Siblings in the Digital Divide: Navigating Communication Challenges and Opportunities for Large Age Gap Relationships

By Georgie Qiao Jin. Original published at Grouplens. Featured image created by AI image generator

Figure 1. Author and her brother

This photo captured a bittersweet moment in my life. It was taken on my first day when I came to the university, brimming with excitement and anticipation for the journey ahead. At that time, I was 18 years old, and my younger brother was 12 years younger than me — he was only six years old. After that day, I started my own life at Shandong University in Jinan, which is a city about 300 miles away from my hometown. So during the next following years we lived separately, my brother and I had to rely on video and audio calls to stay in touch.

But it’s still not easy to maintain a close sibling relationship. As the years went by, the distance between us grew, and we missed out on so many precious moments that we could never get back. In fact, not only me, but my parents also tried to make my brother and I get in touch with each other, like handing the phone to my brother.  But somehow we still kind of have nothing to talk about. Many times, after one or two minus small talk, my brother transfer the phone back to my parents. That is really frustrating because there are many technologies and tools that have made it easier for us to stay connected, but why we still cannot feel we are close to each other?

This experience led me to wonder – why “large gap” sibling relationships are particularly difficult to support. Before we dive into this question, I am going to talk about some important background information.

  • Why sibling relationships are critically important?
  • Why are sibling relationships different from other types of family connections?

Why sibling relationships are critically important?

There are a number of reasons for the importance of siblings. First, sibling relationships are an important aspect of child development. Although we tend to focus more on parent relationships, prior work indicated that sibling relationship also significantly affects how children develop, particularly socially and emotionally. Second, the relationship with siblings is of extremely long duration. Contact with siblings is maintained by almost all adults throughout their lives. Thirdly, sibling relationships are pervasive relationships. Most of us have brothers and sisters. In fact, a study showed that an estimated 80 to 90% of individuals grow up with a sibling.

Why sibling relationships are different from other types of family connections?

Unlike parents or primary caregivers who generally act as a secure base, siblings are thought to fulfill the social needs of children and are more often sought out for fun and playful interactions rather than support and comfort. Also, it tends to be more equal than family members of other generations. It is also different from the roles of peers. Because of the more co-constructed experiences and contact frequency, there is an important role of shared experience in sibling learning and communication.

Figure 2. Why large-gap sibling relationships are particularly important and difficult to support?

OK, here comes our key question,

Why “large gap” sibling relationships are particularly difficult to support?

I know there are lots of older brothers or sisters who have similar problems to me. With maturity, given the number of life changes that occur, for example, like me, going to the university, when we have a totally different life circle and timetable, this distancing is not surprising. For children, using audio or video calls also hard to engage them to maintain a long-distance relationship. So even though sibling attachment bonds are still important for each party, being an adult suggests a decrease in contact and proximity. It makes it a challenge that connects the older sibling as an adult, and the younger sibling as a child.

The good news is that we currently have more options to connect with remote families.  Lots of technology emerged in both industrial and academic fields that offer at least a partial solution to the problem of long-distance families. I am not going to spend more time talking about all these existing tools. Some of them you may already be very familiar with.  Also, lots of designs emerged in the HCI research, aiming to connect remote families.

Figure 3. Examples of commercial tools to help family connect together
Figure 4. Examples of research to help family connect together

However, although there is a growing interest in distant family communication, in the literature on designing for remote families, the sibling relationship has not received much attention. That is, even some systems are designed for the whole family including siblings. Because of the specialty of the siblings’ relationship mentioned before, few prior works examined how technology might influence siblings’ relationships. None of the prior work explicitly investigates the specific challenges in large-gap sibling relationships’ communication.

To truly understand the intricacies of communication between siblings separated by a significant age gap, I utilized a mixed-method approach. Two weeks of diary study for older siblings and remote, semi-structured interviews with both siblings and one parent formed the basis of my research. The data collected was analyzed through a thematic analysis that involved open coding and clustering codes into themes. We recruited families which at least two siblings and those age differences are more than 5 years old. The younger sibling’s age is between 6 to 14 years old. The elder sibling has lived separately from the family for more than half a year. They need to have experience living together and have regular direct or indirect communication.

Figure 5. Methods used in our study

The results of this study revealed the unique needs and challenges faced by stakeholders involved in remote communication between large age gap siblings. Specifically, we found that the relationships between large age-gap siblings consist of older-to-younger companionship and care, with older siblings also taking on a pseudo-parental role. At the same time, there is a younger-to-older rivalry that can create tension between siblings and reduce the quality of family communication.

Our findings also highlighted the role of older siblings in initiating communication, engaging younger siblings, and providing technical support. Meanwhile, parents help to enrich siblings’ communication and provide logistical facilitation. However, there are challenges in managing conflicting values between parents and older siblings, promoting child-led conversations, and navigating technology obstructions.

To address these challenges, we identified three design opportunities for technology to better support the needs and practices of different stakeholders in remote sibling communication. First, technology can support co-present involvement for different stakeholders’ requirements and needs in remote settings. Second, it can scaffold child-led conversations under asymmetric relationship expectations. Lastly, technology can help negotiate value conflicts between older siblings and parents, which affect siblings’ communication and their relationships.

As we move further into the digital age, the importance of sibling relationships remains as critical as ever. However, as our research has shown, maintaining strong connections between large age-gap siblings can be challenging. By leveraging the power of technology and designing solutions that address the unique needs and practices of different stakeholders, we can bridge the gap between remote siblings and create more meaningful connections.

Find more information in our paper here –– coming to CHI 2023!

Cite this paper:

Qiao Jin, Ye Yuan, Svetlana Yarosh. 2023, Socio-technical Opportunities in Long-Distance Communication Between the Siblings with a Large Age Difference. In Proceedings of the 2023 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’23).


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