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Computers and Family

Computers and Family

The emergence of new technologies in the home, such as microwave ovens and food processors, has continued at an unprecedented rate over the last several decades. Perhaps none of these new technologies is as fraught with questions about its impact on the family as home computers and the Internet. For example, in the developed world, it is commonly estimated that 60 percent of homes have at least one computer. Questions such as "Do home computers bring families together or isolate individuals from the family?", "What effect does computer use have on child development?", and "Who has and controls access to the family computer and Internet?" are being heard more frequently. The potential effects and use of computers in education, communication, home management, recreation, and home businesses have received attention. As David Watt and James White (1999) point out, the measure of the impact depends on the unit of analysis—individual or family group—and the age or stage of development of the individual or family. Thus, a home computer for business purposes might assist the mother of a newborn to stay at home with her child and complete breastfeeding, but the effect would be quite different for the mother with adolescent children. Similarly, a computer game that might be educational for an individual at one age could well have detrimental effects on concentration at another age.

Education. Most research (e.g., Haddon and Skinner 1991) has supported the educational benefits of children's early access and use of home computers for acquiring knowledge (e.g., Attwell and Battle 1999). Children can learn at their own pace, and research tends to support the view that their learning is faster and better than with some traditional forms of education (Bracey 1982). However, computer learning via games continues to be a disputed area. Research tends to report a stronger positive effect for learning among boys than girls and indicates that upper socioeconomic groups make the most of this technology for their children's learning (Attwell and Battle 1999). There is some concern among researchers that this technology will assist the upper socioeconomic groups the most, generating what is sometimes called the Sesame Street effect (see Attwell and Battle 1999). As children get older, questions of the desirability of certain types of knowledge (i.e., parental and institutional censorship) arise, especially in regard to access to the Internet and its many pornographic sites on the World Wide Web (WWW, or simply the web) with sexual content. Techniques of parental and institutional control have not yet been rigorously studied, perhaps in part because appropriate research techniques are only now emerging. Older children and adults clearly benefit from computer-assisted learning as part of high school, college, and university curriculum (e.g., Willie 1992; Rowe, Baker, and Mottram 1993), as well as distance education programs. In addition, family computer access may assist family members with the management of illnesses ( Johnson, Ravert, and Everton 2001) and may be useful in dealing with problems associated with aging (e.g., Schnelle et al. 1995).

Communication. In many ways, computers can bring family members into closer contact. E-mail and the Internet provide diverse and relatively inexpensive forms of communication for family members to interact with other members. At the most basic level this might be written communication, exchange of family photos as files, or interactive "chats" in real time. On the other hand, the computer may isolate an individual—often a male—from the other family members within the household (Orleans and Laney 2000). In this context, the home computer would have a potential negative effect on family communication (Watt and White 1999).

Home management. Programs for household financial management, banking, and income tax are available (e.g., Carroll and Broadhead 1996). There are numerous programs and sources available for assisting in the interactional aspects of the family, for everything from parenting to marital advice, and these are available both as software and on the web. In addition, many commercial interests— from banking to groceries—offer on-line delivery of goods and services to the household. New technology (see Bluetooth 2001) will allow for the computer to monitor systems (e.g., lights, refrigerators, and alarms) throughout the household as well as performing routine maintenance and chores (such as ordering groceries). The advent of this technology has the potential to move families toward a more integrated and cybernetically controlled form of home management. At this time it is too early to predict the degree of acceptance and popularity such technology will have.

Recreation. Although most families intend to use home computers for educational purposes, it has been found that the major use is for recreation, especially games (Venkatesh and Vitalari 1987). It might have been possible, during the 1980s, to make a clear delineation between games and education. It has become, however, somewhat more difficult to clearly separate the recreational from the educational because many games have attendant educational outcomes, such as the development of problem-solving skills.

Home offices. As early as 1985, some experts were predicting that by the turn of the century 25 to 30 percent of paid work would be conducted from the home (Wakefield 1985). It was predicted that women with children would be particularly likely to take advantage of the opportunity to work at home (Cetron 1984). It is difficult to assess the accuracy of these predictions because computers and the Internet, as well as hand-held devices and cell phones, have spread work sites to areas other than homes (e.g., hotels), and many white collar workers no longer encapsulate their work in a specific time frame (e.g., the traditional "9 to 5" work day). As a result, all one can say is that more work is performed outside of the traditional office than was the case in the 1980s.

There are several factors that complicate the analysis of the impact of computers on families. First, the technology that is available changes very rapidly; as a result, predictions of potential impacts are extremely difficult. Second, families and individuals at different stages of the life course interact with this technology in different ways (Watt and White 1999). For example, family concerns about pornographic materials on the Internet are most likely when at least one adolescent is in the household. Third, impacts must be conceptualized as potentially different for various age cohorts and historical periods. As children have access and gain computer literacy at earlier ages, effects will undoubtedly change by cohort. Finally, the cultural setting undoubtedly changes the type of impact computers have on families. Indeed, a highly prized educational program in one culture might be viewed as immoral or degenerate in another. Most of the research has focused on impacts in the developed world, but the World Wide Web is ubiquitous. The paucity of research on the family and computers is most pronounced in less-developed countries. For example, it is not known if the salutary educational outcomes reported (e.g., Attwell and Battle 1999) will be consistently encountered in less-developed countries with different value systems. As a result, meaningful empirical research and measurement will continue to be difficult though important.

See also:Communication: Family Relationships; Family Literacy; Global Citizenship; Home; Housework; Leisure; Television and Family; Time Use; Work and Family


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james m. white

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