Digital kinship: Tech time is strengthening families, not destroying them

The digital revolution is redefining family structure and behaviour, creating new opportunities for marketers, but also a need for new thinking around family life.

Digital kinship: Tech time is strengthening families

Take a snapshot of the "average family" 100 years ago. What were they doing? The clichéd view is sitting around the piano having a sing-song. Fifty years ago, that same clichéd family was sitting around the TV watching Coronation Street. And today? Wherever they are sitting, chances are it is not in the same room. Even if they are in the same room, the chances are even stronger that any activity is digital.

The family sing-song? A Spotify playlist. Corrie? On catch-up. Meanwhile, mum and dad are dealing with leftover work email, mum is also "sharenting" via Mumsnet. Gran is "in the room", but via Skype. The rest of the family are getting hairstyling advice from Zoella on YouTube, being retweeted by a sibling and an extended "family" of followers, broadcasting their lives on Snapchat or getting text advice from mum on how to avoid food poisoning from reheated pasta while at uni.

By contrast, the archetypal advertising family (think current Tesco family complete with hapless dad and "boomerang" kid) is still nuclear, shopping as a group in physical stores, viewing, interacting, living and partying like it was 1999.

Time to think again

Family life today is digital life, a fact often portrayed as a bad thing by a media still living in an idealised past. We hear about our digital obsessions having negative effects: suppressing kids’ ability to converse, damaging sleep patterns, creating online gambling addictions, preventing us from achieving a healthy work-life balance, fuelling a culture of cyber-bullying, and so much more.

All those things are real, but research also shows that, overall, digital actually equals happiness. Not convinced? Paul Flatters, the chief executive of futures consultancy the Trajectory Partnership, undertook a major qualitative and quantitative global research project for BCS – The Chartered Institute for IT to answer the question of whether access to and use of the latest technology really makes us happier.

67% of these parents, globally, agreed that they ‘learned how to use new technology so that they can communicate better with their family

At a recent Unity Marketing "Join the Dots" event he gave us the answer: "Yes it does," Flatters says. "As a society we’re technophobe, and mums especially are concerned about allowing their kids too much screen time. But does tech improve our wellbeing? We found that it does make you happy and it offers a particular uplift for poorer people and for women compared to men."

Flatters is not a lone, pro-digital voice on the research front. Rodney Collins, regional director for EMEA at McCann Truth Central, cited similar research that the agency conducted globally across 18,000 parents. "Of our survey respondents, 47% agreed that ‘Technology helps parents get more out of family life'," he says. "Moreover, 67% of these parents, globally, agreed that they ‘learned how to use new technology so that they can communicate better with their family’."

The fact is, digital does so much. It keeps far-flung families in touch. It educates. It entertains. It can change behaviour, forge new bonds and even create families.

Family founder

Couples now are as likely to meet online as anywhere else, with friend-and-family networks available to singles today revolutionising relationship-building. Remember the ancient proverb "The enemy of my enemy is my friend"? Today that could read: "The friend of my Facebook friend is my friend."

The biggest hook-up opportunity is undeniably via dating sites and apps; Match.com, one of the biggest names in this space, says it has been responsible for 686,159 relationships and 228,719 marriages in the UK alone.

Jeremy Corenbloom, marketing director at Match for Northern Europe, says: "Online dating isn’t just ‘acceptable’, it’s a social phenomenon that’s gone from niche to normal [and] is the third-most common way for people to meet a partner in the UK. One in four relationships in the UK starts online."

A driver of this growth has been the dating industry’s understanding of how traditional family set-ups are no longer the norm. While this has led to growth in specialist sites such as Grindr, pinkcupid.com and Mysinglefriend, non-specialist sites have also taken a much more inclusive approach and marketed this strategy heavily. Match.com's "Love your imperfections" campaign has been a high-profile example of dating sites embracing both straight and gay relationships.

