CEHS researchers help explore if the family is in peril

CYAF Associate Professor Cody Hollist spent time in Switzerland determining the status of the family.

CEHS researchers help explore if the family is in peril

21 Mar 2017    By Brad Stauffer

Is the family in peril? Has the family structure from 50 years ago eroded to a point of alarm? These are questions that international family researchers and family economists grappled with recently at a meeting in Switzerland. Among them was Child, Youth and Family Studies (CYAF) associate professor Cody Hollist.

Are families better off or worse off today than they were 50 years ago? After reading a book that suggested families are in trouble, a Swiss business woman was concerned and wanted to find out. She engaged experienced documentary producers to investigate. Late last year, Hollist was interviewed by a United States-based video crew exploring the status of the world’s families.

Hollist, who has done extensive family research in Brazil, was not in the camp that families are failing. His research on families, and that of others at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, including professor emeritus John DeFrain, attracted the interest of the producers. In many ways, Hollist says, families are far better off than they were 50 years ago.

“Things were much different 50 years ago, but are we better off,” asked Hollist. “You can’t just look at it from the perspective of two-parent families living under one roof. Death rates of both mothers during delivery and children are much lower now. Serious illness is lower. The reality is, with longer life spans families support each other better today than they did 50 years ago. Yes, overall, families are better off.”

Hollist and colleagues got the documentary crew thinking a little differently about the status of the world’s families. The convening of researchers in January was an effort to provide some clarity and direction for the documentary. Through two days of open discussion near Lenzerheide in the Swiss Alps, a group of 13 researchers from the U.S., Japan, China, Italy, Germany and Switzerland gave producers much to think about.

“The discussion centered around, are we at a crisis point,” said Hollist. “How have things changed and is it better or worse? I believe they are going to focus on specific things that affect families, rather than going into interviews with a blank slate.”

Areas emerging from the discussions included economists’ concerns that the world’s shrinking population cannot sustain the growing population of aging adults. Hollist and others were able to get some agreement that families have seen improvements such as healthier, longer-living grandparents being more involved in families, fathers being more engaged and having improved relationships with their children, and mothers having more equality in the household.

One area of universal agreement and concern was the lack of knowledge about the influence of technology on families. There are both positive and negative impacts, according to Hollist. While grandparents can stay better connected across the globe through video apps like Skype, parents are bewildered about the amount of time their kids spend with mobile devices and other technology and what to do about it.

“I see a lot of evidence that technology is a major source of stress for parents,” said Hollist. “I don’t think we really know from research yet what it’s doing to families. It’s today’s quintessential moving target. By the time we can get research done on how a specific social media platform impacts families, that social media platform is dead or changed significantly. It’s so hard for researchers to do much with it.

“Parents don’t know what to do and they feel disempowered. They feel lost, out of the loop and out of control. What we’re finding is, it’s a major source of stress for parents. They’re very worried about how to guide their children when they don’t really understand it themselves.”

The documentary will not likely find solutions for parenting in a digital world, but Hollist says it is a global issue. He’s seen kids in extremely impoverished and rural areas of Brazil figure out how to get online with discarded smartphones and hijacked wifi access. In many cases, he says, their look into the rest of the world has changed the way these children see their plight and realize “they don’t have to live like this anymore.”

Family researchers at Nebraska could reconnect with the documentary team as direction is finalized and the project moves forward. Hollist says his CYAF colleagues may assist the producers in finding families to follow here in Nebraska, Brazil and other parts of the world. 

College of Education and Human Sciences
Child, Youth and Family Studies