Home is where the hearth is

Digital and media devices seem to permeate our homes, and, given that many of these gadgets or tools are firmly entrenched (and probably taken for granted), how are they changing the way we parent our children? For years the TV (and it has now been around for over half a century) has also been affectionately referred to as ‘the babysitter’ (certainly for much younger children). A search on the Internet will provide ample evidence of the apparent negative consequences of ‘too much TV viewing.’ The argument has raged for many years, and more recently the BBC has alerted us to a report on the longitudinal impact of TV viewing and the likelihood that kids will do poorly at school, among other problems down the track. In Australia, there have been attempts to address some of the issues at government policy level – albeit not without its critics condemning the fantasy associated with implementation.

‘Electronic hearth’ of the home

Of course, we are not just dealing with television are we? We now have mobile phones and smart devices that provide a small screen to view at any time of the day – and not just TV viewing. Movies can be downloaded onto the Ipod Touch, the computer and smart phone; programs can be streamed from any of these media appliances. The TV is the “electronic hearth” of the home (and most lounge/family rooms are testament to the hearth-like nature, where furniture is placed around the TV which acts as a centre for entertainment). Perhaps now it is more of a ‘digital hearth’ combining a variety of media hardware and software, including music, gaming, movies, and printing facilities (for all those photos taken from smart phones). Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect gaming system captures movement with motion sensing controllers via a 3D camera – evolving the electronic hearth into a more active and virtual play space, with movement sensing technology also adding to the electronic hub.

Staying inside

Are Playstations, wii’s and Xboxes lying dormant in houses due to their novelty having worn off? What is the newest gadget that keeps our kids indoors in front of the screen? I am aware that there are parents out there that feel pressured by their children to purchase the latest, newest, most updated device – and some of the kids’ arguments can be compelling: “We will be physically working out on the virtual track!” The wii was very popular for providing a physical workout – until the kids figured out how to use the ‘racquets’ with minimal hand movements! Or the novelty wore off – no longer providing exotic appeal and diminishing in use. The next generation Kinect gaming system is currently selling at a rapid rate, achieving record sales. This lends support to the notion that new and novel technology is highly appealing (see Shiny, Bright New Things post). Are these electronic devices keeping us indoors?

Added to this is parents’ fear of the potential danger to their children if they ‘hang out’ after school. The University of Western Australia conducted a study that found parental anxiety was a barrier to children’s physical activity such as walking or cycling to school and playing at parks. In this context, it is not surprising that we are happy to collude with our children’s desires for virtual games that they can play indoors rather than be outside where it is potentially perilous.

Bubble-wrapped kids

Shifts in Australian family life have led to changes in daily activity and routine, where parents’ perceptions of ‘stranger danger’ are distorted and impact the level of children’s independence and physical activities. Kids become ‘bubble-wrapped.’ In a report on the growing backlash against over-parenting, a link has been identified between the peace and prosperity of the 21st century, the rise of fear and anxiety despite crime statistics decreasing, and parents not letting their kids out of their sight. The percentage of kids walking or biking to school dropped from 41% in 1969 to 13% in 2001 (in the US).

Parents are happy to buy electronic devices as a means of keeping their children safe from the dangers that might be lurking on the streets. I have friends that have bought Xboxes and wii’s for their children, because they would prefer their kids to be active indoors rather than outside where they cannot supervise them (it is unsafe ‘out there’).

Paradoxical dilemma for parents

I began this post with the notion of the TV as babysitter. Now we have other devices taking on the ‘babysitting’ role, or at least entertaining the children until we get home from work. Do we prefer that our kids sit at home in front of the TV, wii or X-Box, rather than actually go outside and play in an ever-increasing dangerous world (even if it is only in our own minds)? Are we increasingly becoming ‘helicopter parents?’ Lenore Skenazy states that ”overparenting is equated to good parenting but by keeping our children from the ‘everydayness’ of life we’ve taken away the chance of them noticing something on their own or interacting with someone on their own.” She shared her story of allowing her 9-year-old son to take the subway home alone, and got lambasted by the media for it. How should parents manage the issue of encouraging independence? Are children acting independently via their digital devices? Is there a difference between roaming the streets and roaming the Internet when it comes to protecting our kids (metaphorically speaking)? I don’t have the answers, but I am trying to give my daughter more freedom to explore the outside world, and encourage her to be more active outdoors (not that she takes it up too often)! How can we regulate the level of electronic activity our kids are involved with when the devices are small and portable? Is our own electronic activity having an impact on the way we interact with our kids? How can we, as parents, dictate boundaries when our own behaviours with technology might be contradicting those we desire in our kids? Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have the capacity to alienate family members from each other and of connecting them – how is the paradox playing out in your families?


