Today’s deployed service members have better access to communications with loved ones than their predecessors could dream of. From satellite phones to texts, emails, Facebook, and other social media, deployed personnel have more options for staying in touch than ever. But is it a net positive for their families?
A recently released study by University of Missouri Researcher, Dr. Brian Houston, in conjunction with colleagues from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and Oklahoma City Veterans Affairs Medical Center suggests that using new communication technologies can have negative consequences for both soldiers and their families.
The study – detailed in the article “Family Communication Across the Military Deployment Experience: Child and Spouse Report of Communication Frequency and Quality and Associated Emotions, Behaviors, and Reactions” – was published in the Journal of Loss and Trauma. It assessed email/text communications and their effects on families of deploying Oklahoma Army Guard members.
In-person interviews were done with Guardsmen and their families prior to, during, and after deployment. The face-to-face interviews assured genuine unrehearsed responses from children in particular. Social media were discussed peripherally, but the survey was taken before widespread utilization of Skype.
“The interesting thing we found,” Houston said, “was that communications like email and text might make an anxious situation even worse because they’re short messages without a lot of emotional cues.
“Children who are upset about deployment will try to check up on their deployed parent, get some reassurances about something that happened or [describe] what happened at school. They’ll often get a brief text message or email back that doesn’t have the encouragement or support they were looking for. The limitations of those kinds of communications can cause misinterpretation, particularly for children who are looking for reassurance at a very stressful time.”
Misinterpretation is familiar to most anyone who emails or texts, Houston added. But when deployed service members are in potentially dangerous theaters, the confusion created is magnified.
“Sometimes you’ll get a short reply and it seems like the person isn’t interested or doesn’t care. A parent in Afghanistan may be sending text or email messages in difficult circumstances and may not have a lot of time to elaborate. The stresses that parent experiences may further limit how well they communicate.”
Motivation for the study came from the Mental Illness Research, Education & Clinical Center, an arm of the Veterans Administration which was interested in the mental health effects of deployment on military families. While a number of aspects of the experience were analyzed, Houston was interested in the communications process in particular.
“It’s particularly interesting for National Guard families because they are often not located on base or in places where there are other military families around. We were interested in how communications were helping families in this situation.”
The surveys found that the ease and dependability of modern text/email communications can alleviate worry among children and non-deployed spouses. But the increasingly routine and frequent by-appointment nature of such communications can also create expectations that actually heighten anxiety.
“Imagine sending a message to your deployed parent and not hearing back from them for 24 hours when normally they reply in a couple hours,” Houston said. “What’s usually an immediate medium may create expectations from which any deviation can be distressing. If I routinely text mom and hear back from her in a couple hours and then I don’t hear back from her for a couple days, I have no idea what’s going on. Imagine the anxiety related to that?”
And while the study focused on children and spouses at home, its implications for deployed service members themselves are equally important Houston acknowledged.
“Soldier efficacy is beyond the scope of this study, but hearing anecdotally from some of the service members we’ve talked to, being so connected can be a real strain. If you’re in Iraq and staying up with the day to day stresses your spouse is experiencing or problems your kids are having, you’re adding stressors that in World War II you’d have left behind. Today, you’re facing the challenges of deployment and you’re connected to what’s going on at home and can do nothing about it. That might be more stressful for the deployed individual.”
More research, Houston concluded, is needed. Preliminary conclusions from the study his group conducted were provided to the Oklahoma Guard and to another research group at Penn State, which is working on communication recommendations for the Department of Defense (DoD). However, the data have not been directly supplied to the Army.
The implications of non-direct communications like a change in an individual spouse, child, or partner’s Facebook page can have unintended consequences and raise stress too. Online photos can be misinterpreted. These facets need study as well, Houston advised.
An ancillary finding of the surveys was that many families of deployed service members restricted news intake related to the theaters in which their loved ones were serving, particularly Afghanistan and Iraq. For both children and spouses, avoiding often-sensationalistic reporting was perceived to reduce stress and anxiety.
Should limiting the volume of personal communication between those on deployment and those at home beyond security considerations be considered?
“That seems to be what this study suggests,” Houston said. “Our study speaks to the family and the child side. If communication is going to be unlimited, families need to understand its implications and help their kids process it and deal with disruptions. Short text messages don’t just mean dad or mom is upset with you.”