Families, relationships and technology: empirical analysis, policy challenges and ways of thinking

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Esther Dermott University of Bristol, UK

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Harriet Churchill University of Sheffield, UK

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As the rationale for the recently funded ESRC Centre for Sociodigital Futures frames it, ‘society and digital technology are increasingly bound together’.1 In the 2023 special issue, which reflected on a decade of Families, Relationships and Societies, as an editorial team we highlighted areas that had ‘contemporary political and everyday purchase but are relatively poorly served by the current literature’ (Churchill et al, 2023: 5). One such topic was the relationship between digital and other technologies, families and personal lives. This special issue is an effort to respond to that lacunae and present international research that explores connections between technologies and personal life, adopts various methods, considers breadth in the forms of personal and familial relationships under the spotlight, and reflects different and sometimes competing theoretical and disciplinary perspectives.

There is often a sense, perhaps especially in the popular media, that technologies are changing our personal relationships: a sense of unidirectional pressure which, at best, individuals may attempt to resist or mitigate. This implication – that relationships themselves are influenced by, but not formed through, interaction with contemporary technologies – is one that we would challenge in favour of a more dynamic view of the materiality of personal relationships, and how technologies, families and wider personal relationships interact.

Before offering an overview of the articles, we highlight three questions that are addressed or raised in this editorial and also deserve future thought.

  1. How, and in what ways, does co-presence continue to have importance for personal relationships in a world where time and space can be compressed via digital communication?
  2. How do power inequalities play out as various actors engage with and think about digital technologies? How do newer digital technologies reinforce or reconfigure broader societal power relations and, specifically, what are the boundaries of control by states, agencies and private companies as well as families, communities and individuals? This is a similar challenge to that identified by Salem et al (2023) regarding care-tech; which actors have the most influence and what is the impact of this?
  3. What methodological tools could or should we use? Do our existing social sciences approaches work or might they need to be adapted or significantly reevaluated? Are there other fields that work closely with technologies, such as human-computer interaction, which we could learn from and how should interdisciplinary work be developed? And does it even make sense to think of ‘digital technologies’ and ‘personal/familial relationships’ as a whole, given their diversity?

When we put out the open call for submissions to this special issue we were convinced of the value of the topic but uncertain of the response. The number and quality of abstracts were overwhelming, indicating that the theme tapped into the wide range of empirical research and current thinking being conducted in this area across the social sciences. Although we could not accept all the submissions, we are hugely pleased that this special issue of Families, Relationships and Societies brings together articles that present original empirical analysis, engage with policy developments and suggest new conceptual ways of thinking. The articles are wide-ranging and address the special issue theme from a variety of perspectives.

Our first three articles all take seriously the challenge of how we can shift theoretical thinking forward, and do so by drawing on examples of contemporary use of digital technologies. Ola Erstad and colleagues (2024) engage with live debates across academic disciplines; more widely, they explore the platformisation of society, in terms of the significance of digital platforms, technologies and media as embedded features of and potentially transformative influences on relationships, interactions and practices. Based on a scoping review of 53 studies, they suggest two current themes: how digital platforms are associated with the intensification of relational connectedness, intimacy and belonging; and how mediated digital communication among family members reflects and influences inter-generational and domestic power struggles and conflicts. They propose a future research agenda to develop the concept of ‘platformised relationality’ beyond parent-child relationships and a European and North American focus. Similarly, Tom Witney and colleagues (2024) seek to develop, conceptually and empirically, an understanding of how digital technologies generate new relationship practices and forms. In this case, drawing on interactions related to the use of a dating app, the article examines how the human-digital interface shapes aspects of interaction within dating and intimate relationships. The article develops the conceptual framework of ‘digital relationships assemblage’ to reflect this more multi-dimensional understanding of the enmeshed nature of the digital and the relational. Finally in this section, Rosalind Edwards and colleagues’ (2024) article explores the fast-evolving ‘digitally depersonalised’ space of state intervention by examining the adoption and implications of predictive analytics systems. These involve national and local governments using algorithms to analyse administrative data and statutory records, to identify and predict future risks and problems relating to child and family welfare services. The study looked at how a diverse group of parents viewed these interventions. The nuanced findings highlight how many parents deliberated the potential value of predictive analytic systems when these were viewed as operating as ‘alert and early help systems’ for professionals and services to prevent harm to children. However, the article presents the more prominent parental concerns and anxieties about how systems of prediction of future harms facilitate the surveillance of family life and embeds and intensifies further the propensity towards punitive and coercive interventions.

