International students at the uncertain stage between teenage and independent adulthood have been particularly vulnerable during lockdown. Many are living far from relatives, with limited social networks and lacking the experience to navigate this public health emergency. At the same time, forms of socialisation shifted. Social gatherings disappeared, while digital family communication in transnational families increased. Online family communication for many has become a substitute for physical contact, rather than a complementary channel for family intimacy.
During my own lockdown experience as a student, I gathered data from my peers on their experiences of family communication during the Covid-19 outbreak. The research took place during June and July of 2020, and involved one-to-one interviews with 20 Chinese international students. Most were internet based conversations, conducting using the digital communication tool, WeChat, a Chinese multi-purpose messaging App. This is the main choice for Chinese transnational-family communication; other messaging apps have been blocked in China due to Internet censorship (Yang and Liu, 2014). Several interviews were conducted face-to-face because we live near to each other.
The interviewees consisted of 10 female students and 10 male students, aged from 19 to 28, and included undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD students. Although the interviewees occupied different education levels, most were still supported financially by their middle-class family. Due to the Covid-19 lockdown my interviewees were situated across the globe: in Europe, USA, Australia and Southeast Asia (e.g. Hong Kong and Japan), all popular destinations of oversea study.
After a short demographic survey (e.g. age, gender, topic of study and family background), we talked about their daily family connection during the Covid-19 such as communication frequency, preferred mode of chatting, levels of participation by mothers and fathers, popular topics of conversation, as well as their perception of changes in family practices as a result of digital communication (for example, sending ‘Lucky Money’ online, animated stickers and sharing content). We also talked about students’ self-disclosure during family communication, that is, their decision about self-censorship when saying something in front of parents to manage their presentation of digital-self (“Do you intend to show an expected online persona or say something that your parents prefer to listen?”).
My research broadly supports prior studies of transnational family communication which stress that information and communication technologies has transformed families’ ability to maintain intimacy despite physical distance.
Yet my data also revealed notable differences between Chinese families with daughters and those with sons. Chinese daughters appeared more active in communication with parents, with a higher frequency and better quality interaction. Those daughters who are fond of sharing personal life “moment” on WeChat every day keep a lower family communication frequency. They speculated that it was because these moments were the evidence to prove their safety and could relieve parents’ worry.
Yet my data also revealed notable differences between Chinese families with daughters and those with sons. Chinese daughters appeared more active in communication with parents, with a higher frequency and better quality interaction. In some cases, parents sought frequent contact so that their daughters could ‘prove’ their safety. This involved keeping parents informed by posting personal life on social media every day.
At the same time, Chinese daughters and sons had different preferences on the frequency of family conversation, as well as ‘impression management’. Daughters, for example, spent more time talking about their daily life – this was the last choice of topic for sons. Detail about family members’ lives and gossip were popular topics in family communication with daughters, while news and politics were considered low interest. Food was a common theme, with several female interviewees noting that they had obtained a family recipe, which they had cooked and then sent a photo of the meal home.
Female participants were also more likely to share the experience of illness, stress from study and loneliness with parents, demonstrating their willingness to reveal their mental dependence on family and clearly express their need for emotional support. Indeed, amongst daughters this was considered the core reason for keeping in touch with parents. Daughters were also better at taking new family practices online and maintaining relationships, through the sharing of emoji and memes. For some, sharing emoji had become a new, entertaining cross-generational practice. As one female interviewee said, “my mother has ‘stolen’ the meme I sent to her and use it as well. She likes to guess the meaning of a certain meme. Sometimes she will play a joke on me to say, ‘this cute doggy looks like you’. I am happy to hear she also likes it.”
Male interviewees, conversely, hesitate in acknowledging the existence of emotional need, homesickness or adaptation problems. They prefer to attribute the reason for regular communication to the filial responsibility of children to their parents. For many, they simply could not find a proper word to explain their motivation for parental communication: “It is too ordinary in my daily life, and I have never thought about the reason for constant family communication. Sometimes, it is more like clocking in”. The passive behaviour and attitude of sons partly results from social expectation that men should not be concerned with intimacy – rather they should be brave, strong and focused on their career. Difficulties in self-adjustment, or presenting too keen an interest in family trivia may be considered evidence of inappropriate sensitivity and vulnerability. The choice of a son in these parental conversations is to either end any parental concerns quickly, or merely talk about his interests, such as political affairs, family decisions and personal hobbies.
Although the interviews suggest that Chinese daughters are good at seeking help from parents in communication, surprisingly more than half of them also intended to “leave an ideal impression in front of parents”, that is, maintaining an “innocent, polite, positive and lovely” image. As the ‘good girl’ expected by Chinese society, daughters should not let parents worry or ‘let parents down’. This intention also implies they have to present their life and thoughts online selectively, leaving certain issues hidden or unspoken. Parents often show excessive concern and more control to daughters, who are considered more vulnerable than sons in the ‘dangerous’ society. This was illustrated, in some cases, through repeated verbal warnings, unsolicited advice on healthy diet and rest, how to best spend their free-time, alcohol intake and smoking behaviour.
Sons did not demonstrate a strong desire for presenting an ‘ideal’ digital-self in family communications. Male interviewees, for example, indicated their preference to “keep it real”. Indeed, in some cases, they preferred to depict their life negatively in order to lower parents’ expectation and potential pressure.
Although daughters and sons had different styles for building their digital image for parents, self-disclosure was based on the balance between social expectations of their gender, and their identity as an emerging adult. With awareness of their increasing autonomy, the authority of parents decreased for both daughters and sons.
Studying digital family communication in Chinese context can help us examine the changing parent-children relationship which is shifting from the traditional intergenerational exchange model to mutual communication and interaction. It can also help to explain the social and cultural reasons for self-disclosure and digital self by gender.