Internet, Cell Phones Keep Families Together, Pew Finds

Married couples with kids are the most likely to embrace communications-oriented technologies and gadgets because they have the most relationships to coordinate.
Technological connectivity enhances family connections, a new study released Monday finds.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project commissioned Princeton Survey Research Associates International to conduct telephone interviews with 2,252 American adults, age 18 and older, between Dec. 13 and Jan. 13. The Pew study focused on answers from 1,267 respondents who consisted of "married couples and those living with a partner in a relationship similar to marriage."

The study, titled "Networked Families," finds that the Internet and mobile phones bring families together and promote shared online experiences.

"Although some commentators have expressed fears that technology pulls families apart, this survey finds that couples use their phones to connect and coordinate their lives, especially if they have children at home," the report says. "American spouses often go their separate ways during the day, but remain connected by cell phones and to some extent by Internet communications. When they return home, they often have shared moments of exploration and entertainment on the Internet."

The report looks at how families use technology in the light of decades of social changes that have been documented in previous studies. Dual-income households have grown from 39% of all households in 1970 to 53% in 2007. This has led to more complicated work and school schedules. And people are spending more hours per week on paid work than in the past: The average number of hours spent by spouses on paid work increased from 52.5 hours per week in 1970 to 62.8 hours per week in 1997.

Given these trends, it's perhaps not surprising to find that families have embraced networking and communication technology.

Some 33% of Internet users say that the Internet has strengthened their social connections "a lot," and 23% say it has increased the quality of their intrafamily communication similarly. As might be expected, young people rate Internet-driven interactions particularly highly, with 21% of wired 18- to 29-year-olds saying the Internet has substantially improved their ability to meet new people, and with 49% saying it has improved their connections with friends a lot.

There is a cost, however: Among employed Internet-using adults, 11% say the Internet has increased the amount of time they spend working from the office, and 19% say it has raised the number of hours they spend working from home.

And as Internet use has increased, TV viewing time appears to be decreasing. According to the study, 29% of 18- to 29-year-olds say they watch less TV as a result of the Internet.

The study finds that married couples with children are the most likely to embrace communications-oriented technologies and gadgets because large households have the most relationships to coordinate. "For example, 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," the study explains.

Conversely, single households are the least likely to have adopted online and mobile communications technologies. Single households had the lowest rate of cell phone ownership (61%), home computer ownership (48%), overall Internet usage (44%), and home broadband adoption (27%).

Cell-enabled couples communicate more than their less-tech-savvy peers. According to the study, 47% of married adults contacted their spouse daily by cell phone, while only 35% of landline phone users did so as frequently.

Overall, the majority of respondents expressed a positive or neutral view of the impact of technology on the quality of their communication.

"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," the study concludes. "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."

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