October 19, 2008

Networked Families

Conclusions: The networked household

New technologies foster new connectivity.

Most households have the internet and cell phones and use them actively. These are family technologies, as almost all married families with children are now internet and cell phone users. Their proportion of use is much higher than that of singles, single-person households and even married couples without children. Despite fears that technology use might pull families apart, American families still lead connected lives, and the more people in their households, the more coordination and communication they need. Where a two-person household (married couple or single mom with child) has only two relationships to coordinate (one in each direction), a four-person household (mother, father, and two children) has twelve relationships to coordinate. Contrary to the impression that internet use is a yuppie activity—singles and married couples without children—the married families with children are the most active internet users.

Spouses in the United States talk to each other through phones—cell phones and landlines— which are more intimate media than text-oriented computers. Rather than being isolated in their two-job work lives and their frequent child minding, spouses use old-fashioned landline phones and new cell phone and internet media to keep in frequent touch. About half of the respondents recognize the role that new media have played in increasing family communication, while about half haven’t noticed much difference; only a small percentage think that the internet and cell phones have actually decreased family contact.

To the extent that they have an opinion about new media tools, Americans tend to be optimistic about their impact: one-quarter say their family is closer because of the internet and cell phones, more than twice as many who say they have grown apart.

People go their separate ways, but they are networked together.

American families in 2008 continue to function as units. Although they often go their separate ways during the day, they are connected by the internet and, even more so, by cell phones. Although both members of married couples usually go out during the day to work, they keep together through their personal communication media.  They communicate socially—just to say: “Hello, how are you? What are you doing?” and also to coordinate activities—“Will you pick up Tyler at school, if I bring take-out dinner home?” The family phone wired into the household is being supplemented –and sometimes supplanted –by personally carried phones.

Few household members feel that the internet separates them. Rather, many report that the internet (like television) brings people together within households: We have found many instances where two or more family members go online together, or one calls another over to “look at this!” If anything, having several computers in a household can promote family interaction, as each member is more likely to be using the internet and have a “look at this” moment.

Despite fears that many Americans are isolated from family members, because of separate agendas and immersive personal internet and cell phones, most families are together at night.  Their heavy home internet use suggests that many households are hubs of personal communication networks, as people log on individually to email, IM, post on social networking sites and chat. They are both together with their families and connecting outward to friends and relatives elsewhere. They are neither isolated individuals nor Dick and Jane’s traditional family. Rather, their households are active sites of the interplay of individual activity and family togetherness.