Early in the pandemic, Jane Cox Childress brought her teenage son warm cookies at his desk during a remote learning session. She received a text message in response: “Mom, could you please not bring me anything when I’m in class?”
Childress said she “learned quickly to be more respectful when he was in class.” After that, the two started exchanging a constant stream of texts throughout the day as they continued to do their respective work remotely: Are you ready for lunch? Is this your last class? Here’s a heart emoji or two.
“It reminds me of the olden days when I was a teenager. Some of my friends with fancy houses had intercoms,” Childress said. “We use texting a lot like that now. It beats yelling up and down the stairs.”
A lot has been written about how technology has allowed us to feel closer to people outside our quarantine bubbles during the pandemic. But a number of people are also finding that texting and other chat tools can help create some much-needed distance from their loved ones under the same roof. For those who lean on texts at home, the benefits are both psychological – as we spend 24/7 in close proximity talking face-to-face with the same few people – and logistical, as family members confront the realities of effectively being coworkers.
Texts give people the opportunity to slow down, be reflective and say what they mean without becoming too reactive, psychologists say. Sending texts is also a way to honor the multiple roles someone has in the home right now without interrupting those functions – a mother or father may also be a full-time remote employee, while a child might be a virtual student. Texting can help preserve some sense of separate quarters during the long and messy remote workdays.
For Brooke Sanchez, a small business owner from San Diego and mother of three kids, she uses texts to quickly get in touch with her husband, who works remotely in another room:.”It’s just an easy way to communicate fast,” she said. “And then, of course, there’s the typical me texting him to bring me something.”
Brittany Burroughs, a government employee who works on financial education for low income communities, messages her husband about seven times during a typical workday at home.
“I text him funny memes that I see on social media, ideas for the house and a lot of pictures of our dog,” said Burroughs, who works downstairs while her husband is upstairs. “Sometimes he responds immediately if he isn’t in any meetings or in person when he comes down for lunch. It keeps some type of excitement in our lives.”
When messaging someone outside the home, texting etiquette can put pressure on responding in a timely manner, especially now as people send more texts during the pandemic and keeping up is often a source of stress. But this same pressure isn’t necessarily there when texting family inside the house, which may make it more tolerable.
“You can choose to read right away or not, and you can choose to respond immediately or delay your response until you inevitably run into the person in the kitchen and address it then,” said Elias Aboujaoude, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and the author of “Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the e-Personality.” “The fact that texting under the same roof seems less stressful in some respects suggests that it may stay with us post-pandemic.”
As the pandemic has dragged on, screens and communications tools have only become more central to our daily lives inside and outside the home, whether it be Zoom, FaceTime, chat apps like Slack, or texts and voice memos. And while text messages, like these other options, are no substitute for in-person interaction, it can arguably create a sense of feeling closer to someone even if you’re only a room away.
“We aren’t doing it to avoid each other or because we’re too lazy to get up at that moment. We’re texting each other to stay connected,” Childress said of her texting relationship with her son. “And sometimes staying connected for a 15-year-old boy comes across in a text as: ‘Mom, will you make me a grilled cheese sandwich?’”