Digital networks and family relations in times of coronavirus: interaction between family and school

Dr. Pier Cesare Rivoltella, Professor of Didactics and Education Technology at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan.

Coronavirus, in particular the lockdown and the urgent limitation to people’s movements decided by the government as a contrast measure, surely produced significant modifications in the times and forms of the individual and social life of people. Some of these modifications concerned families, by imposing temporary redefinitions of their behaviours and of the routines that characterise family life. These modifications have a significant relation with the availability of digital media, more in general of technology.

  1. The difficult construction of a new “distance” alliance between family and school

A first element must be registered with regard to smart-working and distance schooling, thus connecting with what the research on family practices has already been studying for some time both with regard to family-work balance and with regard to the alliance (or the conflict) between school and family.

For those parents whose jobs foresee the possibility to work from home, this has meant to obligatorily recognise themselves in the profile of those that research calls integrators, meaning that category of parents-workers who decide to live an overlapping of working time and family time (as opposed to separators, who tend to reserve for family a time that is radically different from working time). Frequently, this condition has concerned both parents and children, who are also dealing with a new overlapping of school time and family time.

It is a situation that has obliged the family to a supplement of negotiation for the use of the tools (not all families have personal technology for each member) and of the connection (the need to simultaneously use the connection for different video-conferences frequently does not allow the domestic internet connection to “hold out”), and for occupying space inside the house.

At least two observations can be made with regard to this necessary negotiation, imposed by the circumstances: On the one hand, it has not always produced conviviality: the experiences of families and the data of observatories demonstrate that if in some families it led to an increase of the time spent together and an improvement of family dynamics (greater proximity, moderation of conflicts), in some others it corresponded, on the other hand, to a worsening of the relations caused by forced coexistence, as it is shown by the increase in domestic violence. However, negotiation per se represents a positive element because it implies the fact that there is a dialogue, and this can surely prepare for the research of new basis to found the relation, or for the rediscovery of a relationality that may have been forgotten or deteriorated throughout the years.

A second element, strictly related to the first one, concerns especially the mothers, in their function of supporting the children, especially if they are young, when they have to make their homework. Precisely distant schooling produced, in this sense, an increase in the loads for students and, consequently, for their families. Frequently, in fact, distance school became a mere remote delivery, through the electronic register, of homework; and frequently, the lack of collegiality of many class councils implied and overload of work for the students, with the consequent excess of work for those who help them at home. Furthermore, in the case of more evolved schools that have been able to create e-learning systems, the parent has to help the children also in the phases of the connection, by accompanying, for reasons of security, the children during the entire phase of online connection. The main reflections that can be done with regard to this element, that foresee possible sources of new inequalities/potential disadvantages, are three:

  • First of all, it must be noted the fact that the schools made the assumption that all families were/are digitally hybridized, meaning that the digital element naturally belongs to their experience. It has been discovered that this is not true, not even in the societies or very developed countries. Therefore, it has been necessary to record the digital gap (lack of tools, lack of connection), a gap that penalised especially the families with a low economic and cultural income, which frequently coincide with migrant families.

  • Secondly, families had to deal with a process of forced digital literacy of the parents, with the need for a technological update of parents. In this case as well, school, maybe because it was taken by surprise and it was involved in the fast creation of distance teaching, did not adequately consider the risk of making the family perceive homework as a proxy and of an excessive exposure of parents, who are already affected by smart-working and who lack, however, the necessary skills to effectively help the children.

  • Lastly, the situation caused by the emergency ended up increasing the range of behaviours that already existed in the crisis of the normal dynamics of parents supporting their children with their homework. On the one hand, the perception of a greater load of responsibilities or the perception of one's own inadequacy brought some parents to avoid dealing with the problem (this is the case of the families of “silent” students, who ever since the beginning of the emergency did not communicate with their teachers); on the other hand, the awareness of having to compensate, somehow, for the lack of school time, brought other parents to a greater involvement in the children's activity, with the problem of not allowing the child to be autonomous and with the consequent loss of distance (and frequently of mistrust) towards the teachers (but in some cases, also the increase of mistrust and resentment).

2. The digital media in family relations: challenges and opportunities

The third and last element of this fast analysis must necessarily be represented by the relation between family and digital media. As we have seen, the work and study necessities surely implied an increase in screen time in the family. To this we must add the supplementary screen time due to the impossibility to go outside and plan outdoor activities, with the consequent increase in the use of video games, digital content platforms, activities in social networks. This data allows to make different considerations.

  • A first observation concerns the impact of this media overheating on family commensality. We frequently hear parents and children comment their days by saying: “We see each other during meals". This seems to underline the risk -which is not exclusive but real and, therefore, it must be underlined - that the increase in digital consumption can end up weakening the bond by creating isolation, a reduction of shared time, a progressive retreat in one's own individual space. It is the living apart together scenario, already foreseen for some time by research.

  • A second opposed observation highlights, on the other hand, how the media -and specifically the home TV- produced an unquestionable increase in the internal relationality of family with the reproduction (frequently involuntary) of situations that belong to different eras of research on media inside the family. Let us think in particular about the function of television as a domestic fireplace, as a space that in some moments gathers the entire family, offers shared discussion moments (as it happens during the newscasts, to comment the new data on the contagion), favours the fact of gathering together while deciding what to watch, and it provides the day, that has lost its temporal division (because the external activities disappeared) with a new rhythm. A lot of parents, during these weeks, experience the fact of watching TV with their adolescent children, that in normal times would have been outside with their friends. It is an intriguing opportunity to rebuild forgotten habits, discuss together, exchange ideas on issues by starting from the agenda proposed by the programming.

  • Also, in the case of broken and blended families, forced isolation brought the separated or remarried parent who does not live with the children to find in social networks, instant messaging services and video-communication devices valuable allies to remain in contact with his/her children. A trend that has already been noted by research during these last years, but that was also exponentially verified throughout the last weeks. In this case as well (especially in a future projection), the data is bivalent: in fact, if on the one hand this opportunity for parents and children to communicate and have relations amplifies the possibilities to have the physical meetings during the weekends that are foreseen by the judicial agreements, on the other hand, it poses the problem of how to consider this time of virtual coexistence as compared to the time of physical coexistence established by law.

3. What will remain after the emergency?

A last observation (that can actually be applied to the first two elements of our analysis) has to do with the after: what will happen once we return to normality? Will these amplified digital diets transform into bulimic media consumption behaviours that will be hard to reduce? More in general, by looking also at the other elements, will the habit to integrate work and family thanks to smart-working take away more time from family relations thus determining their worsening? And will distance schooling become a permanent excess of responsibility for the parent by adding to his/her many tasks an additional one?

It is likely that everything depends on the quality of the family relation. If the family relation and the alliance between parents (in the case of broken families) “holds out”, if it is good, digital domestication surely is easier and the family is able to enjoy its positive aspects. On the other hand, probably, the problem will arise if the family relation is weak or absent and the relation between the parents is characterised by conflict: as it has always happened, media do not take away time and space from family, they just occupy the time that the family left free and unprotected.