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9to5to9: Internet the new electronic hearth, I think

Submitted by on Monday, 20 October 2008 No Comment

Come on, guys! Gather around the computer and let Mommy fire up Three Doors Down. You can rock out to “Kryptonite,” jumping on the bed until you exhaust your silly selves into early slumber. We’ll learn a bit about aviation, too, before you konk out.

Need a Wubbzy fix, Little Guy? No need to wait until it’s on TV when we can hit the Wubbcast.

Dying to learn about the North Pole, Big Guy? We’ll see what we can find.

If an avowed kiddy technophobe like me can let technology invade her life to that extent, then it’s no surprise the rest of the country has gone ga-ga.

That’s according to a report the Pew Internet & American Life Project released today that says that, rather than dividing us, innovations ranging from text messaging to social networking pulls families together.

Ay, but at a cost. High-wired families are less likely to eat dinner together and say they’re less satisfied with their family and leisure time than people in less plugged-in households, the report continues.

Therein lies my problem. How do I make the new ways a force for good, not evil?

My parents bought World Book Encyclopedia; I hit Wikipedia. I listened to see if anyone else was on our party line before dialing. The guys have heard TweetDeck beep in for less than a day and its chirp already is household background noise.

I have no desire to return to party lines and World Book — you had to wait a whole year for updates, after all. But I also get sick of doing more and doing it faster just because I can. And I definitely agree that the more wired I become, the less satisfied I am with my leisure time — in part because I stumble across so many more ideas online for things I’d love to do.

Oh, wait. Pew’s not talking about me.

The report focused on what researchers defined as “traditional” families: Mother and father, either married or in a committed relationship, and minor children. It did not examine single-parent families.

I know enough about statistics to understand why. While the group of “everyone surveyed” is large enough to let researchers draw reasonable conclusions, when you break out smaller groups — such as single-parent families — sometimes there aren’t enough people for researchers to have faith in the results.

That’s our old friend “margin of error” coming into play. And the report’s margin of error on even “traditional families” is pushing it. It’s 5.2 percentage points, which means the true results could be 5.2 percentage points higher or lower if the entire nation were surveyed. That means some claims — such as that 4 percent of parents have sent their children a message through a social networking site — say nothing.

I’ve run into this problem with Pew reports before. Drill the data down far enough and they’re essentially meaningless. Except few notice and quote the results as fact.

“Forty-two percent of parents with children ages 7 to 17 call their sons and daughters once a day or more on a cellphone, 35 percent keep in touch on a landline and 7 percent communicate by text, according to the poll,” The Washington Post wrote about the survey. Um, plus or minus 5.2 percentage points.

I don’t mean to dis Pew. The center looks at issues of growing importance to American society, from today’s study of families and technology, to last month’s report on networked workers to a study released in June on the Internet and the election.

But it bothers me that a study that’s going to be quoted far and wide for years isn’t all that telling beyond broad brush strokes.

And it bugs me that researchers say they want to look at how technology is changing the ways children interact, yet their conclusions exclude children in 9 percent of American families, according to figures cited in the report from the 2008 US Statistical Abstract.

Clearly, based on scant data provided, single-parent families use technology differently. They’re less likely to have computers — 93 percent to 88 percent — and broadband connections — 66 percent to 55 percent.

It’s not hard to see ramifications in just those numbers.

So when someone tells you today that technology is creating new forms of family connectedness, know that those results don’t speak to all families.

Even though they’re still pretty valid for my “Kryptonite”-playing, North Pole-searching guys and me.

Copyright 2008 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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