THURSDAY, June 18, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- American kids and their parents are now spending more hours huddled alone around computer screens and cell phone displays, seriously eroding the amount of time families spend together.
That's according to a new report that found the time per week that families interact as group has fallen by nearly a third between 2005 and 2008.
"Family face-to-face time has decreased in a substantial way. There's been a fairly abrupt drop in family time, a process which is usually glacial," said Michael Gilbert, a senior fellow at the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication. "Families are the social building blocks of virtually every society, and this can't be a good thing."
In a new survey from the center, researchers found that in 2008, 28 percent of people said that being wired has resulted in them spending less time with family members, a threefold increase from the 11 percent reported just two years ago, in 2006.
"We wanted to put a little alert out about this," Gilbert said. "Technology isn't all good."
This is certainly not the first time researchers have sounded an alarm about Internet use and even "Internet addiction." Other studies have suggested that online usage has significantly disrupted the lives of millions of Americans.
"In the last two decades, there has been an erosion in family dinners together that take place without gadgets," Gilbert said. "There's reduced cohesion, reduced communication."
And the Internet is vastly different from television, which drew (and still draws) people together -- watching, say, Johnny Carson, the 1969 moon landing, or American Idol.
In contrast, "the Internet is one-to-one and so demanding. The key distinction of the Internet is interactivity," Gilbert said. "You have to sit and respond."
The annual survey, part of the Center's Digital Future Project, involved contacts with 2,000 American households. In 2005, the survey found that the amount of time family members spent together averaged about 26 hours a month.
That shared time had dropped precipitously to just under 18 hours per month by 2008, slashing overall time spent together by 30 percent.
Women seem to be bearing the brunt of this Web-linked isolation, with more than 49 percent reporting feeling "sometimes" or "often" ignored by other family members, compared with only about 39 percent of men reporting the same.
Meanwhile, in 2000, 11 percent of people surveyed said younger people (under 18) were spending "too much time" online, vs. 28 percent in 2008.
This trend toward decreased family time dovetails with the emergence and rapid growth of online social communities, the researchers noted.
"Social networks such as Twitter and Facebook exploded in 2007. At that time, more than half of people online said this online community was as important as their offline community," Gilbert said. "Many technology issues are pulling on the family which, in the modern world, has enough pressures."
Where might all this lead?
"Certainly a lack of collective experience and face-to-face time will lead to a breakdown in communication, decreased opportunities to experience the world together, increased alienation of children," Gilbert said. "Family breakdown leads to destructive behavior."
In response, some families are beginning to budget time for Internet use, setting curfews or proclaiming no Internet on weekends.
"There are ways we can put little fences around our involvement with the Internet," Gilbert said. "We need to remember how valuable it is to spend time together and experience the world together. Nothing can substitute for face-to-face time."
For all the potential damage involved in Internet usage, there are also numerous benefits, said Dr. Harold Koplewicz, director of the Child Study Center at New York University Langone Medical Center.
"Kids have the opportunity to learn, play, socialize and participate in social life. It's communication besides pleasure," he said. "It may look as though they're wasting time, but spending time online is essential. Kids can participate in culture and connect with others with similar interests."
But, Koplewicz added, "Parents need to counter the trend towards decreased family time. While there are benefits to Internet usage, it doesn't mean you can let the machine take over."
Parents need to consciously plan family time, which can include playing computer games together, doing online projects together, having regular family meal times and participating in regular outings. They also need to monitor their children's use of the Internet, including having access to a history of sites visited, he said.
"The more involved parents are in their teen's life, the more valued teens feel. It's a myth that teens do not want their parents in their life," Koplewicz said.
Find out more at the Center for the Digital Future.