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Study Underscores Family Value of Technology

The to-do list for the modern family:

  • E-mail grocery list to hubby.
  • Text oldest daughter re: pick up from soccer practice?
  • Call mother-in-law’s cell re: Thanksgiving.
  • Spend time on Webkins with youngest.

If these items show up on your cell phone or PC calendars, congratulations. Your family is using technology to stay close and connected, according to a new study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The survey of 2,252 adults breaks with the stereotype of cell phones and computers fragmenting the traditional, two-parent, one-or-two child family. Pew found that the impact of technology in these homes “allow family members to stay more regularly in touch even when they are not physically together. Moreover, many members of married-with-children households view material online together.”

Gather Round

The key findings:

  • Nearly 90 percent of family households surveyed own several cell phones or mobile devices.
  • 66 percent of the families have high-speed broadband Web access, more than the national average.
  • 42 percent of parents use cell phones to stay in touch with kids.
  • 52 percent of families gather around the PC screen several times a week.

In what may be the most telling result from the survey, 60 percent of adults say technology isn’t making that much of a difference in their family life from what they experienced while growing up, and 25 percent say all those devices and the Internet are actually bringing their families closer together than what they saw during the TV-dinner generation.

The study’s finding that technology has a more positive family impact than what some social critics have suggested in the past is little surprise to Pew researcher Tracy Kennedy, a Ph.D candidate in sociology at the University of Toronto.

“Mind you, I am sure there are some examples of this out there — where families are disconnected because they’re so connected, so to speak,” Kennedy told TechNewsWorld, “but I think in general these situations are less common than we think and part of an overall fear of technology and modernization.

“We’ve seen fears of technology and the media in the past, with the television — what will it do to the American family? Will it corrupt our youth? (Think Elvis the Pelvis on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’) It didn’t really.”

Keeping Pace

The pace of 21st Century life necessitates the use of Web-based communications, said Kennedy, who herself uses technology to keep in touch with her teenage son and a mother who lives 30 minutes away. “It’s much easier to e-mail in the cracks and crevices of the day than to phone.”

Sharing YouTube videos and other online experiences are also helping her communicate with her son — a phenomenon that may be repeated in many an American household circa 2008. “These ‘showing and sharing’ experiences, as I call them, are a nice way for me to stay on the same wavelength as my teen, speaking to and with him in the digital native tongue of his generation.”

For the adults in the household, technology and the Web help impact financial, entertainment and social aspects of their lives, Kennedy said. Shopping Web sites help with comparing prices on appliances during challenging economic times, and the webcam can shorten the distance between children and their grandparents.

Digital Fears Remain

Yet many parents remain afraid of the Web’s darker corners and are fearful of what their children might see when unaccompanied in front of the computer. The survey didn’t ask people specifically what they were doing online with their kids, but Kennedy’s previous research showed that parents of young children were instructing them on how to use the Internet safely. “Other parents don’t monitor in the sense that they are standing over their shoulder, but the kids and computer are close by, and they can hear what their kids are doing online. Most people that I’ve spoken to alert their children of potential online dangers,” she said.

The two-way nature of the Internet and social media continue to have an impact on TV viewing habits. The survey showed 29 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds say they watch TV less, filling in those gaps with time spent in front of a computer.

“Families can actively construct their media experiences online and tailor them to their own needs and wants, both together and separately. They can collaborate and create with one another in the same place — home — or do so with friends and family outside the home and/or far away. The social Web is exactly that — it’s social and collective. We can keep up to date with our family and friends constantly, whether we do this via text messages, Facebook status updates, Twitter, e-mail or online calendars that are shared with other family members,” Kennedy said. “People adopt and use these tools in different ways depending on their needs and people need to stay connected.”

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