Queens University Belfast, UK

Mandi MacDonald

TOPIC: Navigating the Digital Social Ecology: Technology-mediated Family Practices and Digital Kinship.


Dr Mandi MacDonald is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queens University Belfast and is Co-Director of the Centre for Child, Youth and Family Welfare. Mandi practised extensively as a social worker in statutory child welfare services before joining the university. Her teaching and research focus on supporting families, and on the needs and rights of children and young people who are in out-of-home care or adopted, especially the experience of family life in permanent placements. She has a particular interest in the application of trauma-informed approaches, children’s use of digital communication technology for supporting birth family connections in alternative care and adoption, and in enhancing the supportive social networks of care-experienced young people.  

Mandi was honoured to receive the European Social Work Research Association’s award for Outstanding Publication in European Social Work Research 2022 for the paper entitled “Digital relationality, rights, resilience: conceptualising a digital social ecology for children’s birth family relationships when in care or adopted” co-authored with colleagues from Queens University Belfast and the University of Sydney.


The ubiquity of digital technology in daily life makes it both an integral part of and bridge between our various social systems, not merely a communication tool. Contemporary relational social work, therefore, requires an understanding of human interaction in the sociotechnical context where people and digital technologies intersect and interact. This paper will explore how social work can navigate the digital social ecology, outlining three key aspects that infuse all levels of social systems: digital relationality (technology-mediated relationships); digital rights (protection of online safety and opportunities); and digital resilience (digital skills and ability to negotiate online experiences). The presentation challenges the notion of digital dualism which perceives online interactions as ‘virtual’ and less ‘real’ than physical interactions, suggesting instead that technology-mediated relationships are not a simulacrum, but can be very real, as are the emotions they generate. It will, therefore, focus on the first of these ‘Digital 3 R’s’, digital relationality. Much social work practice engages with people who are separated from significant family relationships, either through social work intervention, as in the field of child welfare and out-of-home care, or through circumstance, for example migration and asylum-seeking.

The paper will explore the opportunities, challenges and subjective realities of digitally-mediated kinship for separated families, including: how a sense of family is constructed through technology-mediated family practices; the potential for digital technologies to facilitate emotional closeness between physically distant individuals; children and young people’s agency and technology use; the implications of commercial realities leading to digital interactions that are not always person-led or person-centred. It will consider what this means for how social workers support and help sustain significant kin connections in a digital world.