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Technology can both improve and hinder family relationships, survey says

July 7, 2011 |  1:56 pm

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Cambridge University has released a report on how information and communication technology affects family life. The study analyzed questionnaires from 1,000 families each in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and China. The conclusion: Technology can both improve and hinder family relationships. That sounds vague, but there is something to learn from the study about how to manage technology to keep a happy home.

First, some interesting findings: In the U.K., U.S. and Australia, most survey respondents preferred to communicate face to face — without technology. But in China less than 50% of those surveyed preferred to communicate face to face, with respondents choosing text messaging as a clear second choice. (Anecdotally, I know more and more Americans who agree with the Chinese on this. My 19-year-old babysitter never answers her phone but responds to a text message in minutes, no matter the time of day).

Another subtle but interesting point: Families surveyed across all four countries universally agreed that new information and communication technology such as Facebook, Skype, instant messaging and email have improved relationships with extended family that don't live close by. Where the negative effect seems to take place is at home, with the immediate family.

As a mom, I assumed the problem was all on the child side — texting through a family dinner or spending hours immersed on Facebook — but the report found parents are just as guilty of allowing technology to interfere with family life by checking work emails and Twitter feeds obsessively. (Oops!)

Researchers say the families that had the worst relationship with technology were those who were overwhelmed by the amount of technology used in their home. Some families solved the problem by having a central location for technology, such as keeping computers, video games and television in a family room to keep kids from disappearing into their bedrooms. Researchers also found that rules in general, such as instituting a tech-free hour or two each day, are helpful in maintaining a sense of control and keeping technology from taking over the life of the family.

If you'd like to know more, here's a link to a detailed summary of the report on Culture, Communication, and Change.

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-- Deborah Netburn

Photo: Mary Lee, 13, of suburban Cleveland says she spends more time on the computer now than in the past. Credit: Tony Dejak / Associated Press.

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