We are undertaking renovations at our house. Yesterday, the framing for the walls on the new upper story were going up - very exciting after all these months of planning, budgeting, organising - but I had to be at work. No problem. My husband simply makes a Skype call to my office at various points throughout the day, takes the camera and laptop to the action and shows me the progress as it happens (and adding illuminating commentary).He will later send pictures through to our older son and his wife who are now living and working in Canberra.
Skip forward to yesterday evening. Our 19-year-old younger son has come home earlier after finishing his lectures at uni and is firmly ensconced in his room. Apart from the half an hour or so at the dinner table I am unlikely to see much of him during the evening. He will be gaming with players from at least two different continents; chatting with his friends on MSN and/or face book; downloading and watching anime; and, just possibly, doing some academic work. Whatever, he will be online for at least three or four hours.
My husband is at work, but if at home he might also be talking with his sister, or his elderly father - both of whom live interstate - via Skype, answering emails from friends around the world, and/or taking care of the family finances with online banking and payment options.
Me, having been on the net all day, in one way or another, the last thing I want to do is to spend my evening online in any form. It’s the newspaper, in hardcopy, or a book, again in hardcopy, or even some relatively mindless television on my agenda.
The scenarios I have described above are part of the common practice of how family life is lived in our house and probably in many other similar middle-class households across Australia and elsewhere. They also tap into what are often portrayed as the two sides of how the internet has permeated our family lives: the paradox of easier, more personal communication between family members when outside the home environment, alongside a measurable reduction of face-to-face interaction as family members pursue outside social connections in “home” time.
The question of the now ubiquitous presence of the internet within family and households is not whether it is a good or a bad thing. The fabric of family and social life has altered, and will very likely to continue to alter, as the internet becomes even more firmly embedded into our society. Yes, there are real dangers lurking on the internet; and social networking pages and other e-temptations may be taking time from face to face family activities, but a return to pre-connection days is not even a remote possibility.
The 2006 ABS Census found that two-thirds of households in Australia’s major cities and slightly more than half of households in other areas had internet access. And it is families, both couple and single parent, with dependents who are most likely of all households to be connected, especially to broadband with growth in take up still accelerating.
Rather, the question centres on how we make sense of the impact of the internet on how we “do” family. As I and others have argued elsewhere, family is a verb not a noun and a family, while a conceptual entity, is constructed by what it does. Family is active, usually very active, not an inert social concept. Family is also a group, albeit one usually built on biological and intimate relationship foundations and the “doing” of family is not the same for each of its member.
Family time does not represent the same thing to all the individual family members. Each of us has differing priorities and can define “quality family time” in very different ways. Good family time is essentially a compromise of competing priorities and interests rather than an automatic equal and similarly timed preference for a particular activity such as sharing a conversation, fun activities or even doing household chores.
The first thing, we need to do in answering this question, is I believe, not get too hung up about whether the internet is undermining “traditional” family life. In short, technology has been continually changing the way we do family for at least the last 100 years. The traditions, especially around togetherness, communication and family time that might be presumed to be under threat from the incursions of the e-world have not been static. Before electricity most families went to bed early and while the advent of radio and later television did provide a centre of activity, remembrances of family gathering around those devices are heavily influenced by nostalgia. My own memories of the 1960s of the days of just one television in the (only) living room was of being told to be quiet and very little “family” choice in programs; that was a parental decision. And we might have been all in the same room but there wasn’t much communication going on.
Its not even really a question of trade-offs in the way we do family although it might seem that way. The key question for me is whether the reduction in physical togetherness in the one room within the family home is made up for or even surpassed by the ability to keep in almost constant communication with each other. On reflection, I think it does. Our family and personal lifestyles are dictating less time within the home for all members of a large proportion of Australian families. And it is not just technology that is driving this trend although it certainly is part of the team: social, economic and labour market changes all operate to keep us on the go.
The same changes dictate that few members of broader family units; adult children, grandparents; sisters and brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles live easy commuting distance of each other. We are more likely to be spread around the country, or even internationally. Skype and other emerging systems mean that our communication with physically remote family can still be face to face and intimate, even if we are not all in the same place and space.
So, the verdict for our family, and I would hazard many other families: while the e-world is now most definitely interwoven into what it is to be a family, this has become, for us a normal part of doing family life in Australia in 2010