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Text Messages and COVID-19

My father passed away in January provoking insight into the value of direct messaging.



With COVID 19 hovering over us, I wanted to explain my lack of blogs since last year, and share insights about the value of text messaging from a psychological perspective.


My father passed away in January. He was sick for a long time. Some say 7 years, others say longer, all I know is that it was a devastating period in our lives. The last 3 years, were an ordeal. For that time, mum looked after dad’s every need, and I mean every need and I really mean for 3 years. Dad was a Supreme Court Judge who had Parkinsons which commenced with an Aphasic Dementia. That means that he completely lost his ability to speak and communicate. Thankfully, he was able to recognise us until the end and I nursed him through palliative care with my brother and mother in December and early January. He passed away at home and I know he felt our love and presence.

When I was by my dad’s bedside. There were intense periods of watching him suffer. I moved in and there were inevitable arguments with my mum and brother about dad’s care. I struggled on many levels. My husband and kids were away. While we loved and cared for dad (2 weeks, 11 days without any food or water), the palliative care team provided daily consults – however he really suffered as he worked through every ounce of his body to hang on to life. There were times of extraordinary tension. At those times, I used my phone to text message one or other of my close friends. Not all days were terrible, but there were many nightmares. I slowly texted my torment to different friends one by one, not to overload anyone and I didn’t draw on many people at once. In fact, most of my friends had no idea this was happening at the time. However, I found that writing a long text message to a good friend was cathartic for a few reasons:

Text messages are valuable because they

- don’t offer a facial expression (or any type of judgment) half way through writing them;

- don’t interrupt a train of thought or an emotion as you explain your experience and come to understand it. They help your mind work through the conflicts and strong emotions that are unravelling inside you;

- the person who receives it is unable to prematurely jump in and try to help you. This means they don’t accidentally cut off your train of thought. When you speak on the phone, the listener hears your distress and often feels the need to jump in to help you feel better quickly;

- the text recipient usually provides empathy and thoughtful advice. There is less pressure on them in the moment. The space in time and location, increases the recipients ability to provide respect and support for your struggle;

- they provide more immediacy than emails – especially when the other person is available and can see your distress. They can be just as effective as a conversation (only with the additional advantages set out above).

Quite a few years ago, a ground breaking Professor of Social Psychology, James W Pennebaker showed that an effective self management strategy was to sit and write for 20 minutes. As a result, we tend to feel better at the end. I have a hunch that once we conduct some psychology experiments, we will find that writing long text messages to a single person has a similar effect. I want to emphasize that there is value in direct messaging (rather than group messaging which will be a topic of another blog). If we choose a sympathetic friend who is able to give us a kind ear, we avoid the complications of group messaging and end up with companionship, relief and a clear mind to move forward.

Through the next few weeks, the Dip will continue to contribute to the Screentime and Social media conversation and provide advice to work with families on how to allow screens whilst social distancing and supporting our teenagers. Congratulations to Carol Dabb, who has submitted a research paper based on the data in our Macquarie Research Project. It explains just how social media destabilises some teenagers and not others (so please watch this space). I will be providing more detail on what this means as soon as the paper is accepted.

Finally, I stand by the dopamine message that The Dip propagated (and that ‘The Dip’ video demonstrates). As we now spend time at home with our families in a semi- or full- lockdown, it is all the more important to have shared values around screentime. I invite parents to continue to share frustrations and strategies, and now may be the perfect time to take up our 3 week Family Action plan, if you are spending time in isolation at home. The family tasks will be a positive and gentle experience, adapted to the current circumstances, to provide the psychological messages develop family values and support our emotions.



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