Digital technology: a new tool for separated families


How can a family share life when it doesn’t share home? UCLouvain researcher Laura Merla is passionate about such eclectic family contexts, in which the use of information and communication technologies like Facebook and WhatsApp become tools for creating the co-presence crucial to having a family life.

‘For the past ten years, the main theme of my research has been the transformation of family relationships in a context of geographical mobility’, says Laura Merla, professor of sociology at UCLouvain. For six years she has been the director of the Interdisciplinary Research Center on Families and Sexualities (CIRFASE), part of the Institute for the Analysis of Change in Contemporary and Historical Societies (IACCHOS), developing a programme of research on family sociology, migration, and new information and communication technologies (NICT).

By using the term ‘geographic mobility’, the professor encompasses many realities, including families in international migration situations or dispersed across several countries, who despite distance maintain a connection. These ‘transnational’ families are not the only ones at the heart of Prof. Merla’s studies. She also looks at mobility within national borders, that is, at ‘multilocal’ families resulting from divorce or separation, who set up an alternating residence system. ‘In this family pattern, children have two houses’, Prof. Merla explains. ‘Because of their parents’ separation, they live every other week with one, then the other. This situation is “new” in our sedentary societies: with two homes, children grow up in two different normative systems.’

A project funded by the European Research Council

Research on alternating residence is underway in Belgium and Europe. The most studied question concerns well-being relating to the growth of a child in a system of alternating residence. ‘My approach is different, and deeply rooted in sociology’, Prof. Merla says. ‘I make no judgment in terms of well-being, but I start from the obvious fact that a third of children in Belgium have divorced parents and many alternate residences. As this is a reality, we must understand whether and how these children appropriate this way of life, how their family socialisation takes place, what sense of “home” they develop, what practices and skills they mobilise – and do so without judging.’

To understand how these children maintain family relationships when they live in a two-home situation, CIRFASE mounted the MobileKids project funded by the European Research Council. This study combines doctoral research in Belgium and France and postdoctoral research in Italy. ‘We work with a small number of children’, Prof. Merla says. ‘In qualitative sociology, the idea is to meet people where they live and not to work with a large number via a standard questionnaire. Thus we don’t seek to have a representative sample: it’s about understanding complex social processes by working in depth with about 30 families per country, with varying profiles.’ This framework required one researcher on site in each country: Bérengère Nobels in Belgium, Kristina Papanikolaou in France and Sarah Murru in Italy.

They try to induce children to express themselves, whereas previous research in this field prioritised questioning parents. ‘Parents are also interviewed, but the focus is placed on each child, who is visited three times a year on average, then a year later we go back to see how the situation has evolved. This very thorough framework can be achieved because it focuses on a small number of young people aged 10 to 16.’ The method aims to offer the child various modes of expression based on tools emanating particularly from social geography. ‘The interview is based on a medium or activity that serves to get the child talking and to anchor the discussion in the real world. The main activity is the “Socio-Spatial Network Game” [SSNG], a board game in which the child is asked to recreate his living space. We imported it into sociology, which is new. Some researchers also use the “guided tour” approach, reproducing with children their daily journeys in order to induce them to express themselves.’

Collaboration between Flemish and Walloon universities

‘What interests me in such contexts is trying to understand how to be a family when you don’t share a residence’, Prof. Merla says. ‘I observe how people experience these situations and the devices they put in place to maintain contact, especially through the use of information and communication technologies such as Skype and WhatsApp.’ But when she wanted to look at Belgium, she faced an impasse.

‘There were no Belgian data to establish the socio-demographic profiles and digital practices of adolescents according to their family situation. One of the only surveys that mapped the family relationships of young people was focused only on Flanders. At KULeuven, where it was conducted, it was called “Leuvens Adolescenten en Gezinnenonderzoek” [LAGO] and was administered in secondary schools by master’s students in sociology. When I learned that it was Professor Koenraad Matthijs who was leading the study, I immediately contacted him. I explained that I was starting a seminar on teenagers’ digital practices with about 20 master’s students in sociology at UCLouvain and that we could carry out equivalent investigative work in Wallonia. Why not pool our strengths and extend the study to Belgium as a whole?’ Prof. Matthijs was thrilled. Thus CIRFASE, led by Prof. Merla, partnered with KULeuven’s Family and Population Studies (FAPOS) Research Group to conduct a major survey known as ‘LAdS’, the Leuven/Louvain Adolescents Survey. The team also includes Leen D’Haenens, KULeuven professor of communications, and the questionnaire expands on a new module specifically dedicated to digital technology and designed in collaboration with Prof. Merla’s students.

