At the Crossroads of Media, Culture and Technology

Is Technology the Glue of the Modern Family?

In a society where many families no longer live in the same city, state, or sometimes even in the same country, I often wonder:  does technology help keep our family bonds strong or does it water down those relationships?

The holidays are upon us and this time of year reminds me of family—the importance of family, and the importance of being with family.

Growing up, my family always had at least one holiday where everyone–aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, even the pets–were physically together. We all lived in the same state, so it was easier to get together.

It’s not like that now. Today, we are much more spread out. I have family in different time zones, different states, and even different countries. We are lucky if we see each other once a year.

As a new mom, I sometimes think it is sad that my son (who just turned 1) will likely never share these same family reunion experiences—the ones where all his aunts and grandparents pinch his cheeks while simultaneously arguing about who he looks like and telling the same three tired old stories which, for some reason, still make them all laugh.

I find some solace in the fact that technology allows us to spend more time together as a family (despite being spread around the world) than we ever did when I was a kid. Maybe this is because the distance makes us more intentional. Maybe it is because technology has made it easier to stay in touch.

Today, we don’t have to wait until there is a big gathering to “see” each other. No longer do we have to worry about long distance bills or waiting for the mail to arrive with news from family.  We don’t even have to wait for family gossip–everything is already on Facebook. This allows our conversations to go more than surface deep because we really know each other. We don’t have to ask, “ what have you been up to?” or “how is school going?” We already know these answers.

Our ability to communicate with those close to us has grown exponentially in the last decade, especially with the proliferation of mobile technology and by all indications this trend is growing.  According to a 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center 35 percent of American adults have some sort of “smart” mobile device and more than 40% of adults have a cell phone and the marriage of mobile with video, social media and the web is what has made these new opportunities possible.

I often say that if it weren’t for technology, my husband and I would not be married. I am from the U.S. He is from Colombia. We met in Argentina. We were in the same city in Argentina for a relatively short period of time, so the majority of our courtship happened through computers. It began with e-mail, then progressed to instant messaging and culminated with skype. We were in long-distance love at the perfect time. As our relationship grew from interested, to excited, to in love, technology allowed us to move “closer” even though we were still countries apart.

Like any new young couple, we would spend hours “talking” to each other without saying anything in particular. We were doing what all couples do early-on.  We were getting to know each other and it was exciting. As long as we had an internet connection it was also free, which allowed us to spend this time together without worrying about the cost.

Now, thanks to this technology, as long as we have the Internet, we can all be together. It is not uncommon for our families to eat meals “together”, each joining in from their respective corner of the world. This happens at least once a week. Sometimes it is formal, we set a date and a time—like on Christmas—and literally “sit down” together at our respective tables. Other days, it just happens naturally. Those of us with kids are in the same time zone and often eat about the same time, which us usually the same time those in Colombia who don’t have small kids are sitting down for dinner.

For those who want to stay connected with their families long distance, here are some of my favorite tools to keep in touch for free:

  • Skype –We use this to video chat with friends and family around the world at home or on the go (works with 3G).
  • WhatsApp- When we need to send a quick message to someone in another country, this application allows us to get in touch with others without having to have a 10 minute conversation.
  • Facetime—we use Facetime the same way we use skype, except it’s use is limited to friends and family with iphones, iPads or Mac computers.

While technology is great for helping us stay connected to our friends and family that live far away, I can’t help but wonder if it is simultaneously eroding relationships that are closer to us physically. Some studies have found that increased convenience in communication is in fact reducing socialization and weakening bonds.

I know I am guilty of using and sometimes abusing the conveniences of technology in place of face-to-face meetings.  How many times do I choose to call someone instead of taking the time to stop in for a visit because it is “easier”?  How many times do I send a text instead of responding to a phone call because I just don’t feel like having that conversation right now? I have even been known to chat with people who are in the same building instead of getting up and going over to physically talk to them. Technology is a tool. It is not inherently good, nor is it inherently bad. It is what we make it. For me, it is both the glue that keeps my geographically dispersed family together while simultaneously being the water that erodes the bonds I have with those who are physically closer to me.

photos from Heidi Isaza

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2 Responses to Is Technology the Glue of the Modern Family?

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