It should come as no great surprise that American families are increasingly using technology to keep in touch with each other. A survey last week by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that married couples with minor children "have higher rates of Internet and cell phone usage, computer ownership and broadband adoption than other household configurations."
The numbers are quite impressive. Fifty-eight percent of "married-with-children" households own two or more computers while nearly two-thirds of those multi-computer households have them linked in to a home network. Nearly nine out of 10 such households own multiple cell phones and 57 percent of their children (ages 7 to 17) have their own cell phone.
And for those who worry that technology isolates and pulls people apart, the survey found quite the opposite. It revealed "that couples use their phones to connect and coordinate their lives, especially if they have children at home. 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."
But there is a somewhat disturbing trend as well. Families with multiple communications devices are "somewhat less likely to eat dinner with other household members and somewhat less likely to report high levels of satisfaction with their family and leisure time than are families with lower levels of technology ownership," according to the report. When it comes to couples, cell phones can lead to greater communication. Sixty-four percent of couples who both own cell phones contact each other at least once a day and 42 percent of parents contact their children daily using a cell phone.
The study found that TV viewing is down. Twenty-five percent of the adults surveyed said the Internet has "decreased the amount of time they spend watching television" but most say it has not cut down on time they spend with friends, family or attending social events. Reduced TV viewing is even more pronounced with younger adults - 29 percent of those between 18 and 27 and 27 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds.
And, despite the slightly fewer tech-savvy families who eat together, the survey found that 25 percent of respondents "feel that their family today is now closer than their family when they were growing up thanks to the use of the Internet and cell phones, while just 11 percent say their family today is not as close as families in the past."
The report pretty much confirmed what I have noticed with my own family, which has been using e-mail and instant messaging - and now social networking - to stay in touch for many years. More important, it gives me some optimism that, over time, technology will help today's children, teens and young adults maintain longer and stronger relationships with their friends than was the case with previous generations.
I have no studies to back this up, but my kids - ages 22 and 24 - are in contact with many of their middle school, high school and college friends thanks to AOL Instant Messenger, Facebook, cell phones and e-mail.
My 24-year-old daughter, who just got married, had her close high school friends as bridesmaids at her wedding. In the six years since high school they've kept in close touch, mainly through technology. And even though my son's high school friends are scattered all over the country, he still communicates with them on a regular basis. Many still have the same cell phone numbers they had in high school as well as the same AIM screen names. My daughter has kept her phone number, screen name and e-mail address even though her last name has changed.
Contrast this to the kids I grew up with. I've lost touch with all but a couple of them, having no idea what's happened to them since high school. Back then it was very expensive to stay in touch by phone and, of course, we had no other electronic means of communications. If my kids stay on the same course, I have every reason to believe they'll remain in touch with their friends for life, using technology to help them support each other through all those changes that inevitably take place over a period of decades.
Over the course of my kids' lifetimes, technology will go through unimaginable changes. I have no idea what they'll be using to keep in touch in, say, 2040, but I'm pretty confident that their world will be a lot smaller and closer than mine. And, for the most part, that's a good thing.
By Larry Magid
Copyright 2008 CBS. All rights reserved.