Using Social Media to Strengthen Family Bonds

A Practical Guide for Parents

Brad Howell | Jul 8, 2013

Photo by Derek Brabender.

The attack of snowballs caught him off guard.

Father and columnist Peter McKay tells the story of his encounter with the world of Club Penguin a few years back. Describing his efforts at digitally connecting with his kids, McKay compares the site to a type of middle school social: everyone is there to hang out with his/her penguin avatar friends…but no one actually talks to each other.

Despite a rough learning curve on avatar operations, things were going well relationally. His kids seemed genuinely happy to join him online. Then McKay made the tragic mistake of launching into his parenting agenda of chores and homework right there in Club Penguin. In response, one of his supposedly loving children hurled a virtual snowball at papa penguin.

This frozen act of hostility proved to inspire surrounding penguins.

Suddenly, McKay was under a barrage attack of digital snowballs, burying papa penguin in a pile of virtual snow. To rub salt in the avatar’s emotional wounds, McKay’s offspring waddled off to another area of Club Penguin, with little regard for either their father’s plight or their homework.

Thwarted at his computer-mediated parenting efforts, McKay writes: “I won't go back any time soon. The real world may not be as exciting as Penguin Island, but at least out here if one of those little creeps lobs a snowball at me, I'm big enough to wash his face with a handful of exceedingly non-virtual snow.[["McKay, Peter, "Homemaking: Parenting on Thin Ice." (accessed March 28, 2012).]]

The online world turned McKay’s existing world on its head.

It is not a secret that teens use social media to connect with their friends. However, teens also use social media to connect with adults they trust and with whom they have a positive relationship.[[Boyd, Danah Michele. Taken out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics. 406. Berkeley, CA: University of California, Berkeley, 2008. 258.]] Like McKay hoped, this can extend to relationships within families.

For many of us adults, however, online activity with our kids can be socially disorientating. Those of us who see the relational potential of social media may discover that the reward for our efforts is a loss of parental authority. These new digital interactions are often foreign to our own experiences when we were teens. They also leave us wondering who we are online in relation to our kids, or why something our kids seem to enjoy so much feels like it is tearing our family apart.

Thankfully, we can learn a few things from research that shed light on this new parenting world. The good news for parents is that the very digital tools that have the potential to be destructive for families can also be used instead towards building new bridges of communication and family intimacy.

How Digital Tools Can Strengthen Family Connections

Texters Feel Closer

Among participants in an LG-sponsored survey on texting, most parents who text with their teens report texting helps them feel closer to one another, and more than half of those teens report the same thing.[[Sophy, Charles, "Do as I Say, Not as I Text! Lg Text Ed Survey." (accessed July 16, 2010).]] While it may seem suspicious that a corporate-sponsored study discovered a product they sell could strengthen family bonds, the same study revealed that half of both parents and teens admit to driving and texting. So texting, while potentially helpful in bringing families closer together, also has a dangerous dark side.

Families Who Play Together…

Beyond texting, using the Internet to communicate or play online games with family and friends increases social capital among users (“social capital” is the strength of human connections that contributes to a personal sense of wellbeing). The benefit seems to lie in doing something together, even if the activity itself seems somewhat pointless to us as parents.[[Shen, Cuihua, and Dimitri Williams. "Unpacking Time Online: Connecting Internet and Massively Multiplayer Online Game Use with Psychosocial Well-Being," Communication Research 38, no. 1 (2011): 123-149. 140, 145.]] Playing together creates opportunities for positive family experiences. Of course, playing any game together would be great; participating in online social gaming merely is about joining them in what many are already doing. Positive experiences like this are an important ingredient in developing a growing sense of personal wellbeing.[[Howell, Ryan T, and Graham Hill. "The Mediators of Experiential Purchases: Determining the Impact of Pscychological Needs Satisfaction and Social Comparison." Research Report, San Francisco State University, 2009.]]

