Are the modern media damaging domestic life? Our new report shows a more complicated pictureby Sonia Livingstone / November 17, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Photo: Alexis Robert
Reports on the media and family life tend to generate familiar headlines: tales of teenagers glued to Facebook and mobiles; a generational divide packed with anxious questions over what the modern media are “doing” to families. Our new study, Changing Media, Changing Families, published on 17th November, takes a different approach. Families, we argue, have a dynamic relationship with the media, so we must ask not only what effects media have on families, but also how the changes in modern family life are changing media itself.
The quantity of media consumed by families in the last decade has grown vastly. About half of the average teenager’s waking hours are now spent consuming it in some form—a trend that is becoming true of the wider population. And this means the media have shifted from being an incidental part of our private and cultural lives to an increasingly indispensable infrastructure that dominates social relationships, daily timetables and leisure.
How can these patterns of usage be indicators, as well as causes, of social change? One example is the growing tendency for children to spend not only their teenage but also their young adult years in the home, born of shifts in everything from the cost of living and housing to the job market and cultural norms. This creates a demand for personalised media goods, such as a computer or television in the bedroom, that allow family members their own “media bubbles” within the home.
And our increasing ability to personalise the space around us is in tension with another central aspect of modern media—its power to connect people. Thanks to mobiles, email and social networking sites like Facebook, we can better keep in touch with the people closest to us, and with wider and more diffuse contacts beyond them. This is at once hugely enabling—allowing, for instance, communication and support between members of divergent families spanning countries and continents—yet potentially restricting, in that we tend to spend more time within one or another network of personal contacts.
Such a paradox is evident, above all, in the status of children and their freedom and independence. With families having fewer children in each generation, it seems that parents spend more on each child, treating them as “special.” Parents protect children from the perceived dangers of public places by creating safe leisure environments at home—equipping their homes with giant television screens and games consoles. Even when children are not at home, mobile technology lets parents stay in touch. And yet, via the massed media of a modern home, children are more able to access information about the adult world at younger and younger ages; something parents may understandably feel that, unlike access to public spaces, they cannot regulate or even entirely understand.
In simple terms, the huge increase in the power and the quantity of media consumed by families results in a predictable outcome: our lifestyles are more intensely “mediated” than ever before, at once augmented and cushioned by technology. Evidently, too, children can have a powerful accelerating effect on a society’s use of media, in terms both of parents acquiring media goods for the benefit of their offspring, and children pressuring parents to keep up to date and to diversify their media use and interests. Without families, the industry would have no market.
These changes are not just a matter of cause and effect. They are fuelled by wider social trends: falling birth rates, an ageing population, immigration and newly diffuse notions of family, and a shifting balance between public and private provisions of education. All of these, however, reinforce a contradiction: the power of the modern media to connect people, but also to create personalised retreats away from each other and everyday life.
How these tensions play out, and whether they work for the benefit of society and families alike, is still unknown. The question is further complicated by the fact that the growing power of digital tools tends to go hand-in-hand with an increase in inequality, as more privileged families adopt new tools faster and with greater success than others. We are not, however, the passive creations of our media; it is high time we stopped blaming it for the ills of society, childhood and families. Our report is a starting point for some better informed debate over the intertwined evolution of families and the media.