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Internet, Cellphones May Strengthen Family Unit, Study Finds

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 20, 2008

Parents and children might rush through their days in different directions, but the American family is as tight-knit as in the last generation -- or more so -- because of the widespread use of cellphones and the Internet, according to a new poll.

In what was described as the first detailed survey of its kind, released yesterday, researchers reported that family life has not been weakened, as many had feared, by new technology. Rather, families have compensated for the stress and hurry of modern life with cellphone calls, e-mail and text messages and other new forms of communication.

"There had been some fears that the Internet had been taking people away from each other," said Barry Wellman, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto and one of the authors of the report, published by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. "We found just the opposite."

In the poll, 60 percent of adults said that the new technologies did not affect the closeness of their family, while 25 percent said cellphones and online communication made their families closer and 11 percent said that the technology had a negative effect.

Wellman said families appreciated the innovations because "they know what each other is doing during the day." This, he said, comports with his other research, which shows that technology "doesn't cut back on their physical presence with each other. It has not cut down on their face time."

The findings were based on a nationally representative poll of 2,252 people, which explored technology use and profiled a group of 482 adults who were married or living together with minor children. These "traditional nuclear families" have been of particular scholarly interest, the report's authors said. They tried to examine trends in single-parent families, too, but the poll numbers were too small to be valid, they said.

Cellphones and Internet use were widespread in two-parent households, regardless of education, income, employment, race and ethnicity, with 94 percent saying at least one adult used the Internet and 84 percent saying children were using the Internet.

This marks a large change in short order. Only since the start of the decade has a majority of Americans been Internet and cellphone users, researchers said.

Where technology has changed family life, those polled said it was for the good.

Forty-seven percent of adults said cellphones and the Internet had improved the quality of family communication.

Another 47 percent said there was no effect, and 2 percent said there had been a decrease in quality.

The positive effect reflects family life for Randy and Ana Tillim of Germantown, who have two children. Their sons play online. Both parents rely on BlackBerrys not just for work but for the stuff of daily life. They let each other know about schedule changes, dinner plans, sick children.

"I think it brings us closer, because we're able to communicate throughout the day," said Randy, 38. "I don't know what we did without it."

Ana, 42, said she finds it disconcerting to be without her BlackBerry. "I definitely feel naked without it," she said.

Many parents have embraced technology because they think their children will benefit, said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet project.

"Parents are extending themselves to provide their children with technology because they think it's important or useful," he said.

Respondents to the poll said family life was a top priority. Fifty-eight percent said they had family dinners every day, and 26 percent said almost every day.

Still, the poll showed that technology could have drawbacks. Families with multiple communication devices were less likely than other groups to eat dinner together daily and to feel satisfied that they had enough family time. But researchers said the heaviest technology users are also people with the heaviest work schedules, which could explain this.

The ease of being in touch has created a phenomenon that Rainie calls "love taps," in which couples exchange hellos and touch base with a regularity that did not exist 10 years ago.

This practice extends to children, too. Forty-two percent of parents with children ages 7 to 17 call their sons and daughters once a day or more on a cellphone, 35 percent keep in touch on a landline and 7 percent communicate by text, according to the poll.

The popularity of high-speed Internet -- now in 66 percent of two-parent homes, according to the poll -- has created another family phenomenon: huddling around a screen to watch YouTube videos together or other Internet entertainment, a kind of "virtual hearth," Rainie said.

Still, not everyone is a convert to the age of instant communication.

Alex Portillo, 37, a father of three in Clarksburg who finds it useful in business, said that he is less convinced of its benefit at home, even though there are four cellphones in his family and six computers.

He said he limits how the devices are used, not wanting them to replace more important face-to-face experiences.

As a society, Portillo said, "we have so many communications devices that we don't have time for each other. . . . It only drifts the family apart."

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