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April 25, 2013 Volume 34, No. 28

New communication technology might harm relationship between deployed soldiers and their families

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HELPING VETERANS J. Brian Houston, co-director of MU’s Terrorism and Disaster Center and assistant professor of communication in the College of Arts and Science, is critical of digital media use in some situations. Photo by Rachel Coward.


The brevity of texting and Twitter can send wrong message to loved ones, researcher says

As recently as the Vietnam War, soldiers’ families typically waited months to receive communication from soldiers on the front lines. Now, cell phones and the Internet allow deployed soldiers and their families to communicate instantly. 

However, along with the benefits of keeping in touch, using new communication technologies can have negative consequences for both soldiers and families, said J. Brian Houston, co-director of MU’s Terrorism and Disaster Center (TDC) and assistant professor of communication in the College of Arts and Science. The research could lead to guidelines for how active military personnel and their families can best use modern communications.

“Deployed soldiers and their families should be aware that newer methods of communication, especially texting, can have unintended impacts,” Houston said. “The brevity and other limitations of text messages often limit the emotional content of a message. The limited emotional cues in text messages or email increases the potential for misunderstandings and hurt feelings. 

“For example, children may interpret a deployed parent’s brief, terse text message negatively, when the nature of the message may have been primarily the result of the medium or the situation.”

The study co-written by Houston was published recently in the journal Loss and Trauma: International Perspectives on Stress and Coping.

Houston’s study documented the frequency and quality of communication between soldiers and their families, then examined how those results were associated with the emotions and behaviors of military children and spouses. Children who had the greatest degree of communication with a deployed parent also showed the greatest number of behavioral problems and emotional troubles. 

Houston suggested that this could be because when kids are having a hard time, they may be most likely to reach out to a deployed parent. However, that can cause a conflict for the parent between the roles of soldier and parent.

“Bad news from home can distract soldiers from their duties and double their stress load,” Houston said. “A soldier can end up dealing with both the strain of warfare and concerns about a distant child.”

On the other hand, children with a deployed parent who talked about deployment with a brother or sister tended to exhibit positive outcomes, according to the study. Houston suggested this shows the importance of children having an opportunity to connect with other children whose parents are deployed. Houston said that parents experiencing deployment may wish to identify opportunities for their children to connect with other young people whose parents serve in the military.

Problems with communication between soldiers and their families weren’t limited to deployment. Distinct challenges arose before, during and after deployment, according to the study. Upon returning home, soldier-parents faced difficulties in communicating their experiences from wartime.

“Children can tell when a parent is troubled,” Houston said. “For soldiers stressed by memories of war or readjustment to civilian life, it helps to talk to children about what is going on. Obviously you do not want to overwhelm children with information that is not age appropriate. But if a parent is having difficulties and no one is talking about it, then children may often feel that they are in some way to blame for the parent’s situation or that the parent is angry with them.”

Houston plans to use the research to develop communication best practices for military personnel and their families. Houston hopes such guidelines can help military families utilize modern communication technologies to help cope with deployment and the subsequent return to civilian life.

— Timothy Wall