Fascinating facts and trends about families and their interactions with technologies

  • At June 2010, 77% of the population aged 14 years and over had access to the internet at home, 40% at work and 15% at locations other than home or work.
  • At June 2010, approximately 89% of Australians aged 14 years and over were estimated to have used the internet at some point in their life.
  • Of those Australians using the internet, the home and work environment remained the most common sites of internet use with 95% of internet users using the internet at home and 46% at their place of work during June 2010.
  • During the month of June 2010, 79% of persons using the internet via a computer went online for communication purposes (email, instant messaging or VoIP), 75% for research and information purposes, 64% for banking and finance related activities and 61% general browsing.
  • There is an ongoing trend to more frequent internet use in Australia – that over the last five years (2005 to 2010), the proportion of heavy internet users (online for more than 15 hours a week) in the Australian population has doubled
  • 95% of all families in Australia have more access to ICTs than any other unit (couples, individuals etc)

Sources of information: ABS 2010; ACMA 2009-10 Report 1: Australia in the digital economy: the shift to the online environment

Source: ACMA Use of electronic media and communications: Early childhood to teenage years (2009) p.1

The above graph demonstrates that TV is still the medium that is used most – but this data does not capture information about streaming of programs as opposed to viewing them in real time. I am also uncertain about whether information is being captured when DVDs or TV shows are being watched in cars and on portable devices in the family context.

What do these research facts tell us?

  • The home has become a busy communication hub, with continuing technological advances making new technology affordable and available, and families adapt and transform these technologies to meet their own purposes.

That the increasing complexity of family interactions in an online environment AND the increasing numbers of information and communication technologies (ICTs) involved in those interactions is changing the way we work, play and relate to each other.

  • The ability to be in multiple places simultaneously redefines ‘togetherness’, and the way we attend to others. For example: If you are chatting to your daughter on the mobile phone, while she is instant messaging her friends – does that constitute family time together? If dad is watching TV with his son, while the son is text messaging his mates – are they spending time together?
  • Email, the Internet, mobile phone, social networking sites, Instant Messaging (IM) and Short Message Service (SMS) texting provide family members a means to communicate and maintain a sense of ‘connectedness’ with each other.
  • Families seem to be living more and more moments ‘on air’ so that virtual family ties co-exist with face-to-face time.
  • Family togetherness becomes disembodied and fragmented; nevertheless, togetherness can be experienced whilst being separate.

Family 2.0 Communication

‘Family version 2.0’ is utlising omnipresent media and technology to enable the management of busy households, and to negotiate and mediate between traditional and modern family values.

Research commissioned by Yahoo and OMD in 2006:  It’s a Family Affair: the Media Evolution of Global Families in a Digital Age investigated how family life is enhanced by today’s technology. The research project combined results from polling more than 4,500 online families in 16 countries with in-home interviews and scrapbooks tracking media and technology usage by families in seven countries. Consistent global themes include a revival in traditional values, and an acknowledgment that the “always on” nature of technology emphasises the need to also focus on low-tech activities such as playing board games and dining together. Does this mean that families might be doing more activities together, albeit at times separately? Even traditional board games are available as ‘apps’ on the iPad or smart phones – you don’t need to be in the same room to make your moves on the board. In fact, I noticed a young man (late teens/early twenties) with his girlfriend, while waiting for a take away meal (to have dinner with my family) take out his Iphone from his back pocket intermittently during the 20 minute wait. I was sitting beside him and saw that he was making a move on a Backgammon board via his screen – clearly playing a game with someone else. It has been some years since I last played Backgammon – and was delighted at the idea that it is still being played electronically (though I can’t imagine rolling the dice via a phone is nearly as exciting as the real thing – but I’m old fashioned that way)!











