Bárbara Barbosa Neves is our May guest blogger. Bárbara is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Technical University of Lisbon in Portugal (ISCSP-UTL). She is also a research fellow at the Centre for Public Administration & Policies. You can find her here. Thanks for your multidisciplinary contribution, Bárbara. Please do not forget to leave your comments and feedback below.

The “family factor”

My research has been focused on the social impact of technology, mainly of the Internet. And although I have been immersed in the field of sociology of technology, family studies have always had a significant influence on my work.

The “family factor” on my work is twofold: First, Information & Communication Technologies (ICT), such as mobile phones, computers, and the Internet, shape family life. Second, “family” seems to be a determinant factor for ICT adoption and perception, at least for the elderly population.

The societal effects of ICT usage, especially at the family and community level, have been a major concern for social scientist and society alike. Fears of social isolation and alienation have been constantly associated with new technology. In the words of Steven Pinker:

“New forms of media have always caused moral panics: the printing press, newspapers, paperbacks and television were all once denounced as threats to their consumers’ brainpower and moral fiber. So too with electronic technologies. PowerPoint, we’re told, is reducing discourse to bullet points. Search engines lower our intelligence, encouraging us to skim on the surface of knowledge rather than dive to its depths. Twitter is shrinking our attention spans. But such panics often fail basic reality checks.”

Despite a prominent dystopian view of the Internet — clearly visible in the public discourse, from popular culture to political narratives — research has been supporting a positive relationship between ICT and family life. ICT are not dividing and isolating family members; on the contrary, the evidence shows that ICT are facilitating social interaction among its members. Besides providing connection among family members, ICT are used to articulate different schedules and to coordinate family life. For instance, a Pew report on North-American families concludes that mobile phones allow family members to stay more regularly in touch; and that the Internet is used by many members of married-with-children households to view online material together.

Moreover, as I could conclude in my doctoral research, Internet usage is a strong predictor of social capital and of bonding. Bonding is a dimension of social capital related to the resources that are potentially available and can be mobilized from our strong ties, which are composed of close family members and close friends. The probability of having a high level of bonding increases with Internet usage.

In a study of usage and perception of ICT by a representative sample of 500 Portuguese elderly, a colleague and I found that one of the main reasons to have a mobile phone was a family request. In addition, in the qualitative phase of our study, we could grasp that there was a clear emotional family connection with mobile phones. One of our interviewees, Ana, said that she always carries her mobile phone around for two reasons: first, it allows her to permanently be in contact with her family; second, it has pictures of her and her grandchildren, which makes her feel closer to her family. As I noted elsewhere, the mobile phone represents a kind of a “family memory box”.

Similarly, the respondent’s grandchildren visibly influenced their usage and perception of computers and the Internet. The grandchildren encouraged grandparents to adopt new technologies, which accentuates the importance of inter-generational relationships. The positive perceptions of these ICT were also fueled by the grandchildren’s account: they would tell their grandparents about the usefulness and convenience of ICT.

Even more interesting was that besides Internet users and non-users we found another type of users: the “faux users”. A faux user is a person that considers himself or herself a non-user but intermittently uses a technology with assistance of others. For instance, Ana has a daughter and a baby grandchild living in France. Ana sees pictures of them on a family member’s computer and communicates with her daughter through Skype, a peer-to-peer video conferencing program. Ana’s family members setup the computer and the Internet for her. She depends on her family members to facilitate this social experience. So, once again, the family is an important factor for the access and use of ICT.

Of course this intersection of family and ICT or of family and new technology is extremely complex and multifaceted. Rejecting any kind of technological determinism, what do you think ICT can tell us about contemporary family life? How does technology shape families and how families, in turn, shape technology?

Photo by Ria Smit, CFR Japan