Traditional Nuclear Families are the Most Avid Users of New Communications Tools

Contact: Aaron Smith, Pew Internet & American Life Project, 202.419.4516


Washington, DC - 10/20/2008 - The Internet and cell phones have become central components of modern family life. Among all household types, the traditional nuclear family has the highest rate of technology usage and ownership.

national survey of 2,252 adults by the Pew Internet & American Life Project has found that households with a married couple and minor children are more likely than other household types – such as single adults, homes with unrelated adults, or couples without children – to have cell phones and use the Internet.

  • 89% of married-with-children households own multiple cell phones, and nearly half own three or more mobile devices.
  • 66% of married-with-children households have a high-speed broadband Internet connection at home, well above the national average for all households of 52%.
  • Both spouses and at least one child go online in 65% of married-with-children households.
  • 58% of married-with-children households contain two or more desktop or laptop computers.
The survey shows that these high rates of technology ownership affect family life. In particular, cell phones allow family members to stay more regularly in touch even when they are not physically together. Moreover, many members of married-with-children households view material online together.

"Some analysts have worried that new technologies hurt family togetherness, but we see that technology allows for new kinds of connectedness built around cell phones and the Internet," noted Tracy Kennedy, author of a new report about the survey called "Networked Families."

"Family members touch base with each other frequently with their cell phones, and they use those phones to coordinate family life on the fly during their busy lives."

  • 70% of couples in which both partners own a cell phone contact each other daily to say hello or chat; 54% of couples who have one or no cell phones do this at least once a day.
  • 64% of couples in which both partners own a cell phone contact each other daily to coordinate their schedules; 47% of couples who have one or no cell phones do this at least once a day.
  • 42% of parents contact their child/children on a daily basis using a cell phone, making cell phones the most popular communications tool between parents and children.
Kennedy added: "A lot of families treat the internet as a place for shared experiences. They don’t just withdraw from the family to their own computer for private screen time. They often say, 'Hey – look at this!' to others in the household."

Some 52% of Internet users who live with a spouse and one or more children go online with another person at least a few times a week. Another 34% of such families have shared screen moments at least occasionally.

Overall, respondents in this survey see much upside and little downside in the way new technologies have affected the quality of their communications with others.

When asked if the Internet and cell phones had made family life different for their current family compared with the family in which they had grown up, 25% said their family today is closer than their family when they were growing up, 11% said their family today is not as close as families in the past, and 60% said that new technologies have not made their family any more or less close than their family in the past.

However, the benefits of the Internet and cell phones are somewhat counterbalanced in some families by their contribution to the speed of modern life and their role in blurring the lines between "work" and "home" life. Some 11% of employed Internet users say the Internet has increased the amount of time they spend working from the office, and 19% say it has increased the amount of time they spend working from home.

"Families are becoming networks," argued Prof. Barry Wellman of the University of Toronto and an author of the study. "Each household member can be her own communications hub and that changes things inside and outside the household. Family members are neither isolated individuals nor traditional actors in Fun with Dick and Jane homes. Rather, their households are active sites of the interplay of individual activity and family togetherness."

In other findings:

  • In the face of busy schedules and many demands on their time, Americans frequently prize their time with family members over recreational activities and relaxation. While 55% of adults are very satisfied with the amount of time they spend with their families, just 35% are very satisfied with the amount of time they are able to spend on hobbies, clubs and other activities.
  • Employment plays a key role in how Americans spend their time. Individuals who are employed (whether full or part time) have lower levels of satisfaction with the time they have available for family, friends and relatives, hobbies and clubs, and relaxation.
  • While 74% of all adults watch TV nearly every day, television continues to lose ground to the Internet—particularly among young adults. Just 58% of 18-29 year olds watch TV almost every day, and 29% say that they now watch less TV as a result of the Internet.
  • Internet users socialize just as frequently as non-users. Indeed, even intense Internet users (i.e. those who go online from home several times a day) are no less likely to socialize with friends than those who go online less frequently and those who do not go online at all.
The Pew Internet Project is an initiative of the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. Pew Internet explores the impact of the internet on children, families, communities, the work place, schools, health care and civic/political life. The Project is nonpartisan and takes no position on policy issues.

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