Social media increasingly important for military families

MILITARY AND SOCIAL MEDIA

Sunday, May 12, 2013 7:37 PM
Last updated Monday, May 13, 2013 1:22 AM
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She detailed her pregnancy, with her husband a world away. She diagnosed sudden spells of dizziness. She wrote of the challenges of keeping a budget while attending school.

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Shayla Bowling (center) logs in to her Skype account while sitting with her daughter, Alexis. Social media networks are revolutionizing what it means to be deployed to a war zone.  JON-MICHAEL SULLIVAN/STAFF
JON-MICHAEL SULLIVAN/STAFF
Shayla Bowling (center) logs in to her Skype account while sitting with her daughter, Alexis. Social media networks are revolutionizing what it means to be deployed to a war zone.

But mostly, Shayla Bowling – a proud Fort Gordon Army wife – has relayed the complexity of life as a military spouse, tending to a home with two young children, with a husband summoned for repeated deployments.

“My husband has been in the military four years,” Bowling said. “When he first deployed in 2009, I started blogging.”

Since, Bowling has not stopped blogging, spending anywhere from two to three hours a day trading posts with mothers across the country on BabyCenter.com, a top pregnancy and parenting Web site.

Last week alone, Bowling helped a mom from Spartanburg, S.C., decide on when to start baby cereal, while also soothing the nerves of a New Jersey mother, who after three hours of patting, swaddling and rocking could not get her 6-week-old child to sleep.

She did all this from her home on Fort Gordon.

Social media networks and fast Internet connections across the world are revolutionizing what it means to be deployed to a war zone or other post. Online support communities such as blogs, video chat rooms, specialized Facebook pages and the Twitter hashtag for military significant others – #MilSO – are on the rise.

For example, last quarter Skype users, which total about 300 million globally, logged more than 161 billion minutes of calls – including 2 billion minutes in one day – said Dani Reese, a spokeswoman for Microsoft, the company that owns the online media.

With smartphones becoming a more popular medium to access the Internet, researchers are only beginning to realize the effects on the military and the home front. Although some see the access to family as a positive, there is some concern that it can also be a distraction.

“No other military in the history of warfare has had that level of access to their families,” said Benjamin Karney, a social psychologist at University of California-Los Angeles, who studies marriage and family relationships in the military.

Karney and three other researchers are nearing the end of a three-year study for the Department of Defense to track how 8,000 military families handle physical, emotional and financial stress before, during and after deployments.

Karney said the Pentagon, for program and policy purposes, wants to know whether such a connection strengthens family bonds and eases the post-deployment transition, or whether it might distract service members from their mission and expose fractures in their personal relationships. The truth might be a little of both, he said.

“For the families that are strong to begin with, this technology is probably a tremendous help to them,” Karney said.

“For families having problems, maybe the technology will exacerbate their problems.”

Until about two years ago, the military had blocked most access to Facebook and similar sites because of concerns over security breaches, but now, military commanders advise troops and their families on how to keep themselves and their units safe online.

The Fort Gordon Directorate of Morale, Family and Welfare holds regular classes to guide military personnel and their families on what is allowed, said Heather Menard, who as a 30-year resident of Augusta manages the Fort Gordon Spouse’s Facebook page.

Menard took over the Fort Gordon Spouse’s page a year ago after Nena White, who founded the site in 2010 to help families stationed at Fort Gordon adjust to military life, moved to Florida.

“It is pretty vital,” Menard said of the site, which today is liked by 2,120 people and at any given time has between 250 to 270 people visiting the page.

Menard said spouses post several times a day on topics concerning how to renew license plates, where to buy formal gowns for military balls, or which moving companies to use.

“It has been pretty successful,” she said. “A lot of times spouses do not know where to turn and not are really forthcoming.”

Bowling, wife of Steven Bowling, an E4 solider at Fort Gordon, said she asked the Facebook page “everything she could think of” last June when the family moved to Augusta from Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C.

“We had never been here before,” Bowling said. “Getting any kind of help was really nice.”

Now, Bowling, the mother of a 3-year-old and 2-month-old girls, is paying it forward, helping other moms every chance she gets.

“If someone else can get what they need, that makes me happy,” Bowling said. “Because I know what it feels like to be in their shoes.”


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