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In preparation for the Council on Contemporary Families’ 17th Annual Conference, Families as They Really Are: How Digital Technologies are Changing the Way Families Live and Love, April 25 and 26, 2014, the Council asked participants and CCF Senior Scholars to submit briefs of their recent research and best practice findings relevant to technology’s influence over family life.
Today, CCF releases this collection in the 6th Edition of Unconventional Wisdom. Below are several highlights of the 27 submissions CCF received. The entire report, edited by CCF co-chairs Joshua Coleman and Stephanie Coontz, is available here.
Topics range from online dating to how technology impacts working mothers and gender politics in the family. Researchers report, for example, how stepfamilies, polyamorous families and the great diversity of family forms use technology. The report includes an easy-to-use table of contents that previews the complete range of coverage.
When you read Unconventional Wisdom, you might consider some of the following questions that people ask about family life and technology again and again.
Are computers ruining our children?
- People think that to benefit from the use of computers, children need to be studying or working on the computer. According to Sandra Hofferth and colleagues at the University of Maryland, “Time spent playing games on the computer is more strongly associated with achievement in reading and applied problem solving than is time spent doing homework or studying.”
- Hofferth also reports that text messaging improves children’s reading and writing skills. “Using reading test scores from a national sample of children ages 10-18, we discovered that more time spent texting was associated with better rather than worse scores on a reading comprehension test. It was children who spent more time talking on the phone who had lower vocabulary scores.”
- But when it comes to child wellbeing in the digital world, reports Megan Moreno, Associate Professor of Adolescent Medicine, Seattle Children’s Hospital, we can’t start teaching them online safety soon enough. Explains Moreno, “Data from 2010 suggests that almost 20 percent of 8 to 10 year olds spend time on social networking sites daily. It seems likely that this percentage has grown in the past three years. Timing safety education with the onset of internet use may allow for the concomitant development of computer skills and safety skills.”
- Kay Mathiesen, University of Arizona, School of Information Resources and Library Science, reports a contrary view: She argues, “Engaging in monitoring of online information exchanges is tantamount to eavesdropping on their conversations and, thus, conflicts with preexisting norms of information flows in the context of the parent-child relationship.” Instead, she claims, “Respecting children’s privacy fosters their future capacities for autonomy.”
What does the digital revolution mean for couples?
- Who would have guessed? Technology use involves trade-offs for couples: Pew researcher Amanda Lenhart uses Pew’s 2013 data to observe, “We see that couples report both positive and negative experiences with technology: the technology allows for intimacy-building even as it also supports distraction. While 21 percent say they have felt closer to their partner because of online or text messaged conversations, another 8 percent have had an argument with their spouse or partner about the amount of time one of them was spending online.”
- Larry Ganong and Marilyn Coleman from the University of Missouri outline a novel benefit to partners in stepfamilies: Apps and programs that help stepfamilies reduce conflict and generate collaborative schedules. The family researchers offer a review of many websites and apps designed for stepfamilies and newly divorced parents–and warnings against sites that oversell themselves.
- Families who use social networking sites like Facebook report being happier than other families, according to a survey conducted by University of St. Thomas (Minnesota) family social scientist Carolyn Bruess. She identified six specific ways families use FB: “updating each other; supporting each other; regularly expressing ‘Thinking of You’; reminiscing about past family events or memories; joking/playing/having fun with each other on FB; and monitoring each other’s behavior and life.”
- Online tools can help distressed couples, too, according to Andrew Christensen (UCLA) and Brian Doss (University of Miami). They have developed an online program, www.ourrelationship.com, that includes activities partners do independently and together, and that also incorporates brief Skype appointments with experts. The clinical researchers offer this midterm report from their NIH-funded clinical trial: “Results from the first 50 couples to complete the program show substantial improvements in relationship satisfaction.”
Does the online world promote or hinder diversity?
- Sociologist Melanie Heath (McMaster University, Canada) reports, “The Internet has greatly increased the possibility for members of marginalized and/or disadvantaged groups to find partners for intimate and sexual encounters, as well as to create and sustain community.” As part of her ongoing study of polyamory—also known as “poly,” the practice of maintaining concurrent, multiple romantic and/or sexual relationships–Heath offers a detailed review of online websites designed to facilitate people connections among people with unconventional ways of organizing their family lives.
- Yet Jenny Davis, from James Madison University in Virginia, details research on patterns of racial bias expressed in online dating sites. Similarly, Paul Eastwick (University of Texas at Austin) and Wendi Gardner (Northwestern University) studied how racial attitudes get expressed through avatars. They found that white avatars are more likely to obtain cooperation than black avatars, and suggest that, “users in online environments routinely extend their social selves and prejudices to inhabit their online avatars.”
- For women in families, according to New York University’s Kathleen Gerson, technology has failed to resolve many challenges of work/family life. Reporting on her research in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, Gerson notes, “Contrary to early hopes that telecommuting and other technological changes would allow people to achieve this new gender ideal, many of these changes have made work-life balance even more elusive.”
- A final word on diversity, technology, and changing lives comes from economists at the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), whose work warns us against overstating the impact of technology and reminds us of the importance of the ongoing gender revolution. In a brand-new study, they document that women’s increased workforce participation has added 11 percent to the gross domestic product (GDP). Explains CEPR senior economist John Schmitt, “This is almost twice the 6 percent contribution to GDP produced by the information, communications and technology-producing industries combined in 2012.”
About CCF and how CCF assists journalists
The Council on Contemporary Families is a non-profit, non-partisan organization of family researchers, mental health and social practitioners, and clinicians dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best practice findings about American families. It was founded in 1996 and is based at the University of Miami School of Education and Human Development.
For more information, or to receive future fact sheets and briefing papers from the Council, contact Stephanie Coontz, Co-Chair and Director of Research and Public Education of CCF and Professor of History and Family Studies at The Evergreen State College. firstname.lastname@example.org; 360-352-8117.
Journalists who would like to cover this conference can contact Stephanie Coontz. The conference this week is at the University of Miami’s Newman Alumni Center, located at 6200 San Amaro Dr., Coral Gables, Florida (click for map).