By Stefanie Olsen
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Published: January 25, 2007 4:30 PM PST
The modern wired family is seeing a few mainstays going the way of the dinosaur: landlines, printed dictionaries, maps, newspapers and, of course, the need to remember phone numbers or learn to spell.
That's according to a broad new national study, called "The Digital Family," released this week by the No. 1 cable network Nickelodeon. The findings are among the first examinations of technology usage in the home, and they're part of a wider effort among U.S. researchers to understand how rapidly advancing technology is changing the family structure, as well as the way kids communicate and are educated and entertained.
Nickelodeon, which is owned by MTV Networks, said it conducted extensive research from September 2006 to December 2006, questioning parents of children from infants to 14-year-olds, as well as kids ages 6 to 14 about their usage of television, digital video recorders, video on demand, the Net, cell phones, video games and MP3 players. Research included focus groups, telephone interviews, interviews of pairs of friends and deprivation studies (questioning parents and kids who gave up TV, the Internet and so on). Data from Nielsen Media Research was also incorporated.
Presumably, one key finding for Nickelodeon was that popular new technologies like the Internet are not eating into television's influence. The amount of time parents and kids spend watching TV has risen by about two hours weekly since Nickelodeon's study in 2002. According to Marsha Williams, senior vice president for research and planning in Nickelodeon's Kids and Family Group, that reflects TV's role as a relaxation tool, family-bonding device and babysitter.
"The Internet has blurred the lines between work and home. It's hard to turn off," said Williams, presenting her research to Hollywood and media executives in Los Angeles on Thursday. So Nickelodeon found in its deprivation study of parents and kids that they missed television most, over the Internet, cell phones or other technology. "They really missed the ability to kick back, unwind and relax your brain."
Despite this, today's family relies heavily on technologies like the Internet and cell phones to function. Roughly 98 percent of parents go online once a week, spending an average of 33.5 hours online a month. In contrast, 71 percent of kids go online once a week and spend an average of 19 hours and 20 minutes on the Web monthly, the study found. Still, adoption of high-speed Internet in the home is growing faster than adoption of any other technology--a fact Williams said is changing habits quickly.
For example, deprived of the Internet for 10 days, many parents and kids found that being online is more essential than they thought previously to accessing information, doing schoolwork or staying in touch with friends.
"Moms who gave up the Internet were very annoyed," Williams said, adding that one mom was exasperated by having to visit an office to put money on a highway toll card. "It was barbaric to her." Another child had to take a trip to the library to finish a report on China.
As a result, technology is driving a shift in behaviors at home. The study showed that, thanks to the Internet, a quarter of parents believe it's no longer necessary to spell well, reference printed dictionaries, or read the newspaper. Kids ages 8 to 14 agreed in slightly lesser percentages (an average of one-fifth) about the usefulness of spelling well, dictionaries and newspapers, except when it came to printed maps. About 20 percent of parents, versus 21 percent of kids, said they no longer need to know how to read a geographic map.
Still, to evaluate the accuracy of information on the Internet in the form of blogs, kids must learn critical thinking skills, she said.
And while TV and the Net are holding court, many other habits and technologies are losing out in the modern family.
The cell phone effect
Because of cell phones, almost half of all kids and parents say they don't need to remember phone numbers anymore. More than a third say the landline isn't needed. And a quarter of kids (and 16 percent of parents) say the spontaneity of mobile phones means it's not important to plan ahead (89 percent of parents own a cell phone versus 27 percent of kids ages 8 to 11 and 61 percent of kids ages 12 to 14.)
Because of MP3 players, a third of kids say it's no longer necessary to make casual conversation with others or listen to the radio. More than half of parents, and 45 percent of kids, say they don't need to buy CDs or albums.
The research also shows that the adoption of tech in the home is both top down and bottom up--from kids to parents and vice versa. Parents are just as likely as their kids, if not more so, to embrace cell phones, MP3 players and the Net. Unlike the previous generation of parents, who turned to their kids to program the VCR, today's parents are just as likely to work the DVR as kids are. In a surprising finding, more parents (68 percent) use game consoles, compared with 58 percent of 8- to 14-year-olds. That's likely because parents are using game consoles to bond with their kids, according to Williams.
For parents, the cell phone is all-important for keeping tabs on kids and therefore was commonly described as an "electronic leash." Nearly half of parents surveyed said they wanted to get their child a cell phone, so their kid was accessible at all times. The common rule among parents is: "no matter when or where I call, you answer the phone or you lose it," according to Williams.
Other observations in the study included:
Williams called the family unit today the smartest generation of consumers ever, given that parents and kids actively seek information about prospective products on the Net. And because of the Internet, parents regularly get their kids input on shopping decisions. According to the study, 81 percent of parents say their kids know as much or more about sit down restaurants in their area, for example.
Because technology creates an "always on" environment, parents have a much higher premium on downtime. In Nickelodeon's deprivation study of parents and kids who did not have access to any "screen" for 10 days, what they cited as missing most was television and the it's pure escapism, according to one participant.
Williams said that just because convergence is possible, it doesn't mean it's practical for digital families. The merger of cell phones and MP3 players, for example, isn't compatible with how parents and kids use the individual devices, Williams said. One is used for checking in and the other is for tuning out.
Send insights or tips on this topic to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stefanie Olsen covers science and technology for CNET News.com. In this series, she examines the young generation's unique immersion in the Web, cell phones, IM and online communities.
Sit with children when they're online to ensure they visit only parent-approved Web sites. The American Library Association lists great sites for kids on its Web site.
Use child-friendly search engines or one with parental controls. KidsClick, for example, is a Web search site by librarians.
Establish a family e-mail account.
Talk to children about their online activities and online friends. To kids, the Internet is an extension of the real world.
Establish rules for the Internet. Studies from Canada's Media Awareness group have shown that children respond positively to established rules.
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