family internet use, family cell phone use

Internet, Cell Phones Are Altering Family Life, Study Suggests

October 21, 2008 11:45 AM
by Liz Colville
A new study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project raises questions about the value of “connectedness” that comes with increased use of the Internet and cell phones by families.

A 'New Connectedness'

Focusing on how communication technology—primarily cell phones and the Internet—is used in the home, Pew’s findings suggest that families’ “connectedness” is not always a good thing, at least traditionally speaking.

Technology is allowing parents to create a “new connectedness” with their children, but old habits are dying off as a consequence. Families “with multiple communication devices are somewhat less likely to eat dinner with other household members,” the report says. They are also more inclined to be dissatisfied with their “family and leisure time,” than families who own less technology. Television watching, a group activity, is also being replaced in large numbers with Internet browsing.

While some families in the survey reported that “family closeness” has actually increased with the advent of the Internet and cell phones, 60 percent said they think it has made no difference on their family’s closeness (and 6 percent said it has had a negative impact).

The study also suggests that the line has blurred between work and home thanks to the Internet and cell phones.

Background: Out with the old, in with the Web

The Internet has been called into question often for its alleged impact on young people, whether it’s reading skills, attention span, creativity or physical activity. In “Online, R U Really Reading?” The New York Times pondered the habits of Generations Y and Z turning from books toward the Internet to get their information. “Reading” online means a number of different things to younger people, including reading friends’ profiles on sites like myyearbook; checking headline news via RSS feeds; or reading and writing creative works on a site like FanFiction.

Beyond changing what people are reading, the Internet also changes the way people read, the Times notes, which could alter attention spans. “On paper, text has a predetermined beginning, middle and end, where readers focus for a sustained period on one author’s vision. On the Internet, readers skate through cyberspace at will and, in effect, compose their own beginnings, middles and ends.”

But whether an Internet user is an avid bookworm, a workaholic, or a sociable teenager, the Internet has so much to offer that few can resist it. Online book clubs let readers meet and discuss their reading lists, and business-based social networking sites like E.Factor and LinkedIn bring online social networking to the professional world.

If children aren’t reading online in the traditional sense, they still might be benefiting from the technology they use to keep track of friends near and far. The Journal of Adolescent Research published a study in Nov. 2007 that suggests social networking sites have several developmental benefits, including “cognitive skills that are consistent with those required in educational settings and perspective-taking skills that are necessary for citizenship in an increasingly multiracial society.”

One U.K. family conducted a study of their own in 2007 to see how their children would fare without any “screen-based activity” for a week. The mother, a correspondent for the Times of London, wrote that while her children were eager to have the TV back on after the week-long drought, one of her sons “admits that he quite likes reading in bed before he goes to sleep (something that he doesn’t normally do) and that watching morning telly at the weekends makes him feel lethargic. The biggest shock for me is that he says he prefers the four of us sitting around chatting after supper to playing on the computer on his own.”

For a household of teenagers and adults, Internet usage can often mean blogging, which has been found to have therapeutic effects in much the same way as other forms of writing, such as keeping a diary or journal. It also encourages interaction with one’s readers, which can have negative and positive results.

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