The next two articles have been grouped because of their cross-national analysis and substantive focus on parent-child interactions. Eva-Maria Schmidt (2024) picks up the theme of how digital technologies and mediated communication shape social relationships and intergenerational relations while also being connected to offline configurations and negotiations. Her article reports on a qualitative study with relatively young children (aged 5 to 10 years) across four European countries: Austria, Norway, Estonia and Romania. It argues that digital technologies decouple family practices from co-presence, while also contributing significantly to the construction, maintenance and negotiation of family identities, parent-child relationships, surveillance and care. Bence Völgyi and colleagues (2024), meanwhile, examine the use and views of digital communication between adult children and their parents, using the European Social Survey. They empirically examine: digital and technology-assisted and mediated modes of communication are positively influenced by levels of digital skills; the emotional and practical benefits of digital communication; and the frequency of communication. In doing so, they not only compare trends and patterns in the use and frequency of a range of digital and media technologies and modes of communication (for example, messaging, voice calls, video calls) but also capture the multiplexity and frequency of digital and technology-assisted contact.

Digital parenting practices are the focus of the next two articles. Camila Moyano Dávila and Ismael Tabilo Prieto (2024) analyse how school-oriented WhatsApp groups in Chile act as a medium for constructing, negotiating and regulating parenting norms and cultures. Their article brings together the longstanding concept of intensive parenting and work on digital materialities and understanding from science and technology studies in rethinking human-tech interactions. Morena Tartari and colleagues (2024) analyse a different site for parental digital practices and the study of family display: Facebook communities as used by parents for ‘sharenting’. However, as with the previous article, they focus on formal and informal governance within online communities and platforms. They also highlight how these parents (who were in conflictual separations) navigated ethical and moral dilemmas and controversies online, and the connections between offline and online parenting cultures and practices.

Our final two articles focus, from different perspectives, on marriage migration. Laura Odasso (2024) explores the role of online support groups in the lives of those navigating the complex systems and requirements of migration policies and bureaucracies. Drawing on in-depth qualitative data, the article argues that information-seeking practices and interactive support reflect intimacy competencies and active relational skills. It also challenges notions of divisions between online and offline ‘modes of living’, intimacy and relationships. Gina Marie Longo and Jason Turowetz (2024) also examine the significance of digital spaces, in this case for those seeking to migrate to the US. The article draws on a study that combined the online ethnography and content analysis of a website-based immigration forum where users can engage with agencies that advise applicants on key aspects of the US immigration criteria and requirements. The article highlights how the digital forums perform ‘borderwork’, including interactions that can ‘reproduce or challenge hegemonic state discourses about “proper” families and national belonging’ and advice practices that constitute ‘digital governmentality’.

Finally, our innovative Open Space section, present in each of our special issues, captures other ways of writing on the themes covered in the journal and reflects the views and voices of those outside the academy. For this issue, we have two very different accounts of how parents and children value and navigate the communication apps they use frequently. One piece is by a mother and adult daughter who now live in Scotland/UK but moved there from Ukraine and use a range of apps to maintain regular contact with close family members, including their husband/father, who is still living there. The second is a dialogue between a mother and father about the benefits and frustrations of managing their children’s access to digital technologies, thus highlighting how devices and applications are strongly embedded in supporting familial activities, but also viewed as potentially undermining them.

The collection, as a whole, reflects not only current thinking and recent research on this potent topic but also suggests ways that the social sciences can offer different analyses and concepts to ‘think better’ about, and enrich our understanding of, technologies and personal relationships. As such, we hope this special issue takes forward our understanding of the dynamics between personal relationships and digital technologies in ways that move beyond merely a restatement of strong views and polarised opinions, and offers constructive food for thought.

Note

1

ESRC Centre for Sociodigital Futures, www.bristol.ac.uk/fssl/research/sociodigital-futures.

Funding

The authors received no financial support for the research, authorship and publication of this article.

Conflict of interest

Esther Dermott is the Co-Investigator of the ESRC Centre for Sociodigital Futures.

References

  • Churchill, H., Dermott, E. and Miller, T. (2023) Families, relationships and societies: a decade of scholarship and agendas for the future, Families, Relationships and Societies, 12(1): 15963. doi: 10.1332/204674321x16715535227377

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  • Edwards, R., Gillies, V., Gorin, S. and Vannier-Ducasse, H. (2024) Pre-problem families: predictive analytics and the future as the present, Families, Relationships and Societies, 13(2): 198214. doi: 10.1332/20467435Y2024D000000013

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  • Erstad, O., Hegna, K., Livingstone, S., Negru-Subtirica, O. and Stoilova, M. (2024) How digital technologies become embedded in family life across generations: scoping the agenda for researching ‘platformised relationality’, Families, Relationships and Societies, 13(2): 16480. doi: 10.1332/20467435Y2024D000000023

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  • Longo, G.M. and Turowetz, J. (2024) The digital governmentality of marriage migration: policing US spousal reunification, national belonging and borders in digital spaces, Families, Relationships and Societies, 13(2): 288303. doi: 10.1332/20467435Y2024D000000020

