contributes several things to our knowledge of family communication: 1) it is no longer sufficient to ask whether social media helps or harms the family; 2) multiple, current theories are useful in our studies of social ← xi | xii → media and family; and 3) it is critical to think about practical applications for our research on technology and family life.

First, I applaud the authors in this collection for avoiding a “good or bad” dichotomy when probing the impact of social media on family life. Instead of fixating on WHETHER technology brings families together or drives them apart, the authors here opt to interrogate HOW digital and social media penetrate and affect the communication practices of families. In so doing, it becomes clear that media have both positive and negative impacts on family (as Webb clearly articulates in Chapter 1), and researchers should move to more nuanced investigations, such as those provided within this volume. For example, in Chapter 2, Child and Petronio unpack how families address privacy concerns given that social media make a great deal of information public that we might have previously thought belonged within the realm of privacy. In Chapter 8, Hall and Feister argue persuasively that communication technologies impact the transition from childhood to adulthood. Piercy and his colleagues address a unique topic in Chapter 10, and cogently discuss how social and digital media might be used during couples therapy. Vaterlaus and Tulane, in Chapter 20, explore the different uses of interactive technology employed by adolescents, who are digital natives, and their parents, who are, for the most part, digital immigrants. In all the chapters, the authors focus on multiple impacts of social media and technology, and thus their findings are informative and reveal subtleties. As an example, in Chapter 15 Daws points to the complex way that “wedsites” (wedding websites) use new technology to reinforce the old norms of heteronormativity.

Second, this collection makes clear both that research of this type should and can be theoretically sound, and that many of our existing theories are still useful in examining issues of technology and family. For instance, theories including, but not limited to Uncertainty Reduction Theory (Chapter 18), Uses and Gratifications (Chapter 20), Ecological Theory on Parenting (Chapter 16), Privacy Management (Chapter 2), Narrative Performative Theory (Chapter 15), and Systems Theory (Chapter 6), illustrate both the theoretical grounding of this collection, as well as the utility of “old” theories to frame and explain “new” communication contexts and channels. In Chapter 18, Sharabi, Roache, and Pusateri, for example, find that a theory from 1975 (URT) can help us understand how parents use Facebook to seek information, and reduce uncertainty, about their children who are away from home in college.

Finally each chapter includes an application section, revealing how theory and practice easily coexist within the topic of family life and social and digital communication. For example, Blumer and Hertlein in Chapter 22 illustrate how ← xii | xiii → the traditional genogram can be modified to a technological genogram. With these technologically focused genograms, it is possible to answer research questions such as how families communicate across generations using social media. But, it also likely that these genograms can be applied in a variety of employment settings as well as medical contexts for assessing things such as cancer risk, for instance.

This collection excites me, and I invite you to enjoy its range and depth. It will be an absorbing read, inspiring you to think about family, communication, and life in our contemporary world in many different ways. This book makes it clear that family communication is altered by the presence of digital and social media, but still remains vibrant and can be investigated using theories and methods available to researchers today. I invite you to learn from each of the chapters, and to be motivated to study this ever-evolving, relevant topic yourself.

—Lynn H. Turner, Professor, Communication Studies and
Director of the Interdisciplinary Family Studies Minor, Marquette University← xiii | xiv →

← xiv | xv →  Series Editor’s Preface


Old Dominion University

Family Communication in the Age of Digital and Social Media, expertly edited by Professor Carol Bruess, represents a bold and significant step forward in the research literatures of lifespan communication, family communication, and digital media. Globally, digital communication technologies have been fast- woven into the everyday communication fabric of family life, and as this volume highlights, have spotlighted new paths as well as challenges for families. Included among these challenges are cultural concerns such as the commodification of intimacy (Karraker, this volume), misconceptions about technology (Webb, this volume), “technoference” (McDaniel, this volume), privacy issues (Child & Petronio, this volume), the role of digital media and optimal child development (e.g., Fletcher & Blair, this volume), and parenting in the digital age (e.g., Tikkanen, Afifi, & Merill, this volume). Yet, with mindful use, we also find digital media opening new paths toward deeper understanding and appreciation of family history (Blumer & Hertlein, this volume), potentially higher levels of personal and relational satisfaction, feelings of closeness, and inventiveness at home (Piercy et al., this volume), and new, creative family-presentation rituals via Facebook (Bruess, Li, & Polingo, this volume). This ground breaking volume is a must-read work that will, like all of the other volumes in Peter Lang’s lifespan Communication: Children, Families, and Aging series, spark research, conversation, and contribute important insights into life’s dynamic and ever-evolving communication processes from first words to final conversations.← xv | xvi →

