Pentagon Studies Impact of Social Media on Long Deployments

Social media has been a boon for people enduring long separations from their loved ones, and with the Department of Defense loosening restrictions on social media activities, those benefits are now being shared by military personnel who face long deployments overseas. To determine what kind of psychological impacts social media use has on service members’ long-term relationships, the Pentagon has commissioned a study by social psychologists who will follow 8,000 families before, during, and after deployments, according to the Military Times, which first reported the news.

The team of four researchers, led by Benjamin Karney of the University of California at Los Angeles and the RAND Corporation, will study service members’ personal interactions with loved ones via social media, and the impacts on their psychological well-being. The study could yield insights that will improve the quality of life during future deployments, which in turn might help in key areas like recruitment and retention of personnel.

Karney’s earlier research has focused on relationship maintenance, including how external stresses can affect the process. In 2007 RAND published a book by Karney and co-author J.S. Crown titled Families Under Stress, which addressed marriage and divorce rates in the military from 1996-2005 -- a period which saw a marked increase in long-term deployments due to operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. In this earlier study the co-authors observed that “with the rise of the Internet and cellular communication, even spouses separated by deployments can now remain in regular contact… but the nature of these communications and their effect on military families have yet to be examined directly.”

As noted, the DoD lifted a ban on social media use by military personnel in February 2010, when the Pentagon officials issued a memo outlining new rules for Internet use by employees, directing that non-classified networks should henceforth allow access to social network sites -- with provisions, of course, for a shutdown in case social network activity threatens a security breach. Some parts of the DoD were ahead of the curve. For example, the Military Health System began using social networks back in 2008 to reach Web users under the age of 25. The MHS joined Flickr in April 2008, MySpace and YouTube in October 2008, Twitter in March 2009, and Facebook in April 2009.

Meanwhile some classified networks behind the military firewall are allowing commanders in the field to share crucial information: one proprietary DoD social network, CompanyCommand, allows captains to share information that would otherwise have to go up (and back down) the entire chain of command. At the upper levels, the DoD also launched a Strategic Knowledge Integration Web, which provides senior commanders with real-time command status, news, and information feeds, as well as a blogging function. In September 2010 the DoD launched a military-wide Facebook-like feature called MilBook, accessible to all military personnel. Subsequently MilBook was joined by MilWiki and MilBlog, all of which replicate functions of their general purpose namesakes behind the military firewall. And in April of this year the Defense Information Systems Agency added a social feature, called “Community,” to its platform for online collaboration, using Drupal Commons, an open-source social software platform, which lets lead developers track the progress of projects, discover others working on similar projects, and share information, best practices, and plans with relevant parties.

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