Technology enhances communication
The Yahoo study found that parents and children, far from being divided by technological advances, were actually taking control of that technology and simultaneously integrating it, using it to increase control of their own lives. Seventy percent of respondents said that technology allowed them to stay in better touch with family. Mobile phones are a means of communication for 29 percent of families, and instant messaging for 25 percent.

And in my own research this finding is being echoed – that mobile devices aid communication in the family context. These devices are also increasing the amount of activities that we are doing at any one time.

The 43 hour day

By combining previously individual pursuits such as watching the TV, surfing the internet, using email and listening to MP3s all in the same room at the same time, the survey claims that families are reporting up to 43 hours of daily activities in each 24 hour period. Multi-tasking extends our daily activities – we pack a lot more into our time (whether this is quality time spent will be discussed in a future blog).

The Yahoo/OMD study was conducted 5 years ago, and a lot can happen in that time.  The picture of Family 2.0 is a paradoxical portrait – where it seems families are more connected due to technology, but spending time apart doing things together. I will provide greater detail to that picture in future blogs.

The Dilemma of the Digital Parent

In an age where digital devices proliferate, how is it changing the way we parent our children? Being a parent requires amazing skills including (but not limited to) being well versed in: management techniques, logistics, creativity, sociability, consultation, culinary endeavours, counselling, as well as dexterity, tolerance, having medical expertise (or at least basic nursing abilities), pragmatics and general knowledge. Factor in balancing work obligations, social connections and maintaining a home life – is it any wonder parents find  escape in their Facebook accounts, tweets and texts? The very same thing that they complain their kids do too much of!

Sherry Turkle has recently published a book ‘Alone Together’ that investigates parental use of technology and how it affects our children. Her study was conducted over 5 years, with 300 interviews of various family members. What she has surmised is that children often feel hurt, jealousy, and competition for attention. The difference in our communication with our kids can be influenced by whether our devices are switched on or off.

As parents we have often complained about the tunnel vision that our children get when in front of a screen (and screens are now as small as the palm of our hands). But we neglect to look at our own behaviour when it comes to digital technology. Are we (as parents) as addicted to our technology and the  connections provided as our kids? Is future family togetherness to be mediated by texts, tweets and social network status updates? Are we becoming less present to our kids?

Here’s an interesting quiz to determine your digital parenting style:


This was my result on the Protection-Empowerment scale: Although you are concerned with protection, it is more important to you to empower your child and his or her use of digital media. You find ways to get involved and increase the benefits of digital media. You recommend Web sites to your child and suggest age appropriate ways for him or her to participate online.


The challenge of recruiting families for research

Recruiting families for research:

It’s not easy finding families that are willing to participate in my research project. Only a very small percentage put their hand up to take part – and not all of those that want to be involved fit my selection criteria (with kids 12-17 years). One family that identified themselves as a step-family with an 18-year-old step-daughter was keen on sharing their experience. Another two-parent family with 14, 18 and 19-year-old kids all living at home, with their kids allegedly surgically attached to their laptops, have also responded to my recruiting call – but they are just outside of my desired parameters!

 It would be nice if I could recruit families within my wish list, but I think I will need to be flexible and extend my criteria upwards to accept the older teens (as it will be more difficult to get ethics approval to accept kids at the lower end – below 12 years of age). Then there is the problem of geographical distance. I have 2 other willing families that live 50 kms away from where I live – which takes the study out of the inner-Melbourne region (in terms of keeping the sample contained) and the logistics of getting to and from the household with ease is problematic. Perhaps it might be worth staying at these families’ houses for a week as a way of fully immersing myself in their everyday lives (this would need to be approved by them, of course).

How to recruit?

In the first instance I have contacted friends via email with information about my research, so that they can send it to the friends that they think might be interested in participating. So far I have received three responses from my friends alerting me to their actions (that they passed on the details)! Of those leads I have had two families offer their potential participation. So it seems my own friends have not provided the deluge of family participants I was hoping for!