← xvi | xvii →  Acknowledgments

To my husband, Brian, and my beautiful teenagers, Tony and Gracie: You are the model of support, love, and joy—even when I’m stressin’. Thank you!! To Tom Socha: You are an inspiring managing editor and scholar, even when I’m asking too many novice questions. Thank you! To Tammi Polingo: Your cheerleading and micro-attention to every detail has been priceless, even when I’m sending you 126 emails a day. How can I ever thank you?! To Mike Stoffel: Your eagle eyes are a gift. Thanks for sharing them with this project. To Kate Woodman Middlecamp and Tammy Brice, your combined artistic brilliance made the cover come to life. Wow—thank you! And to all of the authors in this volume: Your passion for studying and discerning families in the digital age is beyond impressive. Without all you, this book wouldn’t be a thing! Thank you for trusting me with your beautiful, smart work.← xvii | xviii →

← xviii | 1 → Section One

Plugged-In Families: Characteristics, Frameworks, and New Realities in a Digital Age← 1 | 2 →


← 2 | 3 → Research on Technology and the Family

From Misconceptions to More Accurate Understandings


Florida International University


For more than a decade, the popular press in the United States has featured news stories on the negative impact of new media on children. As a result, parents are repeatedly urged to monitor their children’s Internet use. Media panic concerning children’s safety was particularly fueled at three points:

  • In 2003, and for the 10 years following, various national and international jurisdictions began arresting users for illegally downloading copyrighted material, primarily music and films but also videos of sports events and videogames. The arrested and prosecuted users included minors as young as 12 years old. Parents were urged to more closely monitor their children’s online behavior and discourage illegal downloads.
  • From 2004 to 2007, NBC broadcast the “reality” television program To Catch a Predator in 11 two-part episodes, in which pedophiles were lured to pretend children for sexual encounters; the show’s host and website warned parents to talk to their children about predators trolling the Internet for victims.
  • In 2005, MySpace was purchased by News Corporation for $580 million dollars. Under the intense media monitoring that followed, MySpace began experiencing a series of safety issues, including hacked accounts. At that ← 3 | 4 → time, MySpace users were primarily adolescents and marketers targeting adolescents; parents were advised to warn their children about placing personal and financial information such as credit card numbers on social media websites, as this information could be easily stolen during a security breach.

Currently, the traditional news media cover a wide variety of stories about families and their online behavior. In 2014 alone, stories appeared on the effects of smartphones at the dinner table, parental-control options on smartphones, and video-monitoring children’s bedrooms to proctor Internet use. One headline read, “OMG, the Internet Can Be a Scary Place with Kids!” (Byers, 2014).

Like many phenomena featured in contemporary news stories, negative reports garner the most attention—even though such negative outcomes are rare and the stories often contradict research findings concerning the phenomenon. Nonetheless, as these stories settle into our collective consciousness, we begin to believe (and perpetuate by sharing with others in our social networks) multiple cultural misconceptions about how families use personal communication technologies (PCTs) such as cell phones, tablets, and laptop computers. We might fear for the future of the prototypical American family as more and more of us acquire laptop computers for individual use, as children begin using cell phones at younger and younger ages, and as entire families “play” on their tablets while they eat dinner together at the neighborhood eatery, speaking only to the wait staff and rarely to each other.

In contrast, the original research reviewed in this chapter paints a picture quite different from the news depictions described above and from the cultural misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding such representations. For example, family conflicts about children’s use of PCTs tend to occur when parents attempt to regulate children’s access to the Internet via conversation rather than simply employing parental control settings on cell phones. The conflicts rarely originate with strangers or with children’s actions on the devices, per se. Instead, it is typically the very attempt to keep children safe that leads to ongoing parent–teen, parent–child, and/or parent–adolescent conflicts that can significantly disrupt family life.

