Technology can build family relationships when used to connect and uplift

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All four members of a family use technological devices at the dinner table. Media monitoring can help us find a balance between technology usage and family life. (Twitter/@VeronicaTanzen)

Technology is everywhere. It’s in class. It’s at church. It’s with our friends. Sometimes it’s even at the dinner table.

The Pew Research Center reported that 68 percent of adults owned smartphones in 2015, up from 35 percent in 2011. This increased technological presence can affect every aspect of users’ lives, including family life. But BYU professors are finding that the effects can be positive or negative, depending on how people use technology.

Sarah Coyne, Ph.D, a professor in the BYU School of Family Life, researches the positive and negative effects of technology, including video game and social media addictions, on family relationships. Her research shows media can strengthen family ties when used in the right way.

“When parents are on social media with their teenagers, they report feeling more connected, and I think there’s higher levels of prosocial behavior in the family,” Coyne said.

A mother shares a text with her daughter in a text message. Using technology to share inspiring messages can strengthen family relationships. (Twitter/@ZariNotSorry)

Family group-text bonding 

The Hogan family of Salt Lake uses simple technology to strengthen family relationships. Debbie Hogan, mother of twin BYU sophomores Matt and Nate Hogan, uses family group text messages to uplift her family members and update them about everyday life back home.

“A lot of it is (to share) meaningful parts of my day,” Debbie said.

She sends the family scripture references, links to conference talks and TED talks, and photos of her mother, whom she cares for. A conference talk she sent a couple of weeks ago became Matt’s favorite talk of the conference.

Things like that build relationships (and) strengthen ties between family members, just (knowing) that’s how they feel,” Debbie said.

Nate said his mom recently sent the obituary of a neighbor to the family via group text.

“I wouldn’t have known that unless I had looked in the newspaper or went home and found out,” Nate said.

Nate doesn’t live far from home, but he said today’s constant connectivity makes it easier for college students living away from home to strengthen relationships with family members. He said people can find a balance between technology and family life, but they need to recognize the differences between digital and physical experiences.

“I think that as a technology user, you need to realize that the things that you can do with your family on social media aren’t the same as just having a conversation in person,” Nate said.

Video chatting allows far-flung family members to keep in touch. (Twitter/@JonahLupton)

Technological traditions

Jeffrey Hill, Ph.D, a professor in the BYU School of Family Life, has a blended family of 12 children that experiences blessings from technology. Hill’s adult children live all over the country, with the two geographically closest children and their families living in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“The farther away the real person is, the better the social media is,” Hill said. “It’s been very helpful for bringing together extended families that are far-flung.”

Hill and his wife, Tammy, an adjunct professor in the BYU School of Family Life, have a special birthday Skype tradition they share with their 22 grandchildren. The grandparents Skype the grandchild the day before his or her birthday and then watch as the grandchild opens up the present they have sent. He said the technology of Skype has allowed this family to create meaningful family rituals and strengthen family bonds.

Media monitoring

As a mother of four children and a media researcher, Coyne said media addiction is the challenge that scares her the most today. She emphasized the importance of teaching children to be critical consumers of media as a way to balance technology and family relationships.

The three types of media monitoring include restrictive, co-viewing and active strategies. Parents who implement rules, perhaps about media content and the amount of time spent consuming media, use restrictive monitoring. Co-viewing occurs when parents and children simply engage in media together, strengthening media effects for good or for bad.

She recommends active media monitoring, which is when parents and children consume media together and parents ask questions to help children process what’s going on in a TV show or film. A mother who actively monitors media may watch a violent scene with her young children and then ask if the participants who fought instantly recovered or if they became bloodied and hurt.

Coyne said parents can’t control all of the media their children consume, but having this conversation and teaching them about reality in the media will give them tools they need to become critical consumers.

“You just be a responsible and a courageous parent and you learn when to say ‘no’ and when to say ‘yes,'” Coyne said.

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