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Nickelodeon Study: Tech Is Central to Family Life

What would life be like without television and the Internet? How well would you cope without a cell phone?

Nickelodeon Kids and Family Group has taken a stab at answering such questions via a research initiative titled “The Digital Family.” The year-long project was spearheaded by Marsha Williams, senior vice president of research and planning at Nickelodeon Kids and Family Group, who presented the findings last month in New York to executives from Verizon Communications, Hasbro, KFC, Fisher Price, MediaCom, Mediavest, MