If anybody doubted it, research by one of America’s leading journalism institutes confirms that the Internet is making inroads into family time. Members are dealing with each other less face-to-face, women in particular are tending to feel ignored at times, and parents worry that their children are spending too much time online.

The University of Southern California Annenberg Centre for the Digital Future surveys 2000 households each year to explore the influence of the Internet and online technology on Americans. The percentage of people who say they spend less time with household members since being connected to the Internet at home nearly tripled from 11 per cent in 2006 to 28 per cent in 2008. Time given to family socialising dropped sharply from an average of 26 hours per month (which seems little enough) dropped to just under 18 hours over the same period and reports of feeling ignored grew by 40 per cent.

There’s an obvious culprit for the rapid changes: the explosive growth of social networks. Higher income households seem to be suffering greater family time erosion (everyone with their own laptop?) and women are the ones who feel most ignored — nearly half complain about that — although almost 40 per cent of men do too.

Gilbert, an evolutionary psychologist who focuses on family and gender issues, thinks this may reflect the varying emphasis the sexes place on relationships, the balance women appear to maintain in their home computer use, or the persistent call of their other family and household responsibilities.

As for kids and teens, 28 per cent of respondents thought they spend too much time online — up from 11 per cent in 2000.

All of this suggests increasing technological pressures on the family structure. American families have always been resilient, Gilbert points out, easily absorbing new technologies, from the telephone to television, and turning them to advantage. “But the Internet delivers an engrossing interactive universe into our homes and demands much greater individual commitment.” This can play havoc with our personal boundaries, he says.

“The family is our social foundation, society’s basic building block. We need to guard its health in what otherwise seems to be a boundless digital future.”

Guess who needs to lead the way in that task.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet