New & Now

Talk During Wartime: Why the digital-communications revolution is giving our far-away warriors even more to worry about.

SOLDIERS POSTED IN FAR-AWAY LANDS have always yearned to communicate with loved ones back home. For almost the whole of recorded history, this has meant writing letters, posting them and then waiting impatiently for a reply. Weeks, months, even years might pass before these weary missives accomplished their eagerly anticipated ends.

No more. Cell phones, email and social media have forever changed the landscape of war-time communication, allowing wired combatants to phone, text, or post messages to family and friends in an instant. It’s a revolution in connectivity that has happened so quickly that scholars are only now beginning to weigh how these real-time, long-distance interactions might affect those using them.

Brian Houston, an assistant professor of communication at MU, says the benefits of digital communications are real, but so are the pitfalls — especially when children are involved.

“The brevity and other limitations of text messages often limit the emotional content of a message,” Houston says. “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.”

In a new study published in the Journal of Loss and Trauma: International Perspectives on Stress and Coping, Houston and his Oklahoma-based co-authors Betty Pfefferbaum, Michael Brand, and Michelle Sherman documented the frequency and quality of communications between soldiers and their families. They then examined how these affected the emotions and behaviors of military children and spouses.

Among the most concerning findings was that children who communicated most with a deployed parent tended to have more behavioral problems and emotional troubles. This isn’t entirely surprising, Houston says, since kids having a hard time might be expected to reach out to deployed parents. But a drumbeat of fraught communications can make a soldier’s already tough situation that much more difficult. “Bad news from home can distract a soldier from their duties and double their stress load,” said Houston. “A soldier can end up dealing with both the strain of warfare and concerns about a distant child.”

The news wasn’t all bad, however. The researchers found, for example, that children who talked about deployment with a brother or sister tended to show more positive outcomes. Houston suggests this demonstrates the importance of kids connecting with other children who share their situation.

Unfortunately, communication problems between soldiers and their families weren’t limited to real-time interactions during deployment. Upon returning home, the study found, soldier-parents faced an equally challenging set of communication difficulties.

“Children can tell when a parent is troubled,” said Houston. “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 don’t 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 feel that they are in some way to blame for the parent’s situation, or that the parent is angry with them.”

Ultimately, Houston says, he hopes to use the research to develop guidelines that can help military families utilize modern communication technologies to help cope with deployment and the subsequent return to civilian life.

Warrior in combat speaking on a cell phone while carrying a little girl from home on his back.

Illustration by Brian Stauffer

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