Exploring middle ground: positioning middle adults within the familial digital communication landscape.

2017-02-27T23:20:29Z (GMT) by Rickard, Scott
In the 1980s, a major English study by the Brunel University team that included Roger Silverstone, Eric Hirsch, David Morely, and Sonia Livingstone explored how families had ‘domesticated’ media technologies such as the television. Since then, few studies have explored families and their relationship with communication technologies, particularly in relation to domestication and the constantly evolving digital environment. This thesis explores the ways in which families are adjusting to evolving communication practices in a rapidly changing digital era. During the era of the Brunel University study, communication technologies were primarily communal and in a fixed location; during the last decade, technological advancements have seen dramatic changes in communication devices. Devices are now converged, individual rather than communal, and mobile rather than fixed. Families are also now acknowledged as constituting more than a group of people who share the same household. This thesis uniquely explores family from a generational perspective where three generations exist – youth, middle adults, and older adults – irrespective of their residential location and place within the extended family. The results and discussion focus primarily on the generational group of middle adults who are often neglected in communication studies, and it provides valuable insights into this hidden group as they negotiate their use of digital technologies along with those of their children and parents. Using a multiple-method approach including desktop research, an online questionnaire, and face-to-face interviews, this research responds to the key question: ‘How are the adult generations within a family communicating using digital communication technologies?’ The results indicate that the respondent families used a multimodal approach to communication, especially across generations. They used a range of products that included email and short message service (SMS), as well as using voice through landline phones, mobile phones and telephony products such as Skype. As expected, younger generations used a wider range of technologies than older generations. This study’s results also indicated that families need assistance with digital technologies, especially in relation to domestic networking. Within the family, the important paradigm shift from communal to individual technologies means that all family members need to be informed users of digital technologies in order to keep in touch with each other on an individual rather than a communal basis. So, who helps whom to make domestication decisions about consumption, incorporation, and maintenance? In this study, it was the role of the middle adults to do much of the domestic networking for the other generations. Thus, middle adults play a crucial role in negotiating the type of communication technologies being used, how they are used, and how they are maintained by individuals across households and in some cases across continents.