The image of four family members sitting silently around their living room and tapping on their keyboards does not exactly evoke a Norman Rockwell evening. Conventional wisdom has it that everyone in the family is absorbed in his or her own online life—and that the real people in the room are probably not part of it.
But a new report suggests that the situation may be more complex than we think. The internet, after all, is an interactive medium, and using it is not the passive experience of watching television.
The study, conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, found that roughly 95% of married-with-children households—the traditional nuclear families—own at least one cell phone and at least one computer with internet access. That's compared to around 80% for the country overall. And nearly half the people surveyed said that all the technology actually encourages communication—the "hey, look at this!" phenomenon that makes YouTube so successful.
On the flip side, however, many of those same families reported a decrease in more traditional social activites, such as sharing family dinners or enjoying leisure time.
So the real question, it seems, isn't whether or not technology-saturated familes communicate with each other: clearly, they do. But what kinds of communication are most valuable? Is watching YouTube videos with your brother or chatting with your daughter for five minutes while she walks to the subway the same as sharing a 45-minute meal?
It's hard to measure happiness, but the survey does note that a quarter of adults surveyed think they're closer to their families now than they were when they were growing up. They result may be a new idea of what "family togetherness" means. "Modern nuclear families "are neither isolated individuals nor Dick and Jane's traditional family," conclude the researchers. "Rather, their households are active sites of the interplay of individual activity and family togetherness."
Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Roberta Taylor.