One Family Uses Technology
To Better Communication
IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN any ordinary
family conversation. "Can I use the phone?" Sandy Schwartz asks her teenage
"Yeah, let me know when you're done," he replies.
Later, Greg wants to know the family's holiday travel plans. It's all on
the family calendar, she reminds him, then answers his question.
But there's a novel twist to the dialogue: Greg and his mother can't see
or hear each other. They're not even on the same floor. Instead, they're
instant messaging each other on two of the family's six powerful networked
Behind the modest façade of Sandy and Jeff Schwartz's cozy
two-story house in Palo Alto, Calif., a tech revolution of sorts is under
way. The couple and their children, Greg, 17, and Lauren, 14, are pushing
the envelope beyond the usual family technology uses -- shopping, doing
homework, sending e-mail to far-flung friends and relatives -- to include
intimate family chats, gift giving, household management and even practical
jokes. If you're wondering how technology will shape communication in
families of the future, a visit with the Schwartzes sheds light.
THEY HAVE BEEN early adapters from
the start. Mr. Schwartz, 46, an entrepreneur, started bringing high-tech
gear home in the early 1980s. Ms. Schwartz, 44, found household
applications years before other families. Since selling their successful
business, Techs International, an online technology encyclopedia, in 1992,
the Schwartzes have been working from home on several ventures, including
1calendar.net, a vendor of software that transfers online data into
e-calendars and organizers. Old family photos include a shot of Greg
tapping on a keyboard in his playpen while Lauren, in diapers, looks
Today, the kids use computers, handheld organizers, MP3 players, cell
phones, electronic remote controls and digital cameras as casually as
Critics say heavy technology use in the home can isolate kids and reduce
face-to-face interaction with adults, and I share that skepticism. But a
recent visit with the Schwartzes suggested no such problems. With both
parents working at home, they have strong relationships and lots of time
together at breakfasts, after-school snacks and family dinners. The kids
are active and involved: Greg is an Eagle Scout and rock climber; Lauren, a
budding political activist, loves acting and playing guitar.
In a healthy family like the Schwartzes, technology seems to deepen
communication, and even facilitate expression for the children. When Mr.
Schwartz travels, the family finds four-way instant-message chats superior
to the telephone. On a recent trip to San Diego, Mr. Schwartz logs on from
Ms. Schwartz's parents' house, where he is staying. The family holds
several conversations at once. Mr. Schwartz tells of his meetings. Ms.
Schwartz types, "Greg, don't forget to get your laundry," which is folded
Lauren teases her father about his sweet tooth: "BTW [by the way], Dad,
I noticed you took all the chocolate-chip cookies."
Mr. Schwartz denies it, but Greg joins in the teasing. Meanwhile, Ms.
Schwartz's dad, Tom Nickols, chimes in, "Slow down, you guys!" The
generation gap looms large, with Greg and Lauren juggling multiple
conversations far faster than their elders; often, they serve as tutors.
The chats, Lauren says, "let people be a little more themselves -- and be
TECHNOLOGY FOR THE Schwartzes is a
natural means of emotional expression, too. Missing family members last
Christmas, they staged a toast around the table, photographed it and sent
the shot by e-mail to Ms. Schwartz's parents. By 10:30 a.m., Mr. Nickols
and his wife, Pat, were enjoying the photos -- a "very meaningful"
experience, he says.
The network also eliminates the "ships-passing-in-the-night" problem
parents have communicating with teens on divergent schedules. The kids
often send late-night messages their parents don't get until morning. Their
parents' replies are read hours later.
Ms. Schwartz says chatting online reduces family conflict. Instead of
yelling room to room to get the kids to do their chores, she engages in
"Internet nagging." Greg and Lauren say the e-messages are less intrusive
and lead to accountability. If the kids forget a chore, their mother's
instant messages are on record. When Ms. Schwartz thinks she's assigned
jobs and hasn't, the computer reveals her lapse.
The family has developed a knack at high-tech fun. All are music lovers,
and as a gift to his mother, Greg rigged up a remote-controlled MP3 player
on her computer and hid the speakers in a kitchen cabinet, giving her
access while she works to 1,047 songs. They play pranks, too. After his
mother pressed him to get to bed one night, Greg used the X10 remote
control on his computer to switch off her bedroom light several minutes
before she was ready.
"It was like, 'Gotcha, Mom,' " she says.
As much fun as they're having now, the Schwartzes are even more
optimistic about the future. "By the time I'm a grandparent," Mr. Schwartz
says, "our ability to stay in touch as families is going to be