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Social distancing is teaching communities to find new ways to stay socially connected yet physically distant migrant families have long learnt how to stay close according to researchers from The University of Western Australia.

Professor Loretta Baldassar and Dr Lukasz Krzyzowski, from UWA’s Social Care and Social Ageing Living Lab, are researching the dynamics of transnational families whose members are often separated by large distances and national borders. They have found that migrant families are very experienced at staying socially connected despite physical distances.

Professor Baldassar said transnational migrant families used a mixture of ways to communicate, which included a combination of texting, email social media and video-calls.

“Crisis patterns of staying in touch and caring across distances usually involve a multitude of ways to communicate and we have seen this happen in transnational families now, as they grapple with the pandemic,” Professor Baldassar said.

Dr Krzyzowski said the research showed that migrants of all ages demonstrated higher rates of digital literacy than Australian-born residents.

“Migrants, in particular, are highly motivated to learn how to use digital and virtual tools to stay in touch with their loved ones, however, they also experience both the advantages and the pitfalls that this virtual connectivity can bring,” Dr Krzyzowski said.

“This is why 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 two 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.”

The combination of routine, ritual and crisis communication can create an important sense of connectedness, the feeling that your loved ones are always with you, despite the physical distance.

However, using techniques to stay connected raise a series of issues around access and equity. Older people, in particular, can lack the digital literacy and resources to make use of them.

Professor Baldassar said this is where the importance of facilitated digital literacy comes in, as some people require others to set up access for them.

“Here, the importance of intergenerational networks of care are highlighted as younger family members become essential in helping older members to use the technology,” Professor Baldassar said.

“Family members, who in the past would never have had any contact with each other, especially younger members, have become important in providing distant care as a result of new digital forms of staying connected.”

More information on the common practices that migrants use to care for their family and friends across distance is available at www.livinglab.com.au/4548-2

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