This chapter identifies eight widespread misconceptions about families and their PCT use. The misconceptions include notions such as ever-present Internet “stranger danger,” children’s overuse of technology as the etiology of parent–child conflicts, and the availability of the Internet prompting users to focus on relationships with users outside the family versus face-to-face interaction with family members. Each of the eight misconceptions is either completely false or an oversimplification of the facts according to the latest research. This chapter clarifies the eight misconceptions via a review of the published research concerning ← 4 | 5 → families and their technology use. Because the misconceptions are so far-reaching, the chapter also provides a broad overview of existing research about families in an age of digital and social media.

Eight Misconceptions about Families and Personal Communication Technologies

Misconception One: Children’s Use of PCTs Prompts Family Conflicts

The existence of family conflicts surrounding PCT use is well documented. However, what is not as widely known or acknowledged is the source of these conflicts. Contrary to popular belief, typically children’s PCT use does not prompt family conflicts; most technology-related family disagreements are the direct result of parents’ communication when attempting to monitor or limit their children’s Internet access. Furthermore, a growing body of research indicates that intense monitoring is largely unnecessary and that the parents’ fears that are driving such behaviors are largely unfounded.

Conflicts are parent-provoked. Parents’ attempts to regulate their children’s Internet use often provoke family conflicts (Mesch, 2006b; Mesch & Frenkel, 2011) and lead to verbal arguments. From the child’s viewpoint, parents should trust them to make well-r easoned, sound judgments concerning Internet use. From the parent’s viewpoint, keeping their children out of harm’s way constitutes a primary parental responsibility—and the Internet offers many forms of harm including seductive online advertising (Cornish, 2014), cyberbullying (Schrock & boyd, 2011), gaming addiction (Lemmens, Valkenburg, & Peter, 2009), online harassment (Lindsay & Krysik, 2012), online pornography (McCartan & McAlister, 2012), and sex texting (Lunceford, 2011). Parents might view adolescent children as especially susceptible to such “harms,” given their inexperience with such matters, their desire for positive adult attention, as well as their naïve attraction to gaming and sexual matters. See Fletcher and Blair (this volume) for a recent assessment of the dangers of visual online media to adolescents. A recent 25-country multinational study (Mertens & d’Haenens, 2014) documents that parents’ primary reason for mediating their children’s Internet use is concern for their children’s well-being. According to Mertens and d’Haenens, the only cultural dimension related to parents’ level of concern was uncertainty avoidance: The more parents desired to avoid uncertainty and increase certainty, the more they expressed concern and attempted to mediate their children’s Internet access. ← 5 | 6 → Mertens and d’Haenens’s finding raises the question of whether parents attempt such mediation purely out of concern for their children or rather, at least in part, to increase their own sense of security and certainty. For instance, Tikkanen, Afifi, and Merrill (this volume) found that parents who experience longer-than-expected delays in their child’s cell-phone response time experience more uncertainty about their child’s activities than those who do not experience such a delay. Furthermore, Sharabi, Roache, and Pusateri (this volume) found that uncertainty reduction can drive parents’ viewing of their young adult child’s Facebook posts.

Related research indicates that motivations for parental mediation of cell phones in particular can differ by sex (Mascheroni, 2013). Mothers tend to serve as the enforcers of family rules governing children’s PCT use. Mothers also tend to see cell phones as tools for safety, connection, and monitoring—and are more likely to view cell phones as providing opportunities to call their children at any time to discover where they are and what they are doing. Fathers tend to view cell phones as providing children with educational opportunities, given the Internet access availability on smartphones.

Clark (2013) identified four primary types of parents, based on their mediation beliefs and behaviors concerning their children’s cell phone use:

  • Engaged parents favor active mediation and will use parental controls built into the cell phones to limit their children’s Internet access;
  • Helicopter parents favor restrictive mediation but are ambivalent about using parental controls built into the telephones; they might restrict their children’s cell phone use, for example, to two hours after homework is complete;
  • Permissive parents appreciate the arguments in favor of mediation but do not engage in much regulation of their children’s media use; and,
  • Digital immigrants believe that mediation of their children’s media use is simply futile.

