By Tricia Toso

Family can sometimes overwhelmingly preoccupy one’s time, thoughts, and energy, but few can say they have a PhD in family relations. Dr. Shannon Hebblethwaite, associate professor in Applied Human Sciences at Concordia University and co-applicant in the ACT project, researches the dynamics of families and their shared leisure time. The ambivalences and beliefs, pleasures and practices of family and family communications are as complex as common, yet often overlooked and understudied. Hebblethwaite’s work addresses some of the lapses in our understanding of the entanglements of family relations with place, presence, and technologies. Some of her more recent research looks at the ways in which information communication technologies (ICTs), (e.g., iPads, laptops, smartphones and platforms such as Skype, and FaceTime) are used in the maintenance of family relationships. I had a chance to speak with her recently about her most recent research and learn a little more about the complexities of family communications, in particular the benefits and challenges that grandparents experience.

Expanding both geographically and conceptually on a previous research project (Grannies on the Net: Facilitating Intergenerational Family Communication Through Facebook) with Dr. Loredana Ivan of the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration in Romania that explored grandmothers’ experiences of Facebook, Hebblethwaite and Ivan are collaborating with researchers in Peru, Columbia, Israel, Spain and Italy to consider the ways in which different families in different cultures engage with ICTs. Digital platforms can often provide inexpensive and accessible means to communicate with family living abroad, but as Hebblethwaite points out there has been limited research done on the technological needs of older adults that allow for the strengthening of communications among geographically dispersed family members. Despite ageist stereotypes, grandparents, and in particular grandmothers, are increasingly using digital technologies to communicate with their children and their grandchildren to maintain intergenerational relationships. “Kids can see their grandparents and remember who they are and what they look like. They can be together, engaged with one another and not necessarily have to rely solely on the verbal exchanges you have to have over the phone; grandmothers say it is a huge benefit despite the rapidly changing technologies that they identify as challenging,” says Hebblethwaite. Her current work is broadening the research scope by thinking about the meanings family members attach to ICTs in the context of their families, friends, and leisure time. These meanings are of course situated in larger social phenomena such as increased global mobility and the assimilation of new digital technologies into everyday life, as well as the social discourses of ‘active aging’. It is here, at the nexus of ICTs, place, and aging that Hebblethwaite has been exploring the effects of new technologies and digital platforms on family relations.

Through a range of platforms […] older adults have a means to participate in the daily family routines of their children and grandchildren…

Social discourses on and representations of older adults’ use of ICTs range from the hopelessly incompetent to the exceptional super-user who navigates social platforms and audiences with aplomb. This diametric obscures the inequalities older adults face in regard to access to ICTs, as well as their reflective and measured use of digital media. As Hebblethwaite points out, despite the sense of uneasiness many older adults experience when technologies and social media platforms change, they do adopt and adapt to new media landscapes. Video chat technologies have become commonplace for grandparents, and through a range of platforms such as Facebook, Skype and WhatsApp, older adults have a means to participate in the daily family routines of their children and grandchildren who may live across the country or overseas. They also use ICTs as a leisure activity. Hebblethwaite says: “They use digital technologies as a way to have more regular contact with family, as well as their friends. Some of them play online games like Solitaire, or use it to help find a movie listing or plan trips. They didn’t necessarily conceptualize their use as a “recreational activity”, but there was a simultaneous leisure with ICT engagement as they watched TV and checked Facebook or messaged people.”

Hebblethwaite’s research suggests older adults adopt a purposeful use that often centres around maintaining interpersonal relationships, rather than the self promotion younger generations often engage in (Hebblethwaite and Ivan, 2016). This measured use is understood by older adults as a way of keeping their families and homes safe from potential harm, as well as respecting social codes that define decency and appropriate public disclosure. Perhaps surprisingly, older adults also practice measured use of ICTs as a way of modelling good digital citizenry to their children and  grandchildren. Hebblethwaite argues that grandparents use their interactions on social media platforms such as Facebook to instil in their children and grandchildren what is appropriate and safe to share in public and what is not. In addition, the use of digital media in role modelling extends beyond online behaviour. Grandparents use digital media to teach grandchildren about their family histories and stories, pass on values, and the sense of family as central. Young children learn to recognize their distant grandparents’ faces and school age children will practice reading with a grandparent through video calls. Hebblethwaite’s personal recollection of her parents playing hide n’ seek with their grandchildren via Skype demonstrates the potential for playfulness and use of ICTs in leisure activities. Grandparents can experience the feeling of being there’ as they interact and watch their distant families go about their everyday lives.

Hebblethwaite has also observed that the intergenerational learning is reciprocal. As much as grandparents help with homework or give home decorating advice through digital media, their grandchildren teach their grandparents how to use things, how to update software and adapt to the various and continual changes in social media interfaces. “It is a fun intergenerational interaction to watch and to hear them talk about the kids who have shown them how use ICTs and social media platforms. How to take a video on their phone instead of a photo, or how to get onto FaceTtime, and the grandparents are amazed at what at a very young age kids are capable of at a very young age,”

Hebblethwaite explains. She says that older adults embrace the opportunity to learn from their grandchildren. Grandparents are often very purposeful in these kinds of interactions Hebblethwaite suggests; that they are encouraging their grandkids to learn how to teach, whether it involves developing verbal and communication, or interpersonal skills. There is teaching within teaching that is both reciprocal and fosters intergenerational interaction. As Grannies on the Net: Comparative Case Study of Canada, Romania, Peru, Israel, Spain, Italy and Columbia expands to include focus groups from a number of countries around the world, Hebblethwaite is curious to see how different cultural norms and traditions intersect with the use of ICTs in family interactions. She cites the different understandings of grandparenting in Canada and Romania to explain. In Canada there is the concept of non-interference: grandparents are expected to be involved and available for child care or assistance, but not to meddle. Whereas in Romania there is no such notion. The expectation is that grandparents are going to meddle and be intrusive. The concept of non-interference grandparenting is often enacted on social media sites through the care Canadian grandparents will take in not posting potentially embarrassing photographs or comments on Facebook. She is interested in comparing how grandparents from different cultures interact with their children and grandchildren on social media sites, as well as how they use ICTs to pass on their cultural values and family histories. Despite some of the challenges older adults face in the adoption of ICTs into their everyday lives, Hebblethwaite says that their experiences have largely been positive, “it has facilitated them to be in more regular contact and involved in the everyday lives of their families without actually living in the same place. Video chat and seeing photos on Facebook makes a big difference in the grandparent-grandchild bond.”

Ivan, Loredana and Shannon Hebblethwaite. “Grannies on the Net: Grandmothers’ Experiences of Facebook in Family Communication” Romanian Journal of Communication and Publication. 18 (1) April, 2016. 11-25.

Tricia Toso is a PhD student in Communications Studies and a research assistant with ACT.