Staying socially connected while obeying the requirements of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic is essential to mental health and wellbeing. Many migrants have great experience in staying socially connected while being physically distant.

Researchers at the UWA Social Care and Social Ageing Living Lab, Professor Loretta Baldassar and Dr Lukasz Krzyzowski, are drawing on their expertise in transnational families research to share insights into how to stay socially connected while obeying the requirements of social distancing.

Transnational families have family members living in different countries who are often separated by large distances and national borders”, explains Professor Baldassar. “These migrant families are very experienced in staying socially connected despite the physical distances that separate them. In particular, these families make excellent use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to care for each other across distance”.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that migrants of all ages show higher rates of digital literacy than the Australian born”, points out Dr Krzyzowski. “Migrants are particularly highly motivated to learn how to use digital and virtual ways of staying in touch with their loved ones, including both the advantages and the pitfalls that virtual connectivity can bring”.

This is why, Dr Krzyzowski adds, we should really be talking about physical distancing and not social distancing during this pandemic; physical distancing requires us to stay home as much as possible, to only go out for essential reasons and to keep 2 metres apart from others. But, it is important to remain socially connected while being physically apart, and transnational migrant families are experts at how to do this.

Reviewing the significant international literature on transnational families, including their own extensive research on Australian transnational families, Baldassar and Krzyzowski have identified the following common practices that migrants use to care for their family and friends across distance.

Work out a routine way to stay in touch with family and friends that suits each other’s needs. Setting a particular schedule, day and time, and mode of communication, helps everyone to not only stay in touch regularly, but to feel less anxious about whether they are doing enough to stay in touch. It can reduce feelings of guilt and pressure about how often we need to check in on each other. Obviously, this requires discussing the particular routine and schedule that works best for you and your loved ones.

Transnational migrant families often add ritual and crisis patterns to their routines of staying in touch and caring across distance, which include an array of modes of communication (including texting, social media platforms and video-calls) that feature different types of co-presence across distance: virtual, imagined, ambient, proxy and physical (in the form of visits). It is important to understand how these types of co-presence intersect with each other, in particular the virtual and physical, rather than to see them as in competition. For example, increased virtual co-presence often results in increased physical co-presence and vice versa.

For example, many transnational families schedule a weekly video call, on the same day and time, involving extended family members. Popular platforms used for this purpose include Skype and Zoom. This can be a quick way to touch-base with lots of members of your family or support network at once. The pre-arranged time takes the pressure off having to organise everyone, which can be time-consuming and stressful. The most common pattern used by transnational families who have members living in Australia and Europe, is around dinner-time on Sunday in Australia, which is around lunchtime in Europe. This way family members can chat to each other while eating, and feel they are sharing a meal together. Calls of this nature often require establishing some common rules of participation, like turn-taking and microphone muting. Interestingly, people’s main complaint about the group video-call is not knowing when it is appropriate to hang-up! Deciding together how long the call should last is a good way to manage people’s expectations.

These weekly video calls are often supplemented by other routine patterns of caring across distance, including increasingly popular chat groups, like What’sApp and Messenger. The benefit of group-chats are multiple:

  • members can share information with everyone at the same time, which keeps everyone feeling included, reducing the chance that anyone feels “left-out” of information loops;
  • With more members in the group, the pressure to respond to every single message can be lessened as different people can respond at different times;
  • Membership of the chat can be kept to trusted family members and can provide a safe space for private and sensitive information to be shared, which is often critically important to understanding how loved ones are coping and what their needs are.

In addition, transnational family members use different modes of communication for different purposes:

  • Individual or group text messages for quick exchanges; these can be frequent and are often shared multiple times a day and may comprise a very short text or even just an emoji;
  • Individual or group emails to exchange longer messages, where it is easier to type on a keyboard, particularly if you want to exchange detailed advice about complex matters (like making an expensive purchase or explaining serious illness). Research suggests that emails have replaced letters, although the latter are still used, particularly to exchange ‘difficult’ news, like sharing a recent medical diagnosis of long-term illness;
  • Individual phone calls are often reserved for special rituals, like birthdays, and are increasingly being made using video supported audio calls like Face Time. Here we can mention the notion of proxy co-presence, as the individual caller often ‘stands-in-for’ (or is a proxy for) the rest of the family;
  • Social media platforms, like Facebook or WeChat, often provide a sense of imagined co-presence, as people maintain a sense of belonging, for example, by following the posts of their ‘hometown’ or community group.

Crisis patterns of staying in touch and caring across distance usually involve an increase in frequency of all modes and types of co-presence, and we see this happening in transnational families right now, as they grapple with the pandemic.

Taken together, all of this routine, ritual and crisis communication across distance can deliver an important sense of ambient co-presence, the feeling that your loved ones are always with you and that you are never alone, despite the physical distance. Here, the phatic function of digital devices and their uses becomes evident when just hearing the ‘ping’, or feeling the ‘buzz’ of the text message is enough to deliver a sense of co-presence with others, even without reading the actual message.

This said, the number of options available to us to stay connected across distance, what researchers define as the polymedia environment, introduces a moral element. Working out which mode of communication is most appropriate for which purpose is important as all those who have inadvertently offended someone by texting when it was felt they should have phoned (etc.) knows only too well.

Staying connected and caring across distance takes on an even greater significance for those transnational families where physical forms of co-presence (i.e. visiting) are no longer possible, like during the current pandemic, but also when family members become too old or frail to travel. The notion of ‘digital kinning’ has been proposed to capture the contemporary set of digital practices being used to “do family” across distance.

Of course, using ICTs to stay connected despite physical distancing raises a series of issues around access and equity. Older people, in particular, can lack the digital literacy and resources (internet access and digital devices) to make use of them. This is where the importance of ‘facilitated digital literacy’ comes in, as some people require others to set up their access for them. Here, younger family members become essential to helping older members to use the technology. In this way, the transnational family literature documents the expansion of support networks despite the physical separation of migration, as family members who in the past would never have had any contact with each other, become integral to patterns of distant care.


Baldassar, L. & Krzyzowski, L. ‘Physical, not social distancing: what we can learn from migrants’. UWA Social Care and Social Ageing Living Lab News (April, 2020).



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