Interestingly, Dworkin, Walker, Rudi, and Doty (this volume) examine the multiple ways parents use new media technologies to fulfill and understand their parenting responsibilities, including seeking support and ideas from other parents in online communities about how to manage PCT use of their child(ren).

Parents’ regulation may be so limited or so subtle that children fail to perceive it (Sorbring & Lundin, 2012). In one study (Wang, Bianchi, & Raley, 2005), 61% of parents reported regulating their adolescent children’s Internet access, whereas only 38% of their adolescent children reported such oversight. Adolescents might fail to perceive parental regulation as actual regulation because they can easily circumvent it (Byrne & Lee, 2011) using various technological affordances such ← 6 | 7 → as screening parents’ calls, deleting browser histories, and posting on social media websites under assumed identities. Such circumvention might explain why many parents do not attempt to regulate their children’s Internet use even when they perceive the Internet as dangerous (Staksrud & Livingstone, 2009). Many parents report attempting to balance concerns about online risks with the educational benefits of Internet access (Tripp, 2011). In sum, parents are more likely to take either a hands-off approach to their children’s PCT use or attempt to monitor and limit their children’s Internet access (which both practice and research suggests might be virtually impossible).

Parental fears disproportionate to reality. Much evidence suggests parents’ fears of Internet dangers are not well founded. For example, recent advances in Internet monitoring have led to successful automatic monitoring of cyberbullying (Van Royen, Poels, Daelemans, & Vandebosch, 2015) and email screening software typically prevents pornographic messages from reaching users. Furthermore, research suggests adult predators stalking children on the Internet are rare; more often, middle school and high school students engage in cyberstalking and harassment of peers (Schrock & boyd, 2011). On the rare occasions teenagers attend offline meetings with strangers they have met on the Internet, the teens cite “the discrepancy between expectations and reality as the core reason” for their negative feelings about the meetings; they do not report molestation, rape, or robbery (Dedkova, Cerna, Janasova, & Daneback, 2014, p. 327).

Recent research suggests that children might need less guidance on Internet use than parents imagine. In one survey of more than 600 college-student users of Facebook, the more popular users (those reporting larger numbers of “friends”) were more likely than unpopular users (those with fewer contacts on Facebook) to say nothing on their Facebook page that would surprise their offline family members (Zywica & Danowski, 2008). The more popular the young adult users, the more likely that their “friends” included multiple offline contacts such as family members, and thus the more likely to present an honest and accurate portrayal of his or her offline life on Facebook. Such findings suggest that the more embedded the young adult child is on Facebook, the less parents needs to worry about him or her engaging in inappropriate or embarrassing online behavior.

Similarly, Mostmans, Bauwens, and Pierson’s (2014) study documents that, at least among their sample, even younger children articulate rather sophisticated ideas about digital age choices. The pre-adolescents in their study could easily imagine “the moral consequences of disclosing personal information [online]. Their moral reflections were embedded in a more general concern for children’s vulnerability to other, more powerful information circulators in their social networks, such as older ← 7 | 8 → children, siblings, but also parents or the Internet crowd” (p. 347). Given that one of parents’ primary concerns is their children’s willingness to disclose personal information—allowing online adult predators to find them offline—the results of this study provide powerful evidence that parents’ concerns may be misplaced, and that the need for training in Internet use might be exaggerated.

Nonetheless, many parents attempt to regulate their children’s access to the Internet and such attempts can (and often do) lead to conflict (Mesch, 2006b; Mesch & Frenkel, 2011). Regulatory strategies vary with parenting style and not with adolescents’ amount of time spent online (Eastin, Greenburg, & Hofschire, 2006). More frequent and intense conflicts occur when parents employ authoritative and permissive parenting styles (Byrne & Lee, 2011) rather than consultative and deliberative decision-making. Additionally, as Mesch (2006a) explains, “intergenerational conflicts over the Internet were higher in families in which parents expressed concern over the potentially negative consequences of Internet use” (p. 473). Such conflicts can lead adolescents to perceive their parents as difficult to talk to about the very matters of concern: online dangers.

