Witness a gadget-obsessed family at the dinner table and it is easy to conclude that technology is fracturing family life: Mom’s emailing her boss; Dad’s watching a YouTube video on his tablet; sister’s texting her boyfriend; and little brother is playing Angry Birds on his smart phone. No one is talking with each other.
But dysfunctional dinner habits aside, it appears cell and Internet technologies haven’t turned out to be as harmful as once predicted. “When we started this research, the dominant thought was that Internet technology would make us lonely, socially isolated and threaten our family lives,” says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. “We have been asking people about this now for 12 years in our surveys and the dominant answer is ‘Actually, we feel more connected with our families than we did before.’”
Web-conferencing systems like Skype have enabled family members across the globe to chat for free and also see each other. Social networking sites like Facebook have enabled previously out-of-touch siblings to share photos and revive contact. According to Pew studies since 2008, cell phones have led married couples to talk more during the day and parents to maintain more open lines of communication with their kids.
“There always seems to be anxiety in raising a teen, and now a lot of that can be alleviated,” says Larry Rosen, Ph.D., a research psychologist at California State University and author of Me, MySpace, and I: Parenting the Net Generation. “A scared mom or dad can text their kid, saying ‘R U OK?’ and get a one-word answer back, whereas before that kid would have had to find a pay phone, maybe wouldn’t have done it and Mom and Dad would have panicked.”
Rosen’s own research suggests that social networking can actually teach teens to be more empathetic, a trait that enhances their bonds with family members. For example, a cousin will post on Facebook that her cat died, then the teen responds warmly and their bond tightens. The teen gains empathy useful in face-to-face experiences.
“Research from the Pew Center has shown that active social networkers tend to have more friends and support and be more involved with their communities and families,” Rainie maintains, while cautionary studies from the Kaiser Family Foundation suggest that kids unhealthily obsessed with media tend to have lower grades and get into trouble at school.
Overall, according to a 2011 study by the Barna Group, a Ventura, California, research firm, 32 percent of parents and 47 percent of teens say technology has made their family life better, while 18 percent of parents and 6 percent of teens say it has worsened, because the news is not all good.
Consider how, instead of sitting down to watch a show together, family members often are in a room or vehicle watching their own show on their own tiny screen. “People miss social moments around them because they are communicating with the network inside the screen, rather than the world immediately surrounding them,” says Rainie. (On the flip side, Rainie notes, families often share those moments with each other, too, like a funny YouTube video or a picture on Facebook.)
Rosen cautions that the smart phone could be a pivotal game-changer if consumers aren’t careful. “We are already finding that most people under the age of 40 check their phones every 15 minutes or less, and if they can’t, they become highly anxious. Their whole social world appears channeled through this device, and that is worrisome.”
Both Rosen and Rainie stress that the key to making any technology a positive for family dynamics is to set rules at the outset and know when to unplug. Here are some guidelines to consider.
Cell phones. Everyone can check their phone messages before dinner and then power it down while the family is eating. Don’t use phones in bed, or in the hour before sleeping, which can be particularly detrimental to a teen’s rest, Rosen’s research shows.
Facebook. “When your child says, ‘All of my friends are on Facebook and I feel left out,’ that is probably the time to let them join Facebook,” advises Rosen. Reserve the right to look at their page periodically with them. Each parent and child pair can decide if they should “friend” each other, but don’t assume that gives a parent a backstage pass to the child’s personal life.
Pew reports that 80 percent of parents whose children use social media have friended their child. However, “Insisting that your child friend you on Facebook is often an invitation for them to set up a phantom, or fake page,” notes Rosen.
Smart phones and tablets. Set specific times to ban technology. “As couples, we used to retire to bed at night and watch TV and talk. Now we watch TV, check our phone and play Words with Friends games, and that has taken the place of intimate communication.” It helps to set specific times to check the phone and leave it off for big chunks of time.
Lisa Marshall is a regular contributor to Natural Awakenings.