We All Like to be Heard

As an added bonus, people want to share their good experiences with others, and social media provides that platform. Though individuals enjoy sharing their thoughts and experiences whether the audience is real or implied, knowing someone is paying attention makes sharing more personally valuable.[[Tamir, Diana, and Jason Mitchell, "Disclosing Information About the Self Is Intrinsically Rewarding." (accessed April 21, 2012). 2-4.]] At first glance, this finding appears to make social media incredibly narcissistic.

In that line of thinking, a team of researchers conducted a study on Facebook users. They predicted that individuals with the greatest desire to shape public perceptions would self-disclose the most often.[[Ledbetter, Andrew M., Joseph P Mazer, Jocely M. DeGroot, Kevin R. Meyer, Yuping Mac, and Brian Swafford. "Attitudes toward Online Social Connection and Self-Disclosure Predictors of Facebook Communication and Relational Closeness," Communication Research 38, no. 1 (2011): 27-53.]] Surprisingly, it turns out that the more a person desires to control appearances the less likely they are to participate on Facebook.

Most social media allows others to comment on, post about or tag a picture of a user. Realistically, it is far easier to avoid these sites than to control others’ actions. Consequently, the value of many social media platforms is not in controlling a self-projected image but sharing within the context of close personal relationships. In other words, sharing through social media is mostly about being heard by our friends.

Teens Need Our Support

Adolescents use social media to get advice and support from adults they know, respect and who are willing to engage online with them.[[Boyd, Danah Michele. Taken out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics. 406. Berkeley, CA: University of California, Berkeley, 2008. 258.]] Because the majority of digital conversations focus on experiences of everyday life, it is inherently personal.[[Hodkinson, Paul, and Sian Lincoln. "Online Journals as Virtual Bedrooms? Young People, Identity and Personal Space," Young: Nordic Journal of Youth Research 16, no. 1 (2008): 27-46. 38-39.]] In large part because of this, teens view their digital connections as lifelines to their support structure.[[Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2011, 246.]] As parents, we will want to be a part of that online support structure for our teenagers.

Toward a Framework For Using Social Media to Strengthen Family Connections

Writers versus Talkers

Using social media to strengthen family relationships is not so much a matter of adopting a series of steps, as it is a reframing of perspective. For example, some people prefer written styles of interpersonal communication, while others prefer a verbal communication style.[[Ramirez Jr., Artemio, and Kathy Bronek. "Im Me: Instant Messaging as Relational Maintenance and Everyday Communication," Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 26, no. 1 (2009): 291-314, 309-310.]] Knowing one’s own preference of communication, perception or use of the Internet helps to understand and identify others’ preferences.

For example, say you take a silly family picture with a movie cutout. If it’s okay with your kids, tag them and digitally share the moment. The verbal communicators in the family already have a moment to share their fun comments, the writers can add their thoughts from their phones or when they get home. It may surprise you how the writers in the family recreate that experience and use it in other ways. My kids took some of those posted pictures to create a fun and memorable Father’s Day card. It was awesome! By taking a brief moment to transfer a bit of our everyday lives into a format that writers can participate in, both communication types have a greater opportunity to help create family memories.

From Information to Relationship

When it comes to communication, adolescents are the most likely group to experience the Internet as a relational tool,[[Valkenburg, P.M., and J. Peter. "Social Consequences of the Internet for Adolescents: A Decade of Research," Current Directions in Psychological Science 18, (2009): 1-5.]] and chronology may be to blame for this. Early in the new millennium the creation of an Internet social platform reframed it from a web of interconnected documents to a web of interconnected people.[[Adams, Paul, "The Real Live Social Network." (accessed November 1, 2012).]] Consequently, a person’s perspective on the Internet’s social-ability may reveal more about when they adopted it than how old they are.