Because most children and adolescents use their PCTs for direct and private access to peers (Ling & Bertel, 2013; Ling & Ytrri, 2002), they often perceive attempted parental regulation as privacy invasion (Mascheroni, 2014). Children typically defend against such privacy invasions using the same medium that the parents attempt to regulate (Ledbetter et al., 2010). For example, adolescents often maintain a Facebook page that parents can access and a second Facebook page for peer interaction that their parents cannot access. Such tactics avoid conflict and maintain privacy. If children maintain only one account on a given social medium, they often manipulate their privacy settings to prevent parental monitoring of peer interactions (Mascheroni, 2014). For a detailed discussion of online privacy in family communication, see the Child and Petronio chapter in this volume. For examples of recent research on marital communication and privacy/boundary issues, see two other chapters in this volume: Cravens and Whiting, as well as Hertlein and Blumer.

Given ubiquitous access to smartphones and wireless Internet access around the globe, children typically experience unlimited online access. Middle school aged children report taking advantage of free Wi-Fi and hacking into their school’s Wi-Fi (Mascheroni, 2014). If parents deny their children cell phones and access to the Internet via the family computer, parents often fail to account for their children’s friends who are happy to share their unlimited access to such technology with their phoneless peers.

← 8 | 9 → Limiting children’s Internet access might inflict social harm. An argument can be made that parents who deny their children PCTs are inflicting social harm. Given that by 2008, 57% of children ages 7 to 17 owned their own cell phone (Kennedy, Smith, Wells, & Wellman, 2008)—and it is likely the percent has since increased—the phoneless child can become an object of pity or ridicule among peers. Additionally, many offline peer conversations discuss games and information garnered online (Lee, 2009). Denying a child access to those bits of information is tantamount to denying him or her much of the social currency of face-to-face interchange among age-appropriate peers.

Children without ready access to the Internet may become vulnerable to undue influence from others who will provide such access. The access provided by a peer or an adult outside the family might involve activities the parents would deem as not age appropriate, such as viewing pornography. Nonetheless, the child may feel compelled to engage in the activity because his or her parents limit any opportunities for Internet access. Conversely, if the parents provide the child with his or her own cell phone, the parents could activate control settings that significantly reduce the odds of the child viewing material that is not age appropriate.

In sum, parents often prompt family conflicts by attempting to monitor or limit through oral argument their children’s access to the Internet—a virtual impossibility; in contrast, cell phone control settings provide an easy, no-conflict method of limiting children’s Internet access. The fears driving parents’ desire to protect their children from Internet harm are not well founded given that negative elements appear to be rapidly disappearing and/or nearly nonexistent. Parents who fail to provide children with cell phones or Internet access might be doing more harm than good by limiting or reducing their children’s social currency with peers.

Misconception Two: Technology Is Primarily Being Used in Family Member–to–Family Member Interactions to Stay in Touch with Out-of-Town Relatives

From grandparents texting their grandchildren to free Skype chats across continents, PCTs offer families multiple means to stay in touch, especially for family members living in far-flung locations. Inexpensive technologies and widespread Internet access allows every U.S. citizen to interact (should they desire to) with every known, living family member every day. A recent Pew survey revealed that more than half (60%) of surveyed users thought the Internet and cell phones made them better informed about their family than they were 5 years ago (Purcell & Rainie, 2014). To what extent do users avail themselves of these opportunities? Two lines of communication research address this question:

  • ← 9 | 10 → A number of researchers are documenting the ways geographically distant families employ technologies, often in fairly challenging circumstances such as during military deployment or catastrophic illness.
  • Other researchers are examining simple, often mundane relationship maintenance behaviors in face-to-face family relationships and the ways technology assists and challenges such maintenance.

