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.

Teens, technology and sharing information

Isn’t it funny when we as parents, or researchers, ask a young person, that is, adolescent, teenager, or young adult, what they think of all the new technology that is available? They look bewildered (or is that frustrated?), roll their eyes and remind us that there is nothing unusual in their experience – it is normal! Normal to have a Facebook account (Myspace lost its status as ‘cool’ very early); to Google for information regarding any query; to download music and videos; and ultimately to have an online presence and identity. But perhaps most significantly, it is normal behaviour to share information in the digital world.

Digital Footprints

When my daughter has her 21st birthday party (and it is still some years away yet) the advantage of digital technology is that I will be able to find a vast array of embarrassing moments at the click of a mouse, or finger swipe across a screen! All those digital images add up to a significant digital footprint.

In a poll conducted by AVG last year, the following information about digital downloads/uploads of images of very young children was ascertained:

1 – The average age at which a child acquires an online presence courtesy of their parents is at six months, and by the time they are two 81% of children have some kind of ‘digital footprint’.
2 – A third (33%) of children have had images posted online from birth
3 – A quarter (23%) of children have even had their pre-birth scans uploaded to the Internet by their parents
4 – Seven per cent (7%) of babies have even had an email address created for them by their parents
5 – More than 70% of mothers said they posted baby and toddler images online to share with friends and family

See: AVG Blogs | J.R. Smith http://jrsmith.blog.avg.com/2010/10/would-you-want-a-digital-footprint-from-birth.html#ixzz1ErsaHZYx

Unlike footprints in the sand, our digital footprints leave a trace that is not necessarily washed away – I am uncertain about whether this is something that we need to be concerned about. I have noticed that many parents create online profiles of their very young children on social networking sites as a means of sharing precious moments. Rather than being placed in private family photo albums, they are distributed in the public domain. It seems to be standard practice to share photographic memories online. It starts early, and then teens continue to interact, connect, play, explore, learn and communicate in the digital world. It is normal for these kids to post pictures of themselves in a variety of situations. It will make locating those amusing pictures for the purpose of celebrating a rite of passage into adulthood all the more trouble-free.

Parenting in the Facebook Age

With over 500 million users (Facebook statistics), Facebook is clearly embraced worldwide. The social networking site is increasingly prevalent in of the world of families, and becoming more of a parental concern. A survey by AOL (AOL survey 2010) alerts us to the fact that teens using Facebook do not personally know all the friends they have accepted. When you look at some of the figures in terms of the sheer number of ‘friends’ some of these teenagers have got – I wonder if it is possible to know them all? My stepdaughters at 13 and 15 years of age have almost 400, and over 700 ‘friends’ respectively (and these figures do not remain static). My own daughter presents the polar opposite experience: she has no Facebook friends – she absolutely refuses to start a Facebook account (and let me be honest here, there is a part of me that is very proud and supportive of her social networking rebellion – LOL).

I hear stories from some of the teens that I have researched, and from conversations with my own daughter’s friends about how they use the social networking site. Part of the use is related to filling in time – ‘doing something while there is nothing to do.’ Or having it on in the background – an ambient reminder that they are connected to other folk that are also doing homework, listening to music, and stalking their favourite friends (or ex-friends) on Facebook! The main reason underlying the activity is to be connected to their peers (or at least avoid being ostracised); remaining in the loop; and keeping up with what is going on at all times. Is there also a social imperative to accumulate as many friends as possible?

Is this what social networking is about for teens – connecting with as many people as possible? There is no ubiquitous response to such a question. Every individual’s experience is unique – but there are emerging patterns. According to Facebook statistics the average number of friends per person is 130. For teens this figure can go much higher.

When I talk to kids about Facebook, one of their first questions to me is: “How many friends do you have?” When I announce that I have fewer than 100, I can see them rolling their eyes (as I have exposed my ‘loser’ status due to my apparent lack of friends). I candidly inform them that I have declined numerous friend requests (and I admitted to ‘unfriending’ a few, thus making my list even smaller; and then there are those that ‘unfriend’ me). They look at me incredulously and ask, “Why would you do that?” And I tell them that I prefer to connect with people who I actually know, and am not merely distantly acquainted with (among other reasons). This seems counter-intuitive to their own need to collect as many friends as possible to develop a superior (revered?) status among their peers.

I cannot imagine knowing such a vast number of people – certainly not as ‘friends.’ Though I can attest to ‘knowing’ a considerable quantity of people, due to the nature of my work – teaching and researching at a university exposes you to hundreds of students, staff and other colleagues. I could also include all the people I went to primary school with, high school, and university (undergrad and postgrad). Are they my friends on Facebook? No. I am not even a Facebook friend with my PhD supervisor – that would be too much like being friends with a parent (and my own parents are not at all interested in joining the Facebook revolution)! But that is my unique experience. The teen experience according to the AOL/Nielsen survey was that over half of them claimed they did not personally know all of their Facebook friends, while the parents knew half or less of their kids friends online.

Clearly parents are concerned about the Facebook phenomenon. The AOL survey identified that 70% of parents are friends with their kids on Facebook. However, almost a third of teens desired to ‘unfriend’ their parents, with twice as many teens wanting to ditch mum as a friend rather than dad (although mum is more likely to have a Facebook profile than dad). For 41% of teens, getting access to Facebook was conditional on being mum’s ‘friend.’ The study was jointly conducted with Nielsen and surveyed over 1,000 parents, and 500 children between the ages 13 to 17 years in an online poll. The remaining 59% is what I wonder about? Do their parents know that they are on Facebook? If 30% of teens want to ‘unfriend’ their parents, can we assume there are 70% of teens that are content with the status quo? There are cases where the child requests the friendship of the parent, and that of the parents’ friends. This could be a strategic move to populate the friend list quickly.

While teens are exploring their identity and gaining independence via social networking sites, having parents monitor their actions can be a disincentive to post inappropriate comments. Alternatively, Facebook provides a window to information that is otherwise unknown to parents. “I didn’t know my son was in a relationship until I saw that his Facebook status had changed” said one parent to me about being ‘friends’ with their son. The ‘friending’ issue has stimulated the production of a variety of sites including http://www.myparentsjoinedfacebook.com, that receive numerous examples from teens (and others’), about embarrassing comments posted by parents on their Facebook pages. There is even a YouTube video on the topic: My mum’s on Facebook! which has received over 1.2 million views! The web also provides information on parenting issues: Facebook tips for parents.

So what is a modern-day parent to do? Is Facebook a phase that your teen will grow out of (and how many years will it last)? Or will they move to tweeting?