High tech family life

The tech war is over and the computers have won. Parents have been outflanked and conquered. While we were trying to stop our kids wasting too much time playing on the XBox and internet, technology subtly infiltrated our homes and bedrooms and seduced us. There is no longer a technological ‘cultural divide’ between parents and their children – we use and love computers, phones and other media as much as our kids do. Today, parents spend just as many minutes a day online as our teenagers, and we use email and mobile phones even more than them.

According to internetworldstats.com, 83.9 percent of New Zealand homes had the internet in 2010, which is similar to the US (78.2 percent), so an American survey of family internet use probably fairly reflects trends in New Zealand families as well. Knowledge Networks surveyed 416 parents and 416 teens and tweens living in the same home in March this year, comparing technology use between parents and children in the same home, and the results have shaken some of the things parenting gurus have been spouting for ages.

First up is the fact that has been shown in a number of surveys now – parents and teens really do have very similar digital diets. Teenagers still do more listening to music, texting, and playing video games, but their lead isn’t that great, especially if their parents are in their 30s or early 40s. Secondly, it seems parents don’t really worry about technology. Many of the articles I have read about parenting the ‘connected generation’ suggest parents are white-knuckled with anxiety about their kids’ use of technology. Perhaps they should be, but actually parents seem fairly relaxed about computers, mobile phones and other technology. Most parents think the impact has been neutral on family life, and 32 percent believe it has actually enhanced things in their family. Also they are even more favourably inclined towards music, movies and television – 93 percent of parents thought that these entertainments were either a neutral or good influence on family life. Predictably, their kids are even more positive – only six percent thought technology had a bad effect and only two percent thought movies, TV or music had a bad impact. So most families actually welcome technology with open arms, and probably use television, movies and video games as an activity they share together.

‘But everybody is doing it’ is never really a full justification. Aspects of the survey did give me some concerns. One is that neither parents nor their kids took deliberate breaks from technology. Only 10 percent of parents and six percent of teenagers try to have one day a week free of from their digital usage. Others were disconnected from their gadgets occasionally, out of convenience rather than intention, but a third of adults and a half of teenagers never make the choice to switch off at all. This means technology is creeping more and more into everything we do. The survey reports “nearly half of both parents and teens said they emailed, texted or talked on the phone while eating in the last week. Two out of five youth and one third of parents have used two or more screens simultaneously during this time period. And half of students and one fifth of parents have checked email or text messages in bed in the last seven days.” Is the technology giving us more control of our lives, or is it taking us over?

There are still some areas of dispute in families over gadgets. A half of parents worry their kids are wasting too much time online and gaming (but 21 percent of their kids believe their parents have double standards!). About a quarter of homes have regular disputes over limits and other technology-related tensions, but when you remember that we are talking about homes with teenagers, that probably doesn’t rate as a very high figure.

Are modern families ever disappointed by technology? Yes. Their biggest complaint is the cost of having the latest gear. And a lot of parents (and a surprisingly large 27 percent of teens) get annoyed by technology because it “makes it hard to have conversations”. The researchers concluded that “technology seems to amplify the relational patterns and problems already in place – families that have healthy and frequent conversations find technology aiding that process, while families without such healthy interactions find that technology exacerbates the isolation of its members.”

Technology has arrived in your home and looks set to stay permanently. Just ensure it is a well-mannered house guest. Ensure it follows your family culture and doesn’t dictate it. And, even though it’s a guest, technology still isn’t invited to the family meal table! After a suitably long digital-free period, just to prove to yourself that you are not totally addicted, you may want to go online and check out the survey in detail at barna.org.

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About Author

John Cowan

Writer, speaker and broadcaster, John Cowan shares his insight and opinions about the latest in parenting and family news in New Zealand. Hear John speak on radio stations every week throughout the country and regularly on national TV.  Follow @JohnCowanNZ on Twitter

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