The modern world is filled with technology; it’s everywhere. Most Americans (97%) now own a mobile phone, according to the Pew Research Center, with most children (94%) ages 3 to 18 having access to the internet via a smartphone or computer, according to the Erikson Institute. Furthermore, Common Sense Media, in a national survey conducted in 2019, found that 53% of children own a smartphone by age 11 and 69% by 12 years old. In addition to smartphones, the Pew Research Center also found that around 50% of American adults own a tablet and about 75% of American adults also own a laptop or desktop computer.
Even schools have shifted to more technology-based communication. New, interactive textbooks bring technology into the daily lives of students and their parents. Online learning, too, has exploded in popularity. While there are many advantages to this increased dependence on technology, there are also some disadvantages.
With mostly everyone owning a smartphone or other device, you could say that family communication has shifted to favor digital means. In this article, we’ll discuss how technology has affected, positively or negatively, the way family members communicate with each other.
Benefits of Technology in Family Communication
Thanks to technology, it’s never been easier to communicate with family. Here are the many ways in which technology positively affects family communication.
- Maintains connection, builds confidence and encourages self-expression. Technology helps children stay in touch with family living or working in distant places. It also opens them up to new information and perspectives they would not otherwise be exposed to with their limited interaction with family members. At the same time, technology can be a way for them to develop confidence in expressing their thoughts and learn how to engage with others who have different viewpoints or opinions.
For teens, specifically, technology provides the distance from parents that they crave but still allows for communication with them through texting or chatting that would not have happened face to face or on the phone.
- Fosters family closeness. Admittedly, technology can be a double-edged sword when it comes to family closeness. On the positive side, busy parents and children can use technology to communicate with each other while at work or in school, providing a way to reach out to family in an instant.
In particular, being “friends” on Facebook appears to have a positive effect on the parent-child relationship. One study found that parents and children in a highly conflicted relationship report becoming closer after becoming “friends” on Facebook. A majority of teens also do not report feelings of privacy invasion or hiding content from their parents after friending them on Facebook.
- Coordinates and organizes busy schedules easily. Plans can change, and communication is essential to ensure everyone is on board. Busy families can create a group chat to easily update everyone, and an online calendar can help the family coordinate their plans.
- Increases safety and security. It only takes a short chat or call for children who feel unsafe to inform their parents or older siblings about their situation and ask for help. Parents can use cameras, locks, sensors and other smart technology to keep their homes safe from thieves and other intruders.
- Teaches critical thinking. With all the information and resources available at their fingertips, children can learn about different topics for their school project or for independent learning. This is an opportunity for parents to teach their children how to sift through the myriad of information to find accurate and reliable sources.
Problems and Challenges of Technology in Family Communication
Technology is encroaching every aspect of family life and this brought some negative effects on the way the family communicates.
- Technoference. A term coined by David Schramm, an associate professor and Family Life Extension Specialist at the Utah State University’s department of Human Development and Family Studies, technoference refers to the way our technology use interferes with our face-to-face interactions with other people, specifically in the bedroom and at the dining table.
Schramm surveyed 631 parents across the country ages 21 to 60 and found that high use of technology resulted in couples spending less time together, less satisfaction and connection and increased depression and anxiety. Of the adults surveyed, 38% use technology while eating at home with family members at least occasionally. In married adults surveyed, 45% consider technology a big problem in their relationship, with nearly 25% viewing their partner’s use of devices in bed as interfering with their sexual relationship.
- Less quality time with family. “Alone together” is a common situation you’ll see almost anywhere: everyone together in the same room but busy with their devices. This happens even at the dining table, which deprives the family of an important opportunity for quality time. With this time for connection missing, children might not be able to learn the small subtleties of normal human interaction. This could also lead to loneliness, lack of belongingness, jealousy and/or distress in children who don’t have the full time and attention of their parents during dinner time.
- Decreased family closeness. Research suggests that more time spent online leads to a decrease in family closeness resulting from conflicts. Disagreements can arise from the use of the internet or many rules on internet use and behavior at home. In one study, researchers found that when parents attempted to stop children from using technology, 40% of the time it resulted in a dispute.
- Underdeveloped emotional and social skills. Because children aren’t exposed to enough interpersonal face-to-face interaction, their emotional and social skills might not properly develop. This can result in children who can’t relate to other people. If all they’re getting are emails and texts, they might not learn how to read body language, facial expressions and tone. When pushed into a situation where they need to interact with others face to face, children who haven’t been taught and modeled empathy might become shy, withdrawn, socially awkward or intimidated, not knowing how to engage in this type of social situation.
Furthermore, children exposed to games, which are designed to be instantly gratifying, might not know how to manage their emotions nor learn how to manage expectations and disappointments in relationships. Spending too much time on devices may also result in a lack of desire to engage with family.
How Technology Has Affected Family Communication
While technology has many benefits, it does impact the quality of relationships and interactions within the family. The challenge for families, then, is to develop a plan where they can harness technology to improve communication and relationships in the family.