Kent State Research Team Examines Family Communication Patterns as they Relate to COVID-19 Vaccine Uptake for Children
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been a lot of intersection between communication and public health.
A team of researchers from Kent State University became inspired to take a closer look at communication as it relates to COVID-19 and vaccine hesitancy in March 2021. The research, conducted by faculty from the College of Communication and Information and the College of Public Health, examines family communication patterns and parents’ intentions to vaccinate their children against COVID-19.
“The project was about family communication patterns to see if there’s differences in how vaccines and COVID-19 are discussed,” said Nichole Egbert, Ph.D., Professor in the School of Communication Studies and lead researcher. "Not even just that, but controversial issues in general.”
The rest of the research team included: Michael Beam, Ph.D., Director, School of Emerging Media and Technology; Mina Choi, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, School of Communication Studies; Tara Smith, Ph.D., Professor, College of Public Health; and Ying Zhu, graduate student, School of Communication Studies.
The team’s findings show that different family conversation patterns result in different likelihoods of parents vaccinating their children.
“Families are cultures, just like anything else, and the idea behind the theory that we’re using is that the family of origin —where you come from — creates a shared meaning and culture, which you kind of live with as a filter,” Egbert said.
The research team examined parents’ likelihood to vaccinate their children through the lens of two different forms of family communication: conversation orientation and conformity orientation.
Conversation orientation is simply how you talk about new ideas within a family. Those higher in this orientation are more comfortable discussing differing viewpoints, are more flexible and less reactive. The team found that families within this orientation generally correlated with a greater parental knowledge of COVID-19. Parents were more supportive of vaccines and were therefore more likely to vaccinate their children.
On the flip side, families with a high conformity orientation share their attitudes and beliefs very strongly, and everyone in the family tends to believe in the same things. Families higher in this orientation tend to be more prone to anxiety, and there is more perceived harm from disagreeing with other’s viewpoints.
For this group, the findings weren’t so clear cut. In families where the parents expect questioning from their children about their values and beliefs, yet still expect parental respect, the parents were found to be more knowledgeable of COVID-19 and were more supportive of vaccinating children. In families where parents expect to be in control and that children will follow their values and beliefs, parents tended to be less knowledgeable on COVID-19 and less supportive of vaccinating children.
The team concluded that it would be beneficial for public health officials to create tailored vaccine messaging for families, depending on where they fall on conversation scales.
“We need to talk about how we can sort of use this information to create better messages to families … and how you can tailor messages,” Egbert said, “because interpersonal channels are a lot more powerful than media messages.”
When the team began brainstorming their research, vaccines were not available yet for children.
“It wasn’t totally clear how the world was going to respond to the vaccine,” Beam said, “and as social scientists we were all very excited to gather data to help better understand how vaccine uptake, especially in the concept of families, would happen.”
For some members of the research team, this topic hit close to home.
“I’m a parent, and this was an angst-ridden time of parenting,” Egbert said. “It was just a constant roller coaster of decisions and messages, and I wanted to make more sense of it.”
This research was sponsored by the CCI Research and Creativity Fund. The team will be presenting its findings to the International Communication Association conference in Paris on May 28, 2022.