How are families spending their time?

According to a study by coca-cola (Coca-Cola Happiness Barometer May 2010: http://openhappiness.digitalnewsagency.com) the greatest source of happiness is human rather than virtual interaction. It goes on to specify that real world contact with family and partners provides a greater source of joy for 77% of respondents than virtual alternatives. The study investigated 16 countries (of which Australia was not one of them), and found that the top five happiest countries are:
1. Mexico
2. Philippines
3. Argentina
4. South Africa and
5. Romania.

Catching up with loved ones in the evening rated highly for 39%, and eating with the family was also considered a source of pleasure for 22% of surveyed respondents. So what does this actually mean? While we may prefer to spend face-to-face time together, this does not necessarily translate into actual time spent together. In a report cited in theage.com.au in April 21, 2009, it was claimed that 22% of Australian families eat together four times or less per week. This report was prepared for Continental in 2008 (Because Family Mealtimes Matter). This study found that 60% of families always, or often, have the TV on during meals.

Perhaps all the families surveyed had teenagers! Teens have a natural inclination to separate from the family and pursue their own lives – it is a biological and developmental imperative (and one that I most avidly remember acting out of). Nevertheless, there is a desire for togetherness, and the family meal helps facilitate this (even if dad is checking his blackberry for messages from the office, mum is checking her emails, and the kids are either on facebook giving the family meal a review, or texting friends about meeting up after dinner, while at the table).

It would appear that we are spending more time with online media (ACMA – Trends in media use by children and young people …). Potentially more so now, given that our mobile devices are capable of providing access to a variety of media: from TV programs, music, YouTube, to facebook and twitter (provided you have a smart phone)! How are we spending our time? If technology is making our lives easier, and enabling us to work from home – does that mean we are doing more work at home? How much time do we spend with our families? It certainly feels like there is not enough hours in the day – but there is research that states that we are actually spending more time with our children than our parents before us (Surprisingly, time spent with family has grown).

There is much contradictory information – and not enough about what is happening in Australian families. This is why I am attempting to make a difference, by addressing the knowledge gap. I am trying to find out how families are interacting together.

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mobiles in the family

The main reason I gave my daughter a mobile phone was so I could contact her directly (especially when she was staying at her father’s house). For 18 months she has demonstrated incredible responsibility by consistently remaining under her monthly budget limit. Well, more recently she graduated from mild use of the mobile to exponential and extravagant use of the device!

A few weekends ago I experienced a teenager that was not very present to me (her mother). We did things together, but she was otherwise pre-occupied, keeping her mobile phone in very close proximity. This from a girl who only a few weeks ago, completely neglected to bring her phone with her on our outings! My experience was that she was with me, but not with me – physically present, but otherwise engaged – co-located to friends via the mobile phone (and very absent to me)! I knew this day would come – but it felt like it came out of the blue! No fore-warning of the instant messaging storm brewing. I felt like one of those annoying mother’s.. “what are you doing?… who are you texting now?…. Are you texting the same person again?…” All the while my daughter was trying to be as surreptitious about her activities as possible – but a mother KNOWS when actions are being cloaked – there is an inbuilt sensor, like when you know she is checking her emails while you are talking with her on the telephone. The veiled quality in her tone gives away her emotional absence to our conversation. She reluctantly agreed to stop messaging for the next 3 hours while we prepared dinner, ate, and enjoyed watching a DVD together. But I could sense an underlying anxiety within her to check her phone.

So – how excessive was her mobile use? Her texting went from an average of 100 per month to 150 in ten days. Current media attention has produced headlines such as: “‘Textiety’ among new disorders, says researcher” (Daily Telegraph, June 30, 2010), “Are kids becoming phone addicts?” (theage.com.au, April 26, 2009); “Teenagers text the love” (brisbanetimes.com.au July 1 2010); “Teenagers and technology: ‘I’d rather give up my kidney than my phone’” (guardian.co.uk, 16 July 2010). The news stories disclose that teenagers can send up to 2,000 text messages per month (or more depending on the story) – what kind of phone plan do they have? In that context – is my daughter’s use excessive? I guess that will depend on whether she maintains the contact! But in the scheme of things, it would appear that her use was not excessive in relative terms.

