CAST research magnifies family matters
The mission of the College of Applied Science and Technology (CAST) at Illinois State University is, in part, to encourage—through teaching, outreach, and research—the intellectual and personal growth of its 4,700 students who are enrolled across six departments.
Featured here are three of our CAST faculty members who are fulfilling that mission quite nicely. Their important research emphasizes family life at a variety of stages. Thus their interests and findings are wide-ranging and include the impact of technology on pregnant mothers and their families; the capacity for phones and other devices to interrupt all types of family relationships (including parent to parent and parent to child); and the importance of youth sports and coaches in developing kids into adults.
Take a look at the research being pursued by each of these professors and consider how they—and the College of Applied Science and Technology at Illinois State University—are making an impact on families everywhere, now and in the future.
Tammy Harpel, associate professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, also serves as coordinator of human development and family sciences. She developed an interest—by a most natural route—in a topic that would become a major focus of her research.
“During my dissertation, I was pregnant for the second time, and ultrasounds were fairly new,” Harpel said. “There was nothing out there for research, and I didn’t know what I’d find.”
Her strategy was straightforward: She talked to 30 pregnant women in face-to-face qualitative interviews that lasted about an hour each. It paid off as they turned out to be a great source of information.
“They were all pregnant, and they were all talkative,” she said, adding that “pregnant women like to talk about their pregnancies.”
Harpel asked the women how having an ultrasound exam had affected their feelings about their babies and their pregnancies, and how it affected relationships with other family members. She wanted to know if the experience changed behaviors in any way. Interviews were conducted over a six-month period, and transcribing and analyses took about nine months.
The findings of her research showed that ultrasound technology both increased and decreased anxiety for expectant mothers. One of the key factors was the ultrasound technician who was performing the procedure and the behavior they displayed in performing their job.
“If the person said, ‘I’m not finding the leg,’ for example, then that sonographer could make the woman anxious when all it really meant was that the baby was turned a certain way,” Harpel said.
It also caused anxiety when the sonographer became quiet or hovered the transducer over one area for an extended period. Once mothers knew that everything was OK their anxiety was lessened, Harpel said. The research showed how important it is for techs to be cognizant of how they are behaving and talking.
It also showed how technology, often viewed negatively, can build a family. The best example is when expectant mothers use technology—in this case, ultrasound photos—to introduce their new baby to other people. For Harpel, the work has been satisfying because it ultimately helps families.
“I feel a sense of accomplishment and a hope that it’s not just sitting on a shelf somewhere gathering dust,” she said. “I like to see that it’s been cited by other scholars. It has a useful application to practitioners and has a huge impact on family members.”
When someone posts an ultrasound photo on Facebook, for example, you see two technologies intersecting and helping to build families.
“Technology is a tool that can enhance involvement and support between family members,” Harpel said. “When an ultrasound photo is shared, that baby is now a real thing that has been introduced to the family.”
The study also supports the notion that some single expectant mothers, due to the potential for increased anxiety, may need to have family support accompanying them to an ultrasound exam. That is particularly true in those families where the baby’s father is not present.
“This research can have an impact on having a relative along with them for the ultrasound,” Harpel said. “It’s important to allow others in the room, especially in some places that have strict rules about who can be present for the ultrasound.”
Harpel has expanded her research to include fathers and grandparents.
Brandon McDaniel, an assistant professor in human development and family science in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, describes himself as a family scientist. Much of the focus of his research is on the influences of technology on couple and family relationships.
McDaniel is married, is a parent, and is an avid user of technology so he can relate in a personal way to his own research. A lot of his research goes back to 2012 and has its genesis in simply observing so many people distracted by their phones. Eventually, he came up with a term for it: technoference, a fusion of two words, technology and interference.
“Technoference is something we see in all aspects of people’s lives,” he said. “I was watching all these relationships around me, and I saw many allowing devices to get in the way of their interactions and time spent together.”
Going back to his own days as a student, he said he’d always been interested in what strengthens and improves families, including parent-to-parent and parent-to-child relationships. Today those relationships have the added distraction of tech companies making products that are designed to grab our attention and keep it.
McDaniel’s first research on the topic involved the use of surveys and reports designed to measure how technology can interrupt romantic relationships. He found that, according to wives’ reports, it was linked with greater depression, conflict over technology use, and lower relationship satisfaction.
“It’s displacing time with your partner; you’re not spending time with your partner when you’re using your device,” McDaniel said. “You’re communicating, most often unintentionally, what you value most by paying more attention to your device than your partner.”
McDaniel also expanded his research to see how technology affects children, how it affects co-parenting interactions, and how often it occurs. He found that among families with children ages 3 and younger, 65 percent of their mothers reported that technology was interfering in their time spent with their child at least part of the time. Broken down more specifically, the research showed that 65 percent said technoference was occurring during playtime; 31 percent during time for reading books; and 26 percent at bedtime (to offer a few examples).
