We know the Internet often impacts the relationships teens have with their parents, but why?
I recently ran across an interesting paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association back in August of 2003. The paper was presented by Gustavo Mesch, Senior Lecturer at the University of Haifa, Israel, Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, and recent author of Wired Youth.
In this paper he presents three theories often used to explain why adolescent-parent relationships are strained by the presence of the Internet:
- The Family Boundaries hypothesis
- The Composition hypothesis
- The Time Displacement hypothesis
I’ll explain each one briefly and then share the results of his research.
The Family Boundaries Hypothesis
This hypothesis says parents are concerned their teens could send or receive sensitive or unwanted content in pubic online spaces, and this creates tensions between adolescents and their parents.
According to this view, private space is essential for a family to operate. Families need privacy to work out their day-to-day problems and vent their real feelings. Families also rely on the privacy of home life to ensure their children aren’t exposed to unwanted or unsolicited content and to provide a controlled environment to shape their child’s character. But because the Internet provides many outlets for people to explore and to share information about their personal lives, parents worry their teens will see and share too much.
This leads to disagreements between parent and child: what shouldn’t be said in a chat room or over e-mail, what information should not be given concerning a family’s spending or buying habits, or what kind of content should not be seen? So the theory goes: When these disagreements present themselves, this is a cause for family conflict.
The Composition Hypothesis
This hypothesis says Internet use doesn’t directly affect family relationships at all. The presence of Internet technologies only reveals previous personality dispositions in teens, and kids with these dispositions are also more likely to report more conflicts with their parents.
According to this theory, teens that use the Internet heavily and also report more rifts with their parents are a different breed of kid: they have unique personality traits that lend to both problems. For example, extroverted teens who heavily use the Internet report being more involved and engaged with their social circles because of online interactions. But introverts who are frequently online report less community involvement and overall a greater sense of loneliness. In other words, the personality differences between teen and parent is the core issue, not the presence of Internet technology. The Internet merely exasperates and reveals a pre-existing problem.
The Time Displacement Hypothesis
This hypothesis says Internet-related activities rob time from parents’ interactions with their kids. A child’s or a parent’s time online takes away from healthy face-to-face communication and closeness at home.
Some studies show that teens who spend less time online report a better quality of relationship with their parents. Other studies show that adults who spend more time online experience decreased family interaction and communication. However, other studies show mixed results. The Internet has become a shared household activity in many homes. And in many cases no differences can be seen in family cohesiveness between plugged-in families and Internet-free families.
So the hypothesis goes: There is only so much time in a day and when that time is eaten up with online media, social networking, and other digital distractions, this eats away at family time.
Using the 2001 National Youth Survey, Mesch tested each hypothesis.
The Time Displacement hypothesis showed the most support. Mesch reports, “frequency of Internet use does not change the time that adolescents spend with peers or spend alone but decreases the time that they spend with their parents.” Mesch says this effect was significant even after other controlling variables were taken into consideration (age, gender, mother’s occupation, family marital status, the number of siblings, etc.).
There was also some evidence to suggest the Composition approach. However, there was no support found for the Family Boundaries hypothesis.
While the Time Displacement theory showed the greatest support, Mesch is clear this does not mean that families cannot adapt. “[I]t is very likely that adolescents that recently connected to the net are spending more time with the Internet but that through time, the effect decreases as they become more knowledgeable.”