What actually happened in my daughter’s case? Why these sudden bursts of dexterous thumb activity via the mobile phone? What was different from all of the previous months? While many theories come to mind (not all of them would achieve my daughter’s stamp of approval) – the fact remains that she did go over her credit limit for the month, and there were consequences for the transgression.

About my PhD

Welcome to my blog that explores the world of families and their use of media technologies! I am curious about how, and in what way technologies (such as Internet, mobile phones and even the television) shape our activities, and in turn, how those activities shape the use of technologies. Sounds complicated, but really I am identifying the fact that when we introduce a new media device into our home, it is novel and exciting. While we become familiar with the functionality and exotic applications of some devices, it can feel like the technology takes over our lives. In time though, we take control of the device and sometimes find completely new ways of using it (we take control over it)!

PhD Project

What am I doing?

I am currently working on a PhD research project that looks at how Australian (Melbourne) families interact with each other using the Internet, mobile phones and television. My purpose is to gain understanding of how these technologies are used in the home, and to gain insight into the dynamic interplay between families and technology use in their everyday activities. The focus is on how technologies facilitate the ways in which family members communicate and spend time with each other. At the moment, there is little consensus about how technologies affect family life and relationships – my aim is to cast some light on the area. This project is supported by the Smart Services Co-operative Research Centre, and is being conducted through RMIT University’s Graduate School of Business and Law.

Who can participate?

During 2010 and 2011 I will be recruiting families that wish to be involved in my research project. I am seeking families with children between the ages of 12 to 18 years. I am looking for a range of family situations such as intact families, single parent families, blended or step-families that live in the Melbourne metropolitan area.

What’s in it for me?

Ultimately you will be helping me gain a better understanding of the way Australian families interact with technology in the current environment and its consequences in shaping family activities. You will assist me in developing an updated snapshot of how communication technologies are used in the home and how these technologies affect, and are affected by, family members in their everyday activities. The research will offer information regarding the use of current technology, and identify potential needs that will benefit future technology development. Your input will also help Smart Services CRC who work with a range of government and industry partners to develop potential innovations and improvements. You will be contributing to important research, and there will be reports and papers generated from this research that you can obtain copies of, should you desire.

What’s in it for you?

Your family will get the opportunity to examine and reflect on your own technology use. You may find your research involvement thought-provoking, stimulating and fun, and that doing the research activities becomes an engaging shared family experience. It might generate a lot of thought about issues that come up, with the possibility of reflecting on identified issues as an individual, and within the family context. Most importantly you will be contributing to research that provides significant and valuable insights into how Australian families are using communication technologies, and the way technologies shape family activities.

I have a family with teens – what would I need to do?

If your family agrees to participate, you will be visited by me on a number of agreed occasions for interviews with all family members (together and separately). Some of these visits will be for formal in-depth interviews, and some will be more casual and relaxed. I will begin with a general discussion with the family, in which you will be asked some basic facts about yourself, and about your use of technologies.

Your family will be asked to monitor their use of technologies over a period of 4 weeks. You will be given a Research Kit that will provide some fun and interactive ways to do this. For example, you may take digital snapshots of family moments with technology! During the research period, I will be observing your family (at agreed times) whilst engaged in activities using technologies. Your family will also be asked to complete a questionnaire about family closeness that will take up to 15 minutes for each family member to complete.

How do I get involved?

If you would like to become involved in the project, you can contact me via email at yvonne.gora@rmit.edu.au or call me at RMIT University on 9925-1600. I will send you a project information pack and set up a time where I can meet with you and your family to discuss your participation, or answer any questions you might have.

You can also download a copy of the flyer for the project.