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Transnational Filipino Families in the Digital Era

23 Mar 2023
By Dr Earvin Charles B. Cabalquinto
An extension officer interviews a filipino farmer using the RCM via an android device. Source: International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)/

Digital devices have transformed family life. For high remittance countries like the Philippines this can be both a blessing and a problem, particularly if the government continues to seek development through the transnational employment efforts of its citizens. 

It was late afternoon when I interviewed Esther, a 74-year-old Filipina-Australia. Seated in one of the benches in a nearby park, she shared her story of migration to Australia. She arrived in 1984 on a tourist visa with her Australian boyfriend. She was not expecting to stay then, but her partner applied for de-facto. Being granted a permanent visa, she opted to stay and considered the kind of help she would be able to provide for her family back home.

Esther has a child in the Philippines from her ex-husband. She also has three grandchildren. She has been supporting them for years, regularly sending remittances and a returnee box filled with consumer goods to express her love and care. Even today, she supports them using her pension from the Australian government. She also uses this money to cover her daily expenses and the monthly rental of a room in a house of four. She does not have a house of her own because her partner died before the land title was put under her name. On a daily basis, she uses her smartphone and Facebook Messenger to stay connected with her siblings, nephews and nieces, her child, and her grandchildren. Indeed, Esther’s everyday transnational and mediated practices fulfil her role as a sister, mother, and grandmother in her extended family.

Esther’s story is reflective of the plight of many dispersed Filipino family members in the digital age. Embedded in long years of living overseas, either on a permanent or temporary status, individuals like her split their resources to perform and fulfil their nurturing and provider roles in growing and extended families in the Philippines. Notably, the advent and uptake of mobile communication technologies and online channels plays a crucial role in re-shaping Filipino family life in an increasingly global society.

Shaped by intersecting social, economic, and political conditions, the Filipino family has been at the frontier of rapid transformation. The rise of the transnational Filipino family is evidence of this. Over the years, ordinary Filipinos have left their family members behind in search of opportunities to support themselves and their families. Mobility outside of the Philippines has undeniably become symptomatic of ordinary people’s lack of access to stable jobs, social welfare benefits, and sustainable public services.

This normalisation of migration has been compounded by inflation and poverty. In a country where a majority of the population belong to low and poor income groups, an inflation rate of 8.7 percent in the first quarter of 2023 is too much to bear. In 2021, 3.5 million Filipino families were considered poor, with insufficient income to meet the individual needs of household members. This figure increased to 12.9 million Filipino families in 2022.

Overseas migration is an integral part of the Philippine society, functioning as a lifeblood to keep state’s economy afloat. Historically, it was promoted during the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos through the issuance of the Labor Export Policy (LEP) with Presidential Decree 422 in 1974. It was identified as a temporary stop gap measure for addressing poverty, unemployment, and underemployment in the Philippines. A recent report shows that there were 1.83 million Overseas Filipino workers in 2021, an increase from 1.77 million in 2020. The figure also underlines the femininised aspect of Philippine migration, with 1.10 million (60.2 percent) being women and 0.73 million (39.8 percent) men. Importantly, the Philippine state benefits from the flows of remittances sent by overseas Filipinos. In 2022 alone, total remittance sent reached ₱36.14 billion.

The digitalisation of contemporary Philippine society has had a huge impact on the Filipino family. As in Esther’s story, a smartphone and online platforms are key channels that allow her to forge and sustain ties with her distant family. This is not a surprise given the proliferation and use of digital devices and online channels across the world. Of a population of 116.5 million in 2023, the Philippines has  85.16 million internet users and 84.45 million social media users. As communication technologies become a staple in Filipinos’ lives, they are spending increasing amounts of time online, an average of 10 hours and 27 minutes online each day.

However, while these figures show the embeddedness of Filipinos in a digital world, it is also important to note that as of the start of 2023, 31.30 million Filipinos still did not use the internet. Interestingly, the Philippines is considered the “most internet poor” nation in Southeast Asia, with half of the population unable to spend on a basic mobile internet packages.

Social, economic, political, and technological forces re-shape family life. As I have shown in my book (Im)mobile Homes: Family Life at a Distance in the Age of Mobile, these influences reconfigure the dynamics and outcomes of transnational familial relationships. On the one hand, modern technologies allow dispersed Filipino family members to reclaim and re-stage family life. An overseas father performs a provider role by sending remittances to finance the education of his children and everyday expenses of his family. An overseas mother performs caring from afar by constantly communicating with her children via Facebook Messenger or Skype. Dispersed siblings utilise group chats to exchange mundane content, enact care, and generate a sense of belonging. Transnational Filipino family members feel connected to each other’s lives through networked communication.

However, the celebratory rhetoric on how digital technologies connect dispersed family members must be treated with caution. In some cases, social media channels stir tensions among transnational Filipino family members. Through the accessibility of devices, overseas family members are sometimes subjected to monetary requests from their distant family on top of fulfilling already burdensome financial obligations. Mobile technology can also become a tool for surveillance, prompting disagreements. Furthermore, connecting transnationally can sometimes become difficult due to an unstable internet connection. A report shows that the median mobile internet connection speed in the Philippines is 24.04 Mbps and 81.42 Mbps for the median fixed internet connection speed. These figures show a 5.36 Mbps increase for mobile internet and a 34.98 Mbps increase for fixed internet. However, experts have noted the striking differences in the speed of connectivity between wealthy and poor cities in the Philippines. As this demonstrates, enabling transnational Filipino family life can become a frustrating experience illustrated when tied to existing structural inequalities in Philippine society.

In the Philippines, the social, economic, and political system produces and benefits from the separation and virtual reunification of household members. As in the case of Esther and many other Filipinos living away from their families, overseas migration, entangled with everyday digital media use, will remain as a life support in keeping them and their families afloat together in a globalising society. Yet, their mobility – physical and virtual – also exposes how Filipino households are exploited by a system that is supposed to provide care and support, especially among those less privileged. They become conduits for enabling the flows of money and consumer goods that sustain the Philippine economy.

Dr Earvin Charles B. Cabalquinto is an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow and a Lecturer in Communication at Deakin University. He is a member of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation. He is the author of “(Im)mobile Homes: Family Life at a Distance in the Age of Mobile Media” (Oxford University Press). He is also the co-author of “Philippine Digital Cultures: Brokerage Dynamics on YouTube” (Amsterdam University Press). He specialises in digital media, mobilities, migration, and ageing.

The story of Esther is part of an ongoing research project funded by the 2022 University of the Philippines Center for Women’s and Gender Studies (UPCWGS) Research Grant.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.