Are digital means of communication transforming family relationships?

  • Awareness
  • 17/01/2020
  • Maltese Safer Internet Centre

Dunstan Hamilton, Education Officer for Personal, Social and Career Development (PSCD) at the Maltese Safer Internet Centre (SIC), explores how digital means of communicating are transforming family relationships.

The way families communicate with each other nowadays has changed dramatically from what it was like in the past. Until just a few years ago, sending emails and texting were not common communication methods for families. Even during Christmas time or for birthdays, one used to send a card by post and possibly phone.

Today however, people use webcams to talk to their friends and family members who live far away. Many believe that technology is impacting the individual's relationships with both friends and family members in a negative way. According to this view, families opt to live in the online world rather than in the real world. There is growing concern that the prevalence of mobile communications may cause people to become more alienated from their close family members.

Families are spending less and less quality time together, and use the television, computers and mobile phones more often – and children replicate their parents' lifestyle.

Can technology replace real-life interactions? When communicating feelings and attitudes, people use more than just words. They also use physical gestures, tone of voice, and body language to express themselves. A text message does not show any of this. That is one of the advantages of using a webcam, where one can see as well as hear or read.

Without a doubt, any new type of communication presents new challenges to families, as well as schools. Apart from the fact that websites and email contact can be difficult for schools to maintain, such forms of contact may intimidate some families, with some of them having limited or no internet access.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that digital devices have benefits, and digital technologies are an essential element to ensure good communication in the family. Digital devices can be used to stay in touch and communicate regularly with not only family and friends but also the children's teachers, school, sport coach, private lesson teacher and so on.

This connectedness is only possible thanks to new technologies of communication. Families that are geographically separated benefit the most from technology. For many parents, having the ability to reach their children whenever they want is a benefit that outweighs the negative aspects of digital devices. Older children going for a night out, younger children stuck in a school bus caught up in traffic – these daily events used to be worrying to parents but thanks to digital technologies, they can now get the reassurance and peace of mind that all is well and that nothing serious has happened.

However, better dialogue is necessary – both in the family and in wider society – about the opportunities and dangers digital devices entail. Teachers and parents need to be able to educate children to online safety.

Society has become dependent on electronic communication devices. The predominance of internet connection, computers, text messaging, cell phones, video conferencing, web cameras and so on, all show that more than ever, people communicate digitally. Families have a lot to gain from digital technologies, which allow family members to interact virtually and instantly with one another. Without such technologies, we would have a more difficult time connecting with nearby and long-distance family members and friends.

However, it is key to ensure that adequate face-to-face communication takes place too. No man is an island and we humans are social beings who should continue to develop our face-to-face relationships.

Find out more information about the work of the Maltese Safer Internet Centre (SIC) generally, including its awareness raising, helpline, hotline and youth participation services on the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) portal, or find similar information for Safer Internet Centres throughout Europe.

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