Parenting through ‘modern technology’: learning from the pandemic

By Candice Morgan-Glendinning and Melanie Griffiths.

Research being launched on 8th June, which looks at the impact of immigration policies on UK families, found that Home Office decision makers routinely argue that family life can be adequately sustained by virtual means. The COVID-19 pandemic provides lived insight into the reality of such claims.

For the majority of us, the pandemic has been a time of social distance and isolation. Digital platforms have proven invaluable in helping us stay connected with friends and family. But although Zoom quizzes, Houseparty socials and FaceTime coffee breaks were initially enthusiastically adopted, over time these forms of communication have dropped away. It has become increasingly apparent that they do not replace real-life contact, particularly with children, older relatives and lovers.

Yet, even before the pandemic, indefinite physical separation from loved ones was a lived reality for thousands of families as a result of the UK’s strict immigration system. For them, a common refrain from the Home Office is the assertion that meaningful parental or partner relationships can be adequately maintained from abroad ‘through the use of modern technologies’. That is no longer an abstract line. Many of us have battled with ‘modern technologies’ for over a year in an attempt to remain socially connected, giving us insights into the realities of sustaining virtual family lives.

The realities of remote communcation

Our ESRC-funded project ‘Deportability and the Family’, conducted at the University of Bristol, examined the lived impact of the UK’s immigration system on families facing a member’s removal from the country. The claim that a parent – especially fathers – can provide adequate parenting remotely from overseas is often made by the Home Office in immigration decisions and upheld at the immigration tribunal at appeal.

Image: Nenad Stojkovic on Flickr

From our interviews, reviews of decision letters and observations of appeals, it seemed that little consideration is given to the realities of this statement. We saw no consideration, for example, of the costs and practicalities of ensuring decent internet access and equipment, the complexity of coordinating meetings across time zones and work and school obligations, or of the developmental needs, patience and concentration of young children. The difference between material and virtual contact, and children’s needs for physically present parents are played down or ignored, with the focus instead squarely on the ‘public interest’ of an effective immigration system.

It is quite possible that the widespread reliance upon ‘modern technologies’ for maintaining social networks during the COVID-19 pandemic will be used by future immigration decision-makers as evidence that family life can be maintained virtually. To explore people’s real-life experiences during the pandemic, we spoke to five sets of grandparents about trying to stay connected to young grandchildren during lockdown.  

Virtual grandparents

All the grandparents expressed their joy at being able to see their grandchildren virtually at a time when physical visits were prohibited. However, all quickly pointed out that it was nonetheless a poor substitute for face-to-face contact. Interactions were hard work and relied upon a parent being physically present with the child to keep them interested and engaged. The grandparents reported finding it harder than normal to communicate. Screen-based exchanges, with little possibility of connecting through touch, toys or books work poorly with children still developing language or communicating in non-verbal ways.

Rather than participating in their grandchildren’s lives, the grandparents said they felt like observers – a digital version of a grandparent, detached from reality. They found it hard to express their love, leading to fears that the children would feel abandoned. And after the calls were over, the grandparents were left feeling emotional and frequently even more distant than before. They were struck by competing emotions: wanting to see their grandchildren but dreading how empty they would feel afterwards. ‘Modern technology’ offered some connection but was no replacement for physical contact.

Digital fathers

The experiences of these grandparents during the COVID-19 lockdown echo those reported by parents separated from their children by the immigration system. Virtual interaction distances as well as connects. Fathers watch their babies grow up on video, in some cases never having held them physically. They are reliant upon partners to make time for the interactions and work to keep the children’s interest, both as distractable small children and as older children with lives of their own. If relationships break down, such requests may be too much to ask from ex-partners.

As one mother said of her children’s father: I dont think you can really co-parent over the phone. Theres only so much talking you can do. They need to see him. They need to feel him. They need to touch him. And they can’t do that through video calls and WhatsApp. It just doesn’t compare.

As with the grandparents, the fathers in the study reported time moving quickly in virtual family-life. Birthdays and developmental milestones are missed. They struggle to co-parent effectively; unable to respond properly to situations, missing details of their children’s lives, hindered from helping with homework and school or social problems. Digital family interactions are painful, and as with the grandparents, leave separated parents feeling even more alone afterwards.

Report launch: ‘Deportability and the Family’

A virtual interaction is just that. A vision. A picture of a loved one. What is consistent across the narratives of those separated from children – be it by immigration rules or the pandemic – is the pain of these interactions; the inability to connect with the person at the other end in a meaningful way. A screen cannot replace physical interaction, touch and play. It does not help with childcare, bath or bedtime. But whilst those distanced by COVID-19 lockdowns know the separation is time limited, for those separated by borders and immigration rules, the reliance on virtual contact is indefinite, sometimes forever. And as years go by, relationships, patience and memories fade. The pain can become too much to continue persevering.

The report from this project is being launched on an online webinar at 4pm on 8th June 2021, in collaboration with the NGO Bail for Immigration Detainees. Please join us for this event and discussion with speakers including Sonali Naik QC and a parent with direct experience of these issues. For more details please visit the event page. The report itself will be available after 8th June from here.

Melanie Griffiths conducted this research while at the University of Bristol, but is currently a Birmingham Fellow in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham. She works on mobility and immigration enforcement in the UK. Candice Morgan-Glendinning is an independent social researcher with a particular interest in immigration, human trafficking and modern slavery policy.

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