Text messaging, social networking, and online video are changing the way parents and children see the world—and each other.
by Dana Wollman on March 24, 2009
Keith Lucas of Naples, Fla., who works with his wife, Kris, in real estate, spends the day exchanging texts and pictures of homes for sale. His in-laws, also realtors, chime in with tips. When he gets out of school, Nick, the couple’s 18-year-old son, texts his parents to update them on his whereabouts. Their two adult children, ages 22 and 23, check in via text, and the second oldest sends pictures of her son. The only one not sending texts—yet—is the couple’s six-year-old daughter.
According to a recent study by the Pew Internet Project, the Lucases aren’t the only close-knit family wrapped around technology. All thanks to cell phones, 25 percent of survey respondents said their family was closer than the one they grew up with. Moreover, almost half the people said that the quality of their communications with friends and family members in their home had improved thanks to technology.
But before prescribing tech as the cure for harried, disconnected families, experts attach a laundry list of caveats. And while some call the increased adoption of digital technology in the family an opportunity to bond, others see its potential to erode families and, even more bleakly, society.
Gwenn Schurgin O’Keefe, MD, editor-in-chief of Pediatricsnow.com and a member of the Council on Communications and Media of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that rampant text messaging teaches kids poor etiquette. And it’s not just children who are behaving badly. Dr. Gwenn (as she prefers to go by) recalled her middle-schooler’s recent recital, where parents and children sat side by side, pecking away at their BlackBerrys. She was struck that they tuned out, rather than enjoying the music together—let alone pay respect to the other children whose performances were yet to come. “We’ve let technology invade places where it never used to have a role,” she said. “[Parents] think it’s their right, if they own a cell phone, they can surf the Web [anytime].”
Dr. Gwenn went as far as to predict that the ubiquity of wireless technology will dilute our ability to live in the moment. “It won’t just be the fabric of families that will break down, but society as we know it,” she said. “We’ll not be able to take from those [life] experiences the lessons and enrichment they have to offer.”
To that, Paul Donahue, PhD, director of the family practice Child Development Associates, warned not to overstate things. “Sounds a little like the response from parents when the Beatles arrived in America,” Dr. Donahue quipped. “That said, parents are going to have to work harder to help their children develop face-to-face relationships. Eye contact, emotional resonance, and body language are lost if we rely primarily on texting, IMing, or Facebook as a means of communicating.”
But for Lucas, 47, that immediate communication means being able to share in moments he wouldn’t have otherwise. The first picture message he ever received was a sonogram of his future grandson in the womb. “The picture’s clarity and the definition were amazing,” he recalled. In addition to texting, he uses network storage to share home videos and other media with relatives who live up north. He avoids YouTube for privacy reasons, and instead sends links to his Western Digital drive, which has Web access.
Then there’s Skype, among other VoIP and video-calling services. Daniel A. Begun, 42, and his wife use the service to keep in touch with his parents, in-laws, and friends living abroad. The couple’s 13-month-old daughter has already gotten comfortable in front of the (Web) camera.
“It’s a great way for our parents to see our granddaughter as much as they want,” he said. “It wouldn’t matter if they lived 300 or 3,000 miles away. It’s a practical application for any family.”