 Then I decided to access some of the networks I belong to at RMIT University. A lot of my colleagues do not necessarily have children in the age range that I require, or friends with children 12 to 17 years! Of those that do, one actually offered me up names of people to follow-up without first introducing these families to me or my research project. This was akin to cold calling, and the referral process is an important aspect that helps the family be more open to the idea of at least listening to the research proposal. The connecting referral is critical in making the link between me and the research family. In another university network, a colleague put out an email to some of their friends, to which one responded immediately! I made contact with the mother of the family, spoke about the nature of the project, and she has agreed (on behalf of her family) to participate.

I have also tried to use Facebook to recruit some families – accessing some of the friends of friends’ networks. A few weeks ago I instant messaged a friend of a friend via Facebook. She is a sole parent with two teenage children. When I asked if she might be interested in participating in my research with a very brief outline, she said she would be happy to participate. After a little bit of ‘telephone tag’ I noticed that she was online on Facebook, and I took the opportunity to ‘instant message’ her to make contact. I was able to call her (on a landline telephone) to discuss her family’s potential participation. It turned out that she was fine with me interviewing her, but was uncomfortable about me participant-observing her family. After explaining that the observations were not clinical in nature, although they might feel intrusive, but would be negotiated and controlled by her, she declined. I was welcome to speak with her, and her kids (if they were willing) about their technology use, but she did not want her family to be part of my research. Which of course is absolutely fine. All families have the option of declining, or, if they do agree to be part of the research, they can quit at any time.

 Would I participate if I was asked?

This got me thinking: how willing would I be to have my family investigated by a relatively unknown researcher? If I knew the person that was referring the researcher, then I would certainly be more receptive to the idea. But that in itself would not be enough to for me to agree. I would need to be interested in the actual research topic. In this case though, it is not just me – I would also need to engage my family members, and given we are all intensely private individuals, this could be the biggest hurdle – gaining family members’ acquiescence! I would have to ‘pitch’ the project to my family members. I might be successful in gaining consent, but I would have to present some convincing arguments about why it would be good to participate. There is no financial or any other type of reward being offered – I would have to appeal to their own needs for improved insight into their own behaviours regarding technology and communication. Here are some other reasons that might help convince my family members to commit:

  • It might be fun.
  • We will be contributing to the completion of someone’s research.
  • We would be helping the researcher and/or university to improve knowledge in the field.
  • We might learn something! (About ourselves, about research processes, or about technology)
  • It would be a creative family project.
  • We will get to express what we think and feel about media and technologies and be listened to!
  • One day we might need to conduct research and recruit participants – there is research karma involved!
  • Because while we are being observed as a family, we can observe the researcher!
  • We’re doing it because I said so!

 These are just a few of the possibilities – perhaps you can come up with some more!

 I’d like to believe that I would be able to convince my own family to participate in a research project like my own. And these days I do find myself agreeing to partake in focus groups or online surveys, because I know the difficulties in getting people to engage in research!

It’s a slow process, and so far I am still completing my pilot study with the pilot family, and have three other families that have agreed to participate. Only eight more to go! So, if you are willing to participate, or know of families that might be interested, please feel free to pass on this information and get in touch with me.

Is technology a family distraction?

Internet Map. Ninian Smart predicts global com...
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“I feel like I am being constantly bombarded with information,” say many of my friends and colleagues. My partner suffers with being over stimulated by the vast amount of visual and auditory information he is surrounded by. He struggles with being able to turn his mind off in an ‘always on and plugged in’ environment. Here are some facts that support this state of mind as reported in the New York Times story from a series on Your Brain on Computers:

“In 2008, people consumed three times as much information each day as they did in 1960. And they are constantly shifting their attention. Computer users at work change windows or check e-mail or other programs nearly 37 times an hour, new research shows.”

This non-stop interactivity can result in information overload which is distracting, and in some cases, an alarming and potentially dangerous experience (checking emails and text messages whilst driving?). Is it any wonder we feel so busy a lot of the time?

