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January 10, 2001 [WSJ.com -- Work & Family]

Americans Are Split on Impact
Of Technology on the Family

A NEW KIND of digital divide is surfacing, joining the gap between rich and poor in Internet use.

Work & FamilyAccording to mail responding to a recent column on the Schwartz family of Palo Alto, Calif., people are deeply split on whether heavy family use of technology to communicate is a good thing. Do instant messaging, e-mail, cellphones and other gadgetry bring nuclear-family members closer, or drive them apart?

Some readers agree with my assertion that extending workplace technology into home life can deepen and expand communication with loved ones. "You gave us a glimpse of the future," writes Jim Comstock, a Burlingame, Calif., health-services executive. "The Schwartz family are real-life Jetsons."

Others dismiss the idea as Orwellian hogwash. "If the outside thermometer didn't read 22 degrees, I'd swear this was an April Fool's joke," writes Bernie Libster, a Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., copywriter and author. He believes using a lot of high-tech gear to communicate at home is a poor proxy for face-to-face communication and sees omnipresent technological ties as threatening to intimacy. "Somewhere," he says, "George Orwell is laughing his head off."

GEORGE WAINWRIGHT, a Wayne, Pa., accountant, is equally skeptical. "Give me a break. Typing to each other instead of talking to each other can only lead to problems down the road," such as teens using e-mail to deceive parents about their activities. He, for one, hopes the high-tech family lifestyle doesn't spread.

[workfam art]

Several readers wrote with their own stories of how high-tech communication has deepened family relationships. Ram Kelkar, a Wilton, Conn., investment-banking executive, credits computer technology for improving communication with his wife. He and his wife "talk" more throughout the day because of instant messaging. Like many people, Mr. Kelkar finds it easier to convey some feelings and thoughts in e-mail than in person. Many men, in particular, "can chat online about things you can't talk about by phone," Mr. Kelkar says. He's also better able to resolve some family tiffs online.

Instant messaging has also enriched the emotional content of Mr. Kelkar's communications with farflung relatives, who are scattered from the U.S. to Britain, the Mideast and India. Since Mr. Kelkar's 46-year-old brother in India died suddenly last January, Mr. Kelkar has comforted his brother's 19-year-old son many times via the Internet, and he and his nephew have grown much closer. "The Web can be phenomenally powerful in bringing families together," he says.

Martin C. P. McElroy, a management consultant, says he and his wife were afraid their relationship would suffer when he left for 18 months of consulting assignments in Brazil, Europe, Asia and Africa. Instead, he says, "e-mail missives made us more aware, more accepting and more communicative." Composing e-mail at his leisure made it easier to express new ideas and feelings. Reflecting upon her replies sparked new insights. "My returns home became an eager anticipation to pursue ideas and feelings first expressed online," he says. As a Christmas present, he gave his wife the domain name "missya.com" -- like "naming a star for a lover," he says -- and he's starting a Web site to help business travelers maintain relationships.

THE SPLIT among readers reflects Americans' love-hate relationship with technology. Critics see high-tech communication as divisive and alienating, isolating people who spend hours gazing at a computer screen instead of talking to each other or luring them into superficial e-mail relationships at the expense of deeper family ties. One Terra Haute, Ind., reader, Betsy Frank, wonders, "How can computerized communication, in place of face-to-face family communication and hugs, deepen dialogue?"

But other readers say using computer technology for family communication isn't a zero-sum game. Rather, e-mail and instant messaging supplement the family communication that is already taking place. It's easier to "talk" electronically, readers say, because conversations don't require people to be available simultaneously.

E-mail especially suits young family members. Carole T. Meyers, a Berkeley, Calif., editor and publisher, says she failed in her attempt a few years ago to get a chess game going via postcards between her son, 28, in Los Angeles, and her husband. Her son "isn't in the mindset to deal with postage and mailing," she says. But when she tried the same thing again recently via e-mail, a father-son game took off. Many kids and young adults communicate electronically in ways they wouldn't otherwise, adding written teasing, symbols, inside jokes and details that are an important part of self-expression.

Bottom line: The impact of technology use seems to depend on the family. In families as elsewhere, technology is a neutral tool that exaggerates existing tendencies. After conducting numerous focus groups and studies, Tom Miller, vice president of Cyber Dialogue, a New York technology research and consulting firm, says technology can have positive effects in healthy families but may magnify problems in families that are drifting apart. "Technology is an amplifier of whatever the underlying gestalt of the family happens to be," he says.

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