Family Time In The Age Of Ubiquitous Computing

Family Time In The Age Of Ubiquitous Computing

Social scientists are examining the emotional impact the proliferation of personal media devices is having on our time with loved ones.

Timothy Ryan, PSFK Labs
  • 3 may 2011

The escape offered by the proliferation of personal media devices has many questioning the impact on traditional “family time.” A modern family of four could be sitting together in the same living room while connected to four different realities, prompting academics to examine the paradoxical disconnect we experience while using the Internet and networking on social media sites.

The possible detriment to our emotional intimacy is what’s most startling. At home, iPads and laptops are a distraction, but studies suggest that the connections we establish online prove vapid relationships. Like a drug, our friends online may provide an immediate rush, but with a deleterious aftermath. The Times interviewed Sherry Turkle, a professor of social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other:

“… people’s reliance on technology to establish emotional intimacy — whether by “friending” strangers on Facebook or nuzzling robotic Furby pets — can actually increase our sense of feeling inundated and empty. “The new technologies allow us to ‘dial down’ human contact, to titrate its nature and extent,”

The counterargument is that portable media devices are actually bring families together. Barry Wellman, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, said that his research supports the findings of studies like a 2009 survey of 4,000 people by a Canadian market research company indicating that people believe technology is allowing family members to pursue their diverse interests in the same room. As written in the Times:

Rather than a sign of a dysfunctional relationship, such behavior can actually be interpreted as the sign of health, said Ronald Levant, a professor of psychology at the University of Akron. “People who think every minute we’re together we have to connect are going to drive each other crazy, because we all need some alone time, no matter how compatible a couple might be,” Dr. Levant said. “At a certain point in your relationship,” he added, “your task to keeping the relationship vital and refreshed is managed togetherness and separateness. Technology could be used as a tool to assist that.”

Notably, the article points out that even books- introduced to the living room over 200 years ago- were met with similar skepticism and anxiety with respect to their impact on family time.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

University of Toronto

New York Times: “Electronic Devices Redefine Family Time”


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