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  • Moyano Dávila, C. and Tabilo Prieto, I. (2024) Performing parenthood through digital communication technologies at school: the case of WhatsApp parents’ groups in Chile, Families, Relationships and Societies, 13(2): 25370. doi: 10.1332/20467435Y2024D000000022

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  • Odasso, L. (2024) Intimacy as a competency: information-seeking practices in (marriage) migration online support groups, Families, Relationships and Societies, 13(2): 30420. doi: 10.1332/20467435Y2024D000000021

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  • Salem, N., Hertog, E., Nash, V. and Murphy, R. (2023) Ethics in AI Workshop – Care, Autonomy, and Technology, Institute for Ethics in AI, University of Oxford, Oxford 26 September.

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  • Schmidt, E.M. (2024) Digital technologies in children’s everyday lives and in ‘doing family’, Families, Relationships and Societies, 13(2): 21532. doi: 10.1332/20467435Y2024D000000019

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  • Tartari, M., Lavorgna, A. and Ugwudike, P. (2024) Sharing as displaying: parents’ sharenting practices within conflictual separations, Families, Relationships and Societies, 13(2): 27187. doi: 10.1332/20467435Y2024D000000017

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  • Völgyi, B., Füzér, K., Albert, F. and Erát, D. (2024) The role of digital status in adult child–parent relationships in European comparative perspective, Families, Relationships and Societies, 13(2): 23352. doi: 10.1332/20467435Y2024D000000026

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Witney, T., Gabb, J., Aicken, C., Di Martino, S. and Lucassen, M. (2024) Configuring the digital relationship landscape: a feminist new materialist analysis of a couple relationship app, Families, Relationships and Societies, 13(2): 18197. doi: 10.1332/20467435Y2024D000000015

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Churchill, H., Dermott, E. and Miller, T. (2023) Families, relationships and societies: a decade of scholarship and agendas for the future, Families, Relationships and Societies, 12(1): 15963. doi: 10.1332/204674321x16715535227377

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Edwards, R., Gillies, V., Gorin, S. and Vannier-Ducasse, H. (2024) Pre-problem families: predictive analytics and the future as the present, Families, Relationships and Societies, 13(2): 198214. doi: 10.1332/20467435Y2024D000000013

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Erstad, O., Hegna, K., Livingstone, S., Negru-Subtirica, O. and Stoilova, M. (2024) How digital technologies become embedded in family life across generations: scoping the agenda for researching ‘platformised relationality’, Families, Relationships and Societies, 13(2): 16480. doi: 10.1332/20467435Y2024D000000023

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Longo, G.M. and Turowetz, J. (2024) The digital governmentality of marriage migration: policing US spousal reunification, national belonging and borders in digital spaces, Families, Relationships and Societies, 13(2): 288303. doi: 10.1332/20467435Y2024D000000020

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Moyano Dávila, C. and Tabilo Prieto, I. (2024) Performing parenthood through digital communication technologies at school: the case of WhatsApp parents’ groups in Chile, Families, Relationships and Societies, 13(2): 25370. doi: 10.1332/20467435Y2024D000000022

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Odasso, L. (2024) Intimacy as a competency: information-seeking practices in (marriage) migration online support groups, Families, Relationships and Societies, 13(2): 30420. doi: 10.1332/20467435Y2024D000000021

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Salem, N., Hertog, E., Nash, V. and Murphy, R. (2023) Ethics in AI Workshop – Care, Autonomy, and Technology, Institute for Ethics in AI, University of Oxford, Oxford 26 September.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Schmidt, E.M. (2024) Digital technologies in children’s everyday lives and in ‘doing family’, Families, Relationships and Societies, 13(2): 21532. doi: 10.1332/20467435Y2024D000000019

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tartari, M., Lavorgna, A. and Ugwudike, P. (2024) Sharing as displaying: parents’ sharenting practices within conflictual separations, Families, Relationships and Societies, 13(2): 27187. doi: 10.1332/20467435Y2024D000000017

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Völgyi, B., Füzér, K., Albert, F. and Erát, D. (2024) The role of digital status in adult child–parent relationships in European comparative perspective, Families, Relationships and Societies, 13(2): 23352. doi: 10.1332/20467435Y2024D000000026

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Witney, T., Gabb, J., Aicken, C., Di Martino, S. and Lucassen, M. (2024) Configuring the digital relationship landscape: a feminist new materialist analysis of a couple relationship app, Families, Relationships and Societies, 13(2): 18197. doi: 10.1332/20467435Y2024D000000015

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
Esther Dermott University of Bristol, UK

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Harriet Churchill University of Sheffield, UK

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