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Internet, Cellphones May Strengthen Family Unit, Study Finds

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 20, 2008; Page A07

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.

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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.


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