Media Multiplexity Theory: Communicating with Grown Children


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Texting adult children is a good strategy to build a positive relationship, according to recent research. Image by greyerbaby.

What’s the best way to keep in touch with your young-adult child? Text? Phone? Facebook?

Jennifer Schonn, a doctoral student in communication studies at the University of Kansas published a study in the journal Emerging Adulthood designed to answer the question on the minds of concerned parents of kids who’ve recently left the nest:

What works to keep communication a positive experience for everyone involved?

Her research addresses a modern phenomena- the ability to communicate with children using a variety of mediums.

Studying Communication in Families

Sociologists study human groups in all their forms; the family is the most basic and arguably the most important group in society. How family members communicate is of particular interest to those studying the socialization of children. Similarly, psychologists are interested in the ways communication styles impact children, and have identified which styles are associated with more positive outcomes.

For example, Chris Segrin, PhD and Jeanne Flora, PhD presented a multi-disciplinary overview in Family Communication, published in 2005. They review topics such as authoritarian families, and “emotional-dismissing parents” who trivialize negative emotions in children.

In recent years, the number of ways that family members communicate has mushroomed. The rise in social media use, video streaming calls, and availability of cell phones leads to a need to expand the concept of parental-child communication.

Media Multiplexity Theory (MMT)

Media Multiplexity Theory (MMT) was first developed in 2002 by Caroline Haythornthwaite, PhD, in Strong, Weak, and Latent Ties and the Impact of New Media.

Schonn sums up MMT as those with stronger ties will use more media to communicate than those with weaker ties. Jennifer Schonn’s research tests this theory in the context of parent-adult child relationships.

In an exclusive interview, Schonn she explains to Decoded Science how experts define strong and weak ties:

Tie strength relates to how close or intimate two people are. A weak tie might be someone like a colleague or fellow student in class that you don’t know well. A strong tie would be a colleague whom you are also friends with or a best friend, close family member, romantic partner, etc.” 

The strength of the tie does not depend on how someone feels about another person.

While relationship status defines the strength of ties, Schonn reports in her interview with Decoded Science prior research indicates weak ties communicate infrequently while strong ties communicate frequently. In other words, as you might expect, we communicate more with our family of origin, current family, and good friends than we do with those with whom we merely work or live near.

MMT and Parent-Adult Child Communication

Research shows using a variety of channels makes for a more positive relationship. Image by jzlomek.

Schonn’s work focused on “communication repertoire size including email, social media posts, texting, phone calls, video calls, interacting on gaming sites, walkie-talkie apps among others. She also measured communication competence.”

Schonn described communication competence in her interview with Decoded Science, Communication competence applies to all communication, not just that related to technology. It refers to both the appropriateness (Dad texted me about sex, how inappropriate) and effectiveness (can he get his message across easily or not).”

In addition to measuring types of communication, Schonn measured individual’s satisfaction with their relationships with their family members.  Subjects rated their relationships  on a 7-point scale of satisfying–dissatisfying,  fulfilling–disappointing, positive–negative, rewarding–punishing, and good–bad.”

The results? Mothers use more means of communication than fathers. Schonn notes this did not surprise her. She explained to Decoded Science,[o]ther research supports the idea that fathers aren’t as connected as mothers, such as that from Pew Research Center. In addition, research finds that women tend to use new technologies more than men do to maintain their relationships, so even if men are using new technologies it might not be to contact their children (or have their children contact them).”

Schonn concluded her article with a summary, noting she found the number of media parents and adult children utilize to maintain their relationship does modestly influence satisfaction.”

Implications for Parents and Adult Children

Decoded Science asked for Schonn about the implications of her research. She suggests “[p]arents desiring a better relationship with their adult child should consider working with their child to find an additional technology or two they can utilize to communicate with each other. At least one channel the pair utilizes should be asynchronous, so communication is possible even when a phone call or Skype session is not.”  An asynchronous channel would be one where the parties do not both have to be available at the same time, such as email or text messaging.

She adds “[p]arents should also be cognizant of how they are communicating with their adult child. Does their child seem to react in a way that suggests their communication is appropriate and effective? If not, they should try to strengthen their communication skills.”  Good communication skills might involve more listening and reflecting on the other person’s comments, asking for more information, and avoiding closed ended-questions that can be answered only with one word answers.

Schonn also suggests adult children who want better relationships can “try to make it easy for their parents to add an addition channel for communication by offering suggestions on easy technologies to use and by helping them learn to use it.”

Keeping Family Ties Strong

Schonn’s research verified that using multiple means of communicating with adult children is associated with higher levels of satisfaction with the relationship. The take-away for parents and adult children hoping for strong, positive interaction is to communicate using a variety of channels: land-lines, cell phones, text messaging, social media websites, Skype, and even gaming sites.

Hesitating to Facebook ‘friend’ your parent or adult child? According to Media Multiplexity Theory, it might be the right move to knit a positive relationship.

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