“We asked mothers to report on what they saw happening, and it looks like it is happening most during unstructured time. But it is also happening during more structured times, such as when reading books,” McDaniel said.
The families studied were mostly two-parent families, who were living together, he said. Most were married (92 percent). When technoference was happening more frequently, co-parents of young children said they felt worse, less in synchrony, and less coordinated with the other parent.
“The outcome confirmed what we thought,” McDaniel said. “The more technoference, the more conflict in relationships over technology use and the worse they feel about their relationship and their co-parenting relationship.”
And, it doesn’t matter if it’s the woman or the man who perceives the technoference, he said; either way, they feel worse about their relationship. He added that it also doesn’t matter if the problematic use of phones is considered an addiction or not.
“Phone overuse can influence relationships,” McDaniel said. “We have this device with us all the time, and it becomes part of our identity. It can start to interfere with face-to-face interactions simply because it is always there. You don’t have to be addicted to it.”
As a systems-based researcher, McDaniel wasn’t looking to blame parents or kids, calling it a system that we are all caught in.
“This is a cycle,” he said. “For example, a child is acting up so the parent is stressed and is more likely to withdraw into technology, which causes more of those technology-related interruptions. And, that causes more bad behavior by children.
“And the cycle continues.”
Instead of blaming couples, parents, or children, McDaniel suggests we simply be mindful of our use, be willing to address concerns with our family members out of love, and set up tech-free times or zones in our homes.
“Work on finding ways to connect, instead of allowing our devices to claim our attention,” McDaniel said.
Scott Pierce is an assistant professor in the School of Kinesiology and Recreation. Growing up in New Zealand, sports have always been a big part of his life. New Zealand’s national rugby team, known as the All Blacks, was so popular when Pierce was a boy that the team’s culture drove the culture of other parts of everyday life.
“The All Blacks believed that better people make better athletes,” Pierce said.
The team asked questions that Pierce remains inspired by even now: Can sports actually develop character? Can we develop athletes as well as people?
To that end, Pierce has immersed himself in the study of sports science and psychology and extensively researched how and under what conditions youth develop socially and psychologically through their participation in sports and how that participation helps them attain success in other areas of life. While working on his Ph.D., he shifted from working with elite-level athletes to focusing on youth sports. His current work involves youth athletes and their coaches.
Pierce has worked on a series of studies in an effort to understand how athletes develop by participating in sports. He was also embedded with a youth wrestling camp that’s been around for 40 years. It’s regarded as one of the toughest for high-performing high school kids who have the ambition to move to the next level. The camp is physically and psychologically demanding.
The camp bills itself this way: “It will change your life, we guarantee it.” Pierce wanted to know if that mantra was actually true. After interviewing a sampling of a dozen past participants via letters and interviews, Pierce found the claim to be legitimate.
“We did research with people who had gone to the camp 20 to 30 years ago,” Pierce said. “And, the experience was pivotal for them in how they approach life.”
At camp, which was well structured, the campers were provided support and learned lessons they could use later in life. They learned hard work, coping skills, responsibility, and accountability. The key, Pierce discovered, was the coaching approach.
“The coach was 100 percent committed to the job of developing the person first and the athlete second,” Pierce said. “The camp was structured with rules and expectations to support the experiential learning of life skills, as well as lectures and journaling activities that directly taught the value of the life skills in wrestling and in life.”
Those interviewed also talked about the potential downside of transferring the life skills outside of sport, realizing the downside of pushing too hard and becoming too focused on individual success, and encouraged athletes and coaches to learn a happy medium. Much of Pierce’s time is spent exploring high school sports, specifically focusing on coaches and how they teach and how their athletes can learn important skills like leadership.
“I’m trying to understand if kids are learning life skills and lessons,” Pierce said. “And, I’m trying to understand what the best conditions are to make that happen and to gain those lessons.”
Pierce also involves Illinois State students in his research, with undergraduate and graduate students studying sports psychology helping with planning, data collection, transcribing, and analysis.
One important takeaway is the discovery that when coaches are obsessed with winning that can override opportunities for athletes to learn life lessons. Conversely, one of the great challenges he’s discovered comes when a coach does make the effort to teach important life lessons but finds out that philosophy is incongruent with parents’ goals.
At the moment, Pierce is involved in coaching workshops, coaching education, and creating science that can contribute to the education of coaches and athletes; he sees a growing need for more standardized instruction for coaches. His work involves what he calls “qualitative research interviews” with coaches and athletes. He’s also designing a survey that will reach more athletes.
“My research is driven by the practical,” Pierce said. “My ultimate goal is that it turns into something useful to help shape practical coaching material for the future.”
These examples are a small representation of the ways in which CAST faculty members continue to fulfill the college’s mission through communication and human interaction and by pursuing important and practical research that examines family life at its myriad junctures. Their work is at the core of helping all of us gain an understanding of the challenges faced by families today, and maybe most importantly, to appreciate what makes a family better and stronger.