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

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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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Stakeholders, Rationales, and Challenges of Virtual Reality in Education: How Will VR Enter Classrooms?

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We are living in a thrilling age where commercial VR headsets are no longer a luxury but an affordable reality. The ability of virtual reality to transform education has been a hot topic in recent times, with a wealth of articles, studies, videos, applications, and books dedicated to the subject. The possibilities of VR as an educational tool have captured the imagination of many, with some claiming it will have a profound impact on how we learn and educate. However, it begs the question, if the prospect of learning in VR is so exhilarating, then why isn’t it more prevalent (or even present!) in higher education? Who is putting the brakes on this exciting new learning tool?  Are there hidden challenges beyond what we see in published research or studies, and do stakeholders beyond instructors and students influence the decision to embrace VR in education?

Figure 1. Who influences technology adoption in higher education?

It’s time to delve deeper into the complex world of virtual reality in education and explore the untold stories behind its adoption. For larger organizations or complex contexts such as universities, there is usually more than one type of stakeholder who works together to guide the technology’s adoption decisions. For example, prior work has identified a group of stakeholders (e.g., technology staff, financial staff and administrators) in higher education who will interact with each other to affect the strategies and decisions of a university. With this in mind, we pose three research questions: 

  • Who are the stakeholders we need to consider for using VR in the classroom?
  • What is the rationale for VR use in higher education?
  • What challenges do major stakeholders face in using VR technology in educational activities?
Figure 2. Three research questions we posed in our study

In order to get a more holistic view to answer the research questions, this study applied a multi-method approach with semi-structured interviews followed by two participatory design workshops with university students and instructors. We followed up with another round of interviews with other major stakeholders identified by the workshops. Then, we chose to have a data-driven process to analyze our data from the interviews and workshops.

Figure 3. Methods used in our study

Who are the stakeholders we need to consider for using VR in the classroom?

Through our first round of interviews, it became apparent that there are more people, beyond instructors and students, that we should consider as stakeholders when integrating VR in higher education. The university can be seen as an educational ecosystem, where instructors may be collaborating with other types of experts or services to facilitate their courses. Stakeholders identified by our participants under university systems include co-teaching instructors, TAs, teaching support staff, classroom designers, IT staff, and so on. There were also some stakeholders beyond the campus, including VR content creators/developers, funding providers, and industrial companies. 

We found that different stakeholders at higher education institutions have the power to accelerate the integration of VR technology into traditional classrooms. Most notably, institutional support can promote sustainability and maximize efficiency in many aspects in the long term, including but not limited to management, deployment, and content creation. 

Figure 4. Stakeholders who may influence VR adoption

What is the rationale for VR use in higher education?

Our data revealed five reasons why people choose to use VR in higher education. 

  • Increasing Social Presence
  • Accessing Otherwise Inaccessible Learning Contexts,
  • Understanding and Remembering Visual and Spatial Knowledge
  • Supporting Embodied Learning
  • Attracting Students through Novelty

I am going to talk about the first one — social presence. Our work points out the importance of collaborative social experiences that VR can achieve in students’ learning process. Most participants identified the ability to create a realistic social environment that supports collaboration as one key benefit of VR. Compared with some other benefits of VR, such as the engagement and interest that are brought by its novelty and would eventually fade away, the social presence is a long-lasting benefit because it is derived from the nature of virtual reality.  As one of our participants commented, “Virtual avatars and environment made it easy to get social cues, from facial expressions to body language, without worrying about privacy leaking like showing surroundings in the background on the video.

What challenges do major stakeholders face in using VR technology in educational activities?

We also identified several challenges of using VR in higher education:

  • Course design investments. 
  • Financial consideration.
  • Learning curve. 
  • Technology management (e.g., storage, maintenance, distribution, and in-class management).
  • Health concerns. 

The optimistic predictions about introducing immersive VR into the classroom are based on the fact that the hardware is now much better and cheaper. Health issues are one of the most important challenges and it’s relatable to all disciplines. Motion sickness or cybersickness, eye strain, and headache were the most frequently mentioned health concerns in the interviews. As our participant mentioned, it is extremely important to create an inclusive class and make VR accessible to people in different conditions or capabilities.

Our findings demonstrate that no matter how excited people are about using immersive VR in the classroom now, in most situations instructors can only include this as a small optional experience because of fundamental barriers to equity. For example, if one student experienced a severe sickness, most instructors in our study would choose to no longer use VR. More importantly, when these issues are not randomly distributed in the population, the situation will become more serious. Take gender differences as an example, earlier studies have shown that an advantage of men over women with regard to cybersickness in VR. We can imagine how using VR will hurt gender equity, especially in those already male-dominated fields such as computer science.

Takeaways from this article

  • Collaboration experience is critical for educational VR
  • Ensuring that VR is accessible is the most important challenge to the adoption
  • It’s not about just instructors, it’s about the whole community

Find more information in our paper here

Cite this paper: 

Qiao Jin, Yu Liu, Svetlana Yarosh, Bo Han, and Feng Qian. 2022. How Will VR Enter University Classrooms? Multi-stakeholders Investigation of VR in Higher Education. In Proceedings of the 2022 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’22). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, Article 563, 1–17.