Communication technology can help teens connect with fathers who don’t live with them, study finds

Communication technology plays a major role in the relationships between teens and their nonresident fathers, new research from a University of Maine professor finds.

Cellphones, email, social media and apps facilitate more frequent and meaningful communication that allows children and fathers who live apart to feel better connected, according to Patrick Cheek, visiting assistant professor of human development and family studies.

Research has long shown that dads who don’t live with their kids are more likely to grow emotionally detached. That can lead to worse outcomes for children in terms of academics and behavior problems, as well as increased levels of poverty and hardship. However, Cheek says recent studies suggest that nonresident fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives is on the uptick, with fewer fathers having zero contact with their kids.

“Higher involvement is related to things like fathers being more likely to pay child support on a regular basis, and increased social well-being of their children,” says Cheek, lead author of a study published recently by The Family Journal, titled “The Facilitating Role of Communication Technology in Nonresident Father-Teen Relationships.”

According to Cheek, previous research on fathers who don’t live with their children focused on in-person visits or contacts via landline telephone or letter writing. The role of new communication tools hadn’t been examined as thoroughly. In addition, fathers who are separated from their children geographically may have been unintentionally left out of research focused on face-to-face contact.

“If you look back just 15 years, or even a decade, the whole arena has changed,” Cheek says.

The number of children in the U.S. with nonresident fathers has grown in recent decades. Four in 10 kids live in a single-parent household, and in about 80 percent of cases the live-in parent is a mother, Cheek says. Factors contributing to the rise include divorce, as well as the increasing number of children born outside marriage.

As communication technology makes it easier for nonresident fathers to stay involved in their children’s lives, Cheek’s study looked at the meanings teens attach to those interactions. In interviews with individuals who had grown up in a nonresident father household, he identified three themes associated with father-teen contact through new communication technology.

The first theme was that these new ways to communicate were important and meaningful in a variety of ways. They helped fathers and teens maintain contact despite busy lives. They allowed communication to be ongoing and less sporadic. They even allowed teens and nonresident fathers to circumvent a live-in parent who’s not on good terms with their former partner.

“The landline phone might ring and the resident parent — maybe a mother — might say: ‘Don’t pick that up, it’s not your dad’s time to call,’” Cheek says. “That phenomenon has really changed due to technology.”

The second theme was that technology is able to make children and fathers feel part of the same world. Cheek says several study participants mentioned communication technology’s role in involving dads in events they otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to participate in, whether due to geographical barriers or poor relations with the live-in parent.

“One person talked about sending selfies during graduation, and how that made their dad feel involved even though he wasn’t physically present,” says Cheek. “Another person said when they found out what colleges they got into they were able to text their dad and share the excitement with him.”

The flip side of that was children who talked about using technology to control how much access their fathers had in their lives. A few participants talked about blocking their dads on social media. Some felt judged by their father’s comments. But Cheek says others talked about wanting to protect their dad’s feelings.

“There would be all of these family events with pictures and everything, and of course, dad wouldn’t be part of those. So one participant limited what dad could see, so he wouldn’t feel bad,” he says.

In family studies, Cheek says that although it’s generally good to monitor children’s technology use, the ability for teens to control their parents’ access could in some cases be beneficial to their development — for instance, if they have lots of instability in other aspects of their lives. Cheek says this is something he wants to explore in future research.

The third theme Cheek found in his research was that technology helped children and nonresident fathers do family process — what he calls “the act of doing family.” For example, when a nonresident father is no longer part of the physical family unit, it can be hard to involve both parents in decision-making.

“One participant talked about how technology helped circumvent the ‘mom-said-this, dad-said-that’ phenomenon,” Cheek says. “One participant recalled wanting to go to a school dance and be out after curfew for the first time, and mom said it was too big of decision for her to make alone, so she added dad to the text conversation.”

Besides having implications for families, Cheek says his research could be applied by family therapists to increase involvement of nonresident fathers in co-parenting relationships regardless of existing barriers such as geography.

Cheek warns that communication technology should not be thought of as a replacement for in-person contact.

“In my research, most people actually prefer in-person contact with their nonresident father. The catch is that in-person contact is low or nonexistent in many situations,” he says.

Previous research has shown that forcing families to do things together can be harmful in when there’s a lot of conflict. In these situations, forcing kids to FaceTime with dad, for example, could make things worse.

“I would say communication technology is most useful in relationships that are positive. Father-teen relationships that are heavily strained or have a lot of tension might not benefit from technology,” Cheek says.

Although research has shown that communication between nonresident fathers and their children is increasing, further study is needed to show how much overall. In addition, Cheek says it is difficult for researchers to keep up with the constantly changing fads in communication technology. Since mobile phones and the like were not part of everyday life for previous generations, future studies would also benefit from including fathers’ perceptions of technology’s role in their relationships with kids.

Contact: Casey Kelly, 207.581.3751