Relationship maintenance in face-to-face family relationships. Social media such as Facebook allow users to “keep up with” face-to-face friends, colleagues, and family members (Bruess, Li, & Polingo, this volume; Young & Quan-Haase, 2013). Research documents that most social media contacts are people that users know in their offline lives (Lampe, Ellison, & Steinfield, 2006), including family members. Multiple studies document users’ tendency to employ technology to interact with immediate family members (Bruess, Li, & Polingo, this volume; Dorrance-Hall & Kenny, this volume; Kennedy et al., 2008; Smith, this volume), often people the user sees every day. Such interactions can address both social goals (e.g., e-birthday cards) and task goals (e.g., planning birthday parties; Boase, Horrigan, Wellman, & Rainie, 2006). Pew data indicate that couples with children in the home often use their cell phones to “coordinate their lives” (Kennedy et al., 2008, p. ii). For example, cell phones can facilitate fluid task achievement, such as deciding who will pick up the children from daycare or who will stop at the grocery store after work. Families often employ such so-called micro-coordination (Ling & Yttri, 2002) to manage family obligations simultaneously with other activities such as volunteering and work demands (Webb, Ledbetter, & Norwood, 2014). Indeed, users report that technology has “blurred the traditional lines between work and family” (Kennedy et al., 2008, p. iii).

Multiple researchers examine parent–child Facebook interactions (Young & Quan-Haase, 2013) and document the benefits of such interactions, particularly in contentious relationships (Binder, Howes, & Smart, 2012; Child & Westermann, 2013; Kanter, Afifi, & Robbins, 2012). Bruess et al. (in this volume) found that Facebook served as a ritual of connection between family members and served multiple positive functions for families, including reminiscing, increasing knowledge of each other, and reestablishing ties with extended family. Vitak, Ellison, and Steinfield (2011) reported that “friending” family members was associated with increased perceptions of social support.

Interestingly, most “Facebook fights” involve a primary users’ contacts disagreeing in the comments sections of one of the primary user’s recent posts. Such disagreements typically occur at sites of social diversity such as where family, friends, and work associates converge (Binder et al., 2012). Often these socially ← 10 | 11 → diverse groupings include one or more family members who have never met the user’s other “friends” face to face. Indeed, Binder et al. reported a connection between the number of Facebook disagreements and the number of family members who were Facebook friends with the user. In other words, the battling commenters are arguing with complete strangers online but know offline associates of the primary user, whose account has become the site of the “Facebook fight.” The primary user might then hear comments at the next face-to-face family gathering about, for example, his or her “weirdo Facebook friends.” One way to reduce online arguments of this type is to create groups of contacts and then post to specific groups. Another is to hide all posts from certain individuals, including contentious family members.

In addition to “keeping up” with the day-to-day events in family members’ lives, social media afford families the option to stay in daily touch when crisis strikes. For example, some blog hosting websites such as caringbridge.com provide a venue for caregivers to keep family members informed about serious health-related events such as surgeries and cancer treatments. When a natural disaster such as a hurricane strikes, family members might be scattered across locations; social media (such as Facebook) provide venues for family members to reconnect and share information (Knight, 2013)—and to do so quickly to reduce the anxiety caused by ambiguity about the health status and location of loved ones.

Communicating with geographically distant family members. Modern communication technologies provide workable venues for interaction among geographically distant family members (see Karraker, this volume). Indeed, more than half (52%) of the survey respondents in a Pew survey viewed PCTs as particularly useful for staying in touch with family members who live at a distance (Kennedy et al., 2008). Furthermore, the communication technologies employed by transnational families has significantly changed across the past three decades (Webb et al., 2014): Families moved from biweekly postal mail contact before the 1990s, to phone contact facilitated by decreasing long-distance rates in the mid-1990s, and then to email and other online contact by the end of the decade (Wilding, 2006). Today, family blogs allow multiple family members, regardless of geographical distance, to maintain regular contact as they have time and interest (Nardi, Schiano, & Gumbrecht, 2004). Choice of online venue for family communication can vary with family size and patterns of communication (Cramer & Edward, this volume).

In addition to regular interaction, new media allow far-flung family members to “be there” during important moments. For example, instant-messenger services allow male American military personnel to maintain a sense of being present at their children’s births while they serve overseas (Schachman, 2010). Via Skype or ← 11 | 12 → FaceTime, family members at multiple locations can sing “Happy Birthday” to a child as he or she blows out the candles on the cake; a doting aunt never need miss the look on a young adult’s face as he or she opens a special graduation present.