Corenbloom adds: "The success in delivering this message of empowerment is proven. People’s responses to the ads have been measured at a 130% increase in people feeling empowered, as well as an 86% increase in people’s intent to register. We’ve also seen an increase in positivity towards Match, with a 26% increase in likeability of the TV ads compared to average dating-site norms."

Mums: family kingpin

Whether a couple with a family met online or in the physical world, the big power-player in their life is mum. It is here that digital has had the most marked effect with the modern mums’ community being an extended internet ‘"family" that is both support network and mouthpiece.

Mums today are less likely to have large, extended families living nearby and more likely to be working, at least part-time, so digital is key, especially the smartphone.

During his research, Flatters spoke to a young mother who summed this up.

"She lived in a very modest home and was on a low income. I was surprised that she had such an expensive phone," he says. "She talked to me about her life and I realised why. She had a 10-month-old baby, her partner was a long-distance lorry driver. Her phone was her lifeline. She missed her work colleagues so stayed in touch through Facebook, and with her bloke through FaceTime. It was the best money she’d ever spent."

He adds: "When you hear about screens and technology killing social life and family life, remember my young mum."

Millennial mums engage with images, rather than the written word. They watch videos not TV, and vlogs not blogs or books

Networks such as Mumsnet and Netmums also fill the family gap, offering support, advice, and the chance to speak to another adult, even if it's 3am. And as the tech becomes more sophisticated, so do the concepts of mums’ websites.

Sarah Hersz is the founder of letsmush.com, one of the newest mums’ community apps. Launched in April 2016, Mush, which bridges the real-virtual divide and puts mums in physical touch with each other, was a "New app we love" on Apple’s App Store. 

"Being a mum can be extremely isolating, 80% of new mums feel lonely, but they shouldn't," says Hersz. "I've no idea how mums coped pre-smartphone; breastfeeding would be really dull! Mums want more local mum friends for day-to-day company and support. Mush, in a nutshell, is Tinder-meets-NCT. It's about real-life connections and interactions."

Another relative newcomer is Channel Mums. Launched last year by Netmums founder Siobhan Freegard, it makes the most of smartphone video capability. Given that mothers of young children are usually young and hugely video-focused, she sees this as a key area for growth.

Research done with Kantar highlighted this fact. "Millennial mums engage with images, rather than the written word. They watch videos not TV, and vlogs not blogs or books. While just 6% read a blog, 81% watch online videos," Freegard says.

"I assumed that video was for the next generation but I was with a mum who was 29 and we were talking about a recipe. We both Googled it. I went to the BBC Good Food website while she went to a video."

That was a light-bulb moment for Freegrad. "She said she chose video ‘because I don’t want to read all those words’."

The marketing void

Yet are marketers making the most of modern mums’ (and the rest of their families’) digital behaviour? Nik Govier, co-founder of Unity, thinks not. "Mums now have a powerful group voice and that lets businesses and retailers know what they think about stuff in a way that they’ve never been able to do before," she says. "Everyone’s ticking the right boxes in terms of integration and targeting people by multiple means, but marketers still don’t understand the modern family enough, how the unit interacts and how they can use it to their advantage."

Govier adds: "Classic family brands have a lot of catching up to do. There’s a massive opportunity for the Oxos of this world, whose whole outlook has always been based on family values. Sitting round the table hasn’t changed, but marketers need to evolve it in terms of the context of today… and it’s never been harder to do that."

J Walker Smith, executive chairman of The Futures Company, agrees. "Brands matter only when they have something to offer that people can share with one another. It’s about being the background music for the great time people are having with one another. Brands must relinquish control and measure success by metrics of social, not brand, engagement," he says.

"Brands need to create forums where families can come together and talk, give them information they can use to compare themselves to the group, give them things to sign up for and do. Give people interesting content that they can share, because once people have posted pictures of their dog, most people don’t have anything left to say on Facebook. They need help, they need something to say, so brands need to give them something to say."