Here is how this plays out. As recent as five years ago, only about a third of people age 65 and older used the Internet; it was not until 2012 that the number crept above fifty percent.[[Madden, Mary, and Amanda Lenhart, "Teens and Technology 2013." Washington, D.C. (accessed March 14, 2013).]] Of course, baby boomers are part of the increase; however, like teens, any digital newcomers in this group would be experiencing these tools primarily as relational ones. To them, the Internet and other digital tools were created to connect with their friends and grandkids, and before we know it, grandma has exceeded her texting limits.

Coming Alongside our Kids Online

Up until the latter half of the nineteenth century, communication between generations was more likely to consider the developmental and conceptual understanding of the child, and that responsibility was on the parent.[[Elkind, David. Ties That Stress: The New Family Imbalance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994. 102-106.]] Also historically, children learned alongside adults. It is increasingly less obvious in our culture how young people are supposed to learn the skills necessary to engage in adult society. In contemporary culture, it seems that it is the young people themselves who are expected to be the initiators and developers of those skills.[[Fiske, Alan, "Relational Models Theory 2.0." (accessed November 29, 2012). 14.]]

For the most part teens are learning how to use social media within their friendship structure as they navigate the digital landscape.[[Gross, E.F. "Adolescent Internet Use: What We Expect, What Teens Report," Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 25, no. 6 (2004): 633-649.]] Consequently, they are developing relational patterns in isolation from the broader society. To bridge that growing divide, we will need to provide context, training and tools for teens to interpret messages from the adult sphere.

Have you ever told a funny story at home and your kid mutters “lol” instead of laughing? Participating with our teens online helps us know that lol has meaning. It communicates to someone not physically present that you laughed, demonstrating how we interpreted his or her message.

If that group of friends continues to use that same form of communication, despite being physically present to each other, they have developed a pattern of socialization apart from the broader society. They now narrate their own laughs. This is something I observed among teens during my research.

Teens may need coaching to learn appropriate cultural behavior and understand messages coming from adults. This is not something teens have lost; it is something they are developing on their own. To bridge this we have to start where the teens actually are, not where we think they should be.

Simultaneously, we need to listen carefully to what our teens are saying online. Adults who do not listen but instead push their own agenda frustrate teens.[[Livingstone, "The Challenge of Engaging Youth Online: Contrasting Producers' and Teenagers' Interpretations of Websites," 170,173,179, 180.]] In order to build a social capital bridge to the next generation, we will need to put our social power positions at risk.[[Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000., 411.]] This may mean being open to learning about social media from our children. It might mean risking personal competence by digitally going where it feels like no parent has had to go before.

McKay was willing to go digitally where his kids were, but he wanted to use the space for something it was not created for.

Had he stayed and allowed Club Penguin to be what his kids used it for (most likely as a place to hang out with friends, play games and showcase their personal igloo) he would have eventually learned how to do what kids do there. More importantly, he would have given his own kids an opportunity to show their dad what they can do or have created on the site. He would have truly found another dimension for connecting with his kids and an opportunity to deepen his relationship with them.

Ultimately, this is the potential power digital tools have to strengthen family connections. They provide us with additional opportunities to play with and listen to our kids, helping us to feel closer to them as we guide them toward adulthood.

Action Points

  • Ask your teen to show you how to do something online. Just talking about how to use the Internet better can facilitate relationship building.[[Xie, Bo. "Using the Internet for Offline Relationship Formation," Social Science Computer Review 25, no. 3 (2007): 396-404.]]

  • If your teens are social gamers, join them online in a game of their choice.

  • Find a recent post by your teen to which you can give a digital thumbs-up. During your next meal together, invite your teen to tell you about their post. Then share how their post impacted you.

  • Do a digital inventory on your own social media usage, noting with whom you spend the most time interacting online. How are you living present with your teens both online and off?

Brad Howell

Brad Howell is the parent of two high school students, the associate director for Fuller Seminary’s Northern California campuses and an adjunct instructor in Fuller’s Youth, Family and Culture department. This coming fall he will be teaching a new online class, Youth and Family Ministry in a Culture of Digital Relationships. He anticipates graduating Fall 2013 with his Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary. You can connect with Brad at

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