Information Technology and
Family Time Displacement
John P. Robinson
Jos De Haan
Are we becoming slaves of our communication machines? Does new technology threaten family life? Does the Internet support our diverse, scattered social networks? Does e-mail bridge geographical distance and keep us close to those far away?
Many such questions can be raised with regard to new technology’s impact on social life, with much of the intellectual discussion summarized in the distinction between utopian and dystopian views. The utopian view sees new technology like the Internet as improving the quality of our social lives, in contrast to the dystopian view which raises serious concerns about decreasing social contacts, loneliness, and the disintegration of family life. With more and more empirical research studies becoming available, the strongest of these hopes and fears have already had to be modified. Ideologically-driven discourse has given way to the more sober language of researchers, who have tested the effects of information technology (IT) in a wide variety of social contexts such as child–parent relations, contacts with family and friends, and interactions with colleagues in the workplace. Research also admitted the possibility of there being no notable new effects of IT.
This chapter examines the way in which new IT, and in particular the Internet, has affected peoples’ time spent on social contacts and compares these results with the effects on other ways of spending time. How does the amount of time spent on various forms of social contact differ between Internet users and nonusers? We examine these differences in the context of the “functional-equivalence” hypothesis, as it has been used to explain the influence of television, a previous new technology which appears to have affected both social life and the use of mass media. According to this hypothesis, a new technology will replace those activities that most closely perform the same functions for users as did the older technologies.
Testing this hypothesis requires that we investigate a wide variety of uses of time. Are the uses of time on equivalent activities more affected by the Internet than the time spent on nonequivalent activities? We discuss the possible impact of the Internet on social contacts, mass media, and other activities below. Our investigation is based on time-diary studies from the United States and the Netherlands.
Comparing the United States and the Netherlands involves two of the leading IT countries in the world. In the latter half of 2001, 59% of the Dutch