Is the Internet cutting into family time?

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Mom, dad, it may be time to shut down that computer and gather 'round the dinner table. The Associated Press reports that increased Internet usage along with the proliferation of social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace may be a reason why families are spending less time together.

A survey conducted last year by the Annenberg Center for Digital Future at the University of Southern California reports that 28 percent of Americans said they were spending less time with household family members. In 2006, that number was 11 percent.

The center, which has been conducting surveys on Americans and the Internet since 2000, found that 44 percent of Americans said they were sometimes or often ignored by family members who spent too much time using the Internet, while 48 percent said they were ignored by family members who spent too much time watching TV.

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While the Center does not blame the Internet or other forms of technology for causing families to spend less time together, researchers note that the rise in technology and the popularity of social networking are potential factors.

In the AP story, Matthew Gilbert, a senior fellow at the center, says, "Most people think of the Internet and [our] digital future as boundless and I do, too." However, he adds, "it can't be a good thing that families are spending less face-to-face time together. Ultimately it leads to less cohesive and less communicative families."

Though watching television as a family can be a bonding activity, Mr. Gilbert notes that the Internet is mainly "one-on-one" activity, and an activity that is consuming an average 17 hours per week among Internet surfers.

Recently, Oprah Winfrey has been showcasing the "What Can You Live Without?" challenge on her daytime talk show to see if families can live without computers, cell phones, television, iPods, or video games for a week. To help bring families together and encourage communication, Ms. Winfrey lays down some rules. Among some of them: The families are instructed to cook all their meals at home, spend no more than $125 on groceries, and to plan an inexpensive family outing. The goal of the challenge is to try and help families lessen their reliance on technology. By omitting technology, Winfrey hopes families will "find out what each other's real interests are, what everybody's been thinking, what everybody's been feeling."

Nationwide, communities are taking a vacation from technology, or unplugging from their Blackberries and televisions every week in an effort to spend time with their families. Last year, The Boston Globe reported locally on this trend. In the story, reporter Keith O'Brien cites a report by the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society, which says individuals who didn't use the Internet during a six-hour period on any given day, were more likely to spend time with family members rather than using that time to surf the Internet.

Maybe it's time to start "friending" people in person?

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