My research with families also alludes to a sense of ‘busy-ness’ and urgency about being available 24/7 due to technology being ‘always on.’ The blurring of family-work boundaries, and the (often unrecognised) need to respond immediately to requests or demands made via email or text messages, adds to the stress and anxiety experienced by some parents and other family members. With the increased availability and affordability of information and communication (ICT) devices, can we presume increased efficiencies and greater ‘downtime?’ Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is not the case. We don’t seem to notice how stressed we are until we ‘unplug’ ourselves from the devices.

Having the Internet and its’ associated functionality persistently accessible seems to generate a state of perpetual (inter)activity. We feel like we are in constant motion (even if we are sitting down at our computers)! Exacerbating this state of affairs is the ease with which we can be distracted. A quick search for specific information on the Internet can turn into a delightful, but sometimes unrelated journey where we need to remind ourselves “What was I looking up?!” Okay – maybe it doesn’t happen to everyone – but it certainly happens to me! Having wandered through cyberspace on an interesting and thought-provoking adventure, it begs the question: was the time well spent? Or, has the experience added to my stress because I have not achieved my original aims? I do not have a clear answer – sometimes the voyage is fruitful and provides unexpected and insightful outputs; on other occasions I need to ‘go back to the drawing board’ and revisit my intentions as I have veered off course.

This phenomenon has a name: wilfing (what was I looking for?) and was identified in a survey conducted in the UK in a reuters article claiming 2 out of 3 Britons admit to occasional wilfing (aimless Web surfing). A quarter of those surveyed (the study was sponsored by moneysupermarket.com) spend more than 30 percent of their time (equivalent to two full working days every month) on the Internet surfing without any purpose. This has been labelled as ‘lost time’ and apparently men are the greatest culprits of the activity. Shopping sites are also considered the most distracting sites. The underlying implication of the story is that while people log on with a purpose, they are easily distracted and then seem to aimlessly search in a barren waste land. Is the Internet the only space that this occurs? Or is it that the Internet presents such diverse functionality – perhaps the landscape is lush with potential ideas, information, entertainment and relational connectivity? I suffer from the ‘wilf’ factor on many occasions – but I must admit that despite the feeling of lost time, many serendipitous discoveries have sometimes been made in those times. The distraction from the task at hand however, can lead to feeling stressed.

I know that I am not alone in this experience. I think there is an underlying sense of stress and anxiety as we multi-task through our days on our various devices. I wonder if there is a relationship between the quantity, and frequency of use of ICTs, and the level of stress and sense of ‘busy-ness’ felt by families. Does constant access to information (and the potential for information overload) influence a family’s sense of ‘busy-ness?’ And who in the family is the more stressed: the parents, or the kids? The New York Times has published a series on  Your Brain on Computers that address some of the issues I have identified, albeit in the American context.

An interesting article in the series about  parenting and being plugged in looks at how parental use of technology impacts their children. Kids are now competing with technology for their parents’ attention – there are complaints made by children that their parents are too busy texting or in cyberspace, and not being with their kids. From the ‘mouths of babes’ I have heard statements such as: “Mum would rather spend time on the Internet than talking to me,” “Mum is always texting,” or “Dad is always at the computer.” The contrary is also true – where kids are immersed in Facebook and their mobile phones rather than engaging with the family. Quality time with family seems to be turning into ‘distracted time.’ Are these distractions more embedded in families that struggle to relate to each other? Or are we just overloaded with technology?

Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times (Ugly toll of technology) spoke with experts, who identified some of the signs of technology overload (June 6, 2010):

7 signs of technology overload
1. Do you always check your e-mail before doing other things?
2. Do you often find yourself anticipating the next time you’ll be online?
3. When you’re online and someone needs you, do you usually say “just a few more minutes” before stopping?
4. Have you ever lied about or tried to hide how long you’ve been online?
5. Have you ever chosen to spend time online rather than going out with others?
6. Does going online lift you from a depressed or nervous mood?
7. Do others in your life often complain about the amount of time you spend using technology?

How many of these behaviours to you engage in? How is it affecting your family?

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.