Finding Balance: Connections and the networked family

I recently heard the president of a major university recall that in recent years he’d noticed what he considered a disturbing trend among freshmen students and their parents he’d been helping move into their dorms.

After the last set of underwear and blankets had been unloaded from the cars, and the parents were saying their goodbyes, leaving their babies alone in the cruel world, no one cried. To someone who had taken responsibility for the safety and security of thousands of newly launched young adults over the years, the university president found it astonishing that mothers were separating from their children without tears.

Then it dawned on him: The way human families connect has changed. Almost as soon as these new students’ parents had pulled away from the campus onto the highway, they began communicating with their children on cell phones.

According to recent research at the Pew Internet and American Life Project, cell phones and Internet communications are now an integral part of our concept of “family.” The researchers at Pew found that technology helps family members connect and coordinate their lives. So, while these digitally networked families are less likely to share meals together, the adults in the study report that technology actually allows their families to remain as close or closer than the families they’d grown up in.

Take our No. 2 child, for example. A sophomore at a university more than 2,000 miles from us, he’s never been much of a “share your feelings and experiences” type of guy. During his freshman year, however, he began sending us almost-daily (OK, at least bi-weekly) text messages. Once my wife and I figured out how to read them, we realized we were receiving actual communications from the college front.

Amazingly, among the “I’m bored” and “I hate college” missives were some real communications, including “I miss you,” “I love you,” and some requests for emotional support and help.

The research is clear

A recent series of research articles has chronicled this trend. Increasingly, our families are relying on technology to share experiences, provide emotional and physical support to one another, and promote a sense of belonging. Parents use cell phones and the Internet to check on their children’s safety, to monitor their behavior, and to prevent family crises.

Sadly, business may be slow in catching up with the importance of this trend. During a recent research interview I conducted with 15 young working mothers, a common theme emerged. When I asked these mothers how they communicated with their children and their children’s care providers and schools while they were at work, they overwhelmingly said they used cell phones and the Internet.

However, when I asked these women about their bosses’ attitudes towards this type of family communication, they told horror stories of having their cell phones taken away, their Internet access limited, and of being “written up” for communicating electronically with their families.

Let’s think about this type of workplace policy for a minute. We know from sound research that workers who aren’t worried about their families’ safety and well-being are more productive at work. We also know that most people are working longer hours away from their families. Consequently, they tend to worry about their families more, and we know that that worry can negatively affect job performance.

The research is also clear about technology: Cell phones and online social media have become as integral to the well-being of the American family as they have to businesses. So, in devising policies to address technology in your workplace, consider your employees’ families. Bringing your policies into the digital age by allowing an employee the means and moments to communicate with her or his family members could positively affect your bottom line.

Dr. Malcolm Smith is family life and family policy specialist with UNH Cooperative Extension and teaches in the University of New Hampshire Family Studies Program. He can be reached at 603-862-7008, or