Digital technology as a bridge between two environments

The result: 1,600 Wallonia-Brussels Federation individuals between the ages of 12 and 18 completed the questionnaire. The data have not yet been combined with those on the Flemish side, but they offer a first look at the tools young people use to connect and maintain ties with family members, whether or not they’re separated.

‘Contrary to what we hear, young people continue to use Facebook’, Prof. Merla says. ‘In fact, 68% use it to communicate with family members.’ Just behind Facebook are the ‘multimodal applications’, such as WhatsApp, Skype and FaceTime, with 63% of users. Snapchat follows with 53%.

The results highlight major differences in the use of these applications. The first concerns age: the older youths get, the more Facebook becomes the first family communication tool. In the 11-13 age range, it’s WhatsApp, then Snapchat. ‘The fact that Facebook is used more by older teenagers to create groups or events as part of their adolescent sociability could explain this later use’, Prof. Merla says. Another distinction: gender. While there’s no difference in Facebook and WhatsApp use between girls and boys, Snapchat is a very ‘gendered’ application that mainly involves girls. On the other hand, a large proportion of boys use the chat features of video games to communicate with their family. ‘We also note that children of separated parents make more use of these various tools to communicate with their families. When the direct interaction of everyday life is no longer available, technologies can provide forms of co-presence other than face to face. These observations on the place of digital technology in the lives of young people today have a clear social objective: to provide information to actors in the field, parents and schools, so that they better understand the daily reality of young people in Wallonia and, more generally, in Belgium.’

The next step is to pool data with those obtained on the Flemish side to build a country-wide database. ‘In the longer term, the LAdS survey is bound to be replicated on a regular basis to observe changes in adolescent practices’, Prof. Merla concludes.

Marie Dumas



Is parental concern over the safety of their networked children still valid?

It’s often when their kids are 11 to 13 years old, when entering secondary school, that parents start to worry…Because it’s very often the moment of their children’s first authorised smartphone. In our survey, 84% of children at this age have one. We often have a very alarmist image of the practices of our young people on social networks. It’s important to supervise them, especially when they’re familiar with these tools. But the results show that on the whole our teenagers are far from posting everything: they know what they’re doing, or in any case that’s the image they sent back via the survey!

Girls, for example, send fewer photos of themselves to strangers than boys do: 13% of girls compared to 22% of boys. They’ve incorporated the message of caution. Fewer than two in ten youths send their personal information to a stranger. So these risky practices occur and must attract our attention, but they concern a small proportion.

Do young people supplant the real with the virtual?

No, digital technology doesn’t necessarily supplant face-to-face relationships: the two are complementary. Many young people use the networks to maintain relationships that already exist elsewhere. The survey shows that it’s a real communication tool between family members, sometimes even a distant family member. Meanwhile, 62% of teenagers have accepted on their social network someone they have not met in person...and 40% say they have met someone they first knew on the internet. This shows that social networks also fulfil a function of making connections with new people that can continue face to face. Here, too, a message of caution is needed...because someone new could simply be a friend’s classmate...or a distant cousin!

A glance at Laura Merla's bio

Laura Merla is a professor of sociology at UCLouvain, where she directs CIRFASE, and an honorary research fellow at the University of Western Australia. After studying political science and occupational science at ULB, she earned a PhD in family sociology at UCLouvain as part of an assistantship from 2000 to 2006. She then obtained a Marie Curie fellowship that funded postdoctoral research on transnational families at the University of Western Australia and the University of Lisbon. She returned to UCLouvain in 2010, where she continued her work on this subject, as part of a dual BELSPO and FNRS researcher appointment. In 2015, she became a UCLouvain professor and received ARC (‘Joint Research Activity’ of the French Community of Belgium) funding, which allowed her to continue her research on migration in collaboration with UCLouvain legal experts and demographers, as well as a prestigious ERC Starting Grant to further explore the interconnections between multilocality, geographic mobility, and virtual mobility in the family sphere.

Published on September 24, 2019