Kidscape: digital life is real life 

One group that already has plenty to say is the under-18s. Modern kids, whether they’re four, 10 or 16, are true digital natives. So deep is their digital immersion that it is driving fundamental behavioural change. Recent ONS figures showed a steady reduction in teen pregnancies accelerating since Facebook went global, along with evidence of falls in under-age drinking and in drug-taking. One contributing factor is that young people are spending more time in the digital world than the physical one.

Nina Bibby, marketing and consumer director of O2, says: "As ‘digital natives’, children and young people today have grown up with social media, tablets and smartphones at their fingertips. They play with iPads the way their parents played with colouring books, and play games with friends virtually rather than crowded round the TV set."

Yet this has its downsides. Unity's Govier cites parental fear of cyber-bullying and internet grooming: "While we know there are no more paedophiles than there were 30 years ago, fear-mongering is so much easier. It makes us put chains around our kids." 

Bibby says that O2 has been at the forefront of the movement to keep kids safe online without going to restrictive extremes. "We saw a clear role in helping parents address concerns, empowering them to actively participate in their children’s digital life to help them stay safe," she explains. "We established a ground-breaking partnership with the NSPCC. It provides free one-on-one expert technical advice to parents via a dedicated new helpline and specially trained in-store O2 staff, as well as useful guides to things like social networks in the form of our app called Net Aware."

Yet for children themselves, the concerns are less about the dangers online and more about how to balance their online and "real" lives. Collins cites research conducted by Truth Central in 40 countries, which shows that 16-year-olds are very aware of both the benefits of technology and the risks.

"When these teens shared their favourite and most-defining memes with us, [we found] there are two poles for brand-love in the imagination of 16-year-olds: Nike/Adidas/Puma/Disney, on the one hand, and Google/Amazon/Microsoft, on the other. That is to say, experience and lifestyle brands alongside tech and media brands."

"The constant turnover of new digital products and services onto the market means there’s always something to get excited about and master together"

Reflecting and responding to this virtual versus "real life" contrast is fraught with pitfalls for marketers and brands, but Persil is among those brands that has done it successfully for several years with its on-going "Dirt is good" campaign. It recognises that kids are indoors a lot, and while not saying this is bad per se, it encourages parents to boost their children’s "old-school" outdoor activities. Persil upped the stakes this spring with its "Free the kids" execution, based on the stat that most children spend as little time outdoors as maximum-security prisoners.

The "Free the kids" spot, created by MullenLowe London, is set in a maximum security prison in the US. The team talks to prison inmates about the importance they place on their daily outdoors time.

Yet beyond encouraging kids to be more old-school, there’s a huge opportunity to make the most of just how ingrained digital is becoming for children and the way their parents interact with them.

Iain Millar, is head of innovation at marketing agency Rufus Leonard, which worked with British Gas on the original creative concept for Hive and the connected home. He thinks the potential is huge.

"As well as being a meeting place and a functional way to stay in touch, one benefit of today’s digital society is the opportunities for families that are continually opening up for co-learning, " he says. "The constant turnover of new digital products and services onto the market means there’s always something to get excited about and master together. This is a key part of parenting; now online, and, increasingly, physical tools and platforms within the home, become a space for exploration, growth and development."

The message, then, is clear: family life today is digital life. Brands must make sure that they are on board with that.


Grandparents play a greater role in raising their grandchildren as more mothers work outside the home and the number of single-parent families rises. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, they too are discovering a support network online, via sites such as gransnet and grandparents.com.

Grandparents are increasingly using digital technology to keep an eye on their families. Figures show that people over the age of 60 are signing up for Facebook faster than any other age group.

Digital life is good for grandparents. Research published in the journal Intelligence shows that those using computers and smartphones can have a mental age that is 10 years younger than their actual age.

Tech firms are appreciating the potential in targeting older people. This has led to specialist dating apps such as Stitch, or start-ups like Teeniors that links teens and seniors for personal tutoring sessions.

Tech can be used to offer even more practical help to the elderly within families. Samsung’s Backup memory app helps early-stage Alzheimer’s sufferers remember their families. It uses Bluetooth to detect when friends and family with the app are nearby and will identify the person and show photos and videos that recall past events.