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An iPad at dinner keeps a family together

Parents the world over battle with trying to ban devices and social media at the kitchen table – but for some families, it’s common place to have an iPad or laptop propped up on an empty chair so a loved one can ‘Skype’ in to hear the day’s events.

According to research by University of Southern Queensland PhD student Susan Abel, the rituals and daily routines that social media and technology affords long-distance family units was a critical aspect of keeping connected and affectionate.

“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.”

Recently published in New Media and Society, Ms Abel’s research review found that while rituals and simple routines – like sending a message at the same time each day – were important, they required commitment and adaptability, so they remained interesting.

“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 interesting finding is that when you’re away from loved ones for a long time, there is a tendency to become overly positive with a hesitancy to disclose bad news because you don’t want to make the other person worry.

“However, forced positivity and a 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 is in her third year of her PhD study. She completed a psychology degree with the University of Southern Queensland in 2017 after more than 25 years working in finance and administration in the mining and construction industry.

“Some people have a mid-life crisis and buy a new car, but I decided to get another degree and make a career change,” she said.

“Moving into this area of research has been something I’ve always been interested in as my husband and I have raised our three children as a trans-national family with my husband being overseas born” she said.

“It’s a topic that has relevance to so many families and I’m looking forward to finishing my PhD and exploring further research options.”

woman smiling
University of Southern Queensland PhD student Susan Abel (image supplied).