Linking distant family members can be enjoyable and beneficial—but not in all cases. Sometimes family members “migrated precisely because they found their home country socially or culturally stifling or their kin dominating and difficult. An increased capacity to connect with home [may enable] feelings of suffocation and restriction to extend across time and space” (Wilding, 2006, pp. 135–136). Thus, although modern communication technologies offer geographically distant family members the means to stay in touch as if they lived in the same neighborhood, some family members elect to not exercise that option.

Beyond transcending geography, research in the communication-accommodation theory tradition recognizes that age differences can hinder communication between family members (Soliz & Harwood, 2006). However, telephone and written media (including email) can effectively transcend generational barriers, with increased contact positively associated with relational quality and relational satisfaction in grandparent-grandchild relationships; indeed, grandparents and grandchildren tend to initiate email contact with equal frequency (Harwood, 2000).

In summary, the notion that families use new media to stay in touch with geographically distant relatives is borne out by research. But, the misconception that families use PCTs exclusively or even primarily to stay in touch with out-of-town relatives provides too limited an understanding of the “reach” of the stay-in-touch function of social media. Families also use new media to maintain relationships with family members they see daily and to achieve important coordination and task goals. Modern communication technologies provide multiple venues for family members to communicate, whether they live in close proximity or in distant geographic locations. Pew reports that 64% of surveyed users reported staying in touch with family was their major reason for using social media (Smith, 2011). Using PCTs to maintain family relationships, both near and far, has become so common that family genograms of technical connections can be mapped (Blumer & Hertlein, this volume). Additionally, PCTs allow a sense of social presence at special moments across locations and generations.

Misconception Three: Internet Use Threatens Healthy Family Functioning

Communication technologies are not inherently bad for family relationships. In fact, many users think that PCT use can increase family closeness. Pew researchers report “25% of our survey respondents feel that their family is now closer than ← 12 | 13 → when they were growing up thanks to the Internet and cell phones, while just 11% say their family today is not as close as families in the past” (Kennedy et al., 2008, p. iii). The balance of their respondents (approximately 60%) reported that PCTs had neither increased nor decreased their family’s closeness.

PCT use can impact family functioning in both positive and negative ways. In many circumstances, family functioning is supported and/or restored via social support provided by specialized online communities (e.g., bulletin boards for parents of children with cancer). Facebook interaction can renew and enhance family relationships across space, time, and generations, serving as a highly desirable digital-age family ritual (Bruess et al., this volume). Family members can offer social support to college students during their first year away at college (Smith, this volume). Romantic and married couples also create digital love letters and keep digital mementos of relationship experiences and feelings (Janning and Christopherson, this volume).

When they are not interacting with family members, users might spend time online engaging in family-related activities such as buying birthday gifts online for family members and answering e-invitations to family gatherings. Additionally, when users interact online with non-family members, they often discuss family issues and engage their family identities (Webb et al., 2014), as exemplified in the following research reports:

  • Foster parents write, read, and discuss their adoption stories with other foster parents on narrative blogs (Suter, Baxter, Seurer, & Thomas, 2014).
  • Grandparents may spend time on grandparenting websites discussing their grandparenting role (Harwood, 2000).
  • Mommy bloggers reinforce their identity as mothers by sharing contemporary solutions to parenting problems (Lee & Webb, 2012; Webb & Lee, 2011).
  • Engaged couples construct wedding websites that present a relationship narrative and couple identity consistent with what they believe their families expect (Daws, this volume).

In other circumstances, of course, family functioning can be negatively affected. The marital relationship is especially vulnerable to damage via online interactions with non–family members (e.g., cyber-affairs).


XIII, 518
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (September)
tablet smartphone modern comunication
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. XIII, 518 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Carol J. Bruess (Volume editor)

Carol J. Bruess (PhD, Ohio University) is Professor of Communication and Journalism and Director of Family Studies at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota. She is the author of four books and dozens of journal articles and chapters, and is a regular contributor to the media on contemporary family issues.


Title: Family Communication in the Age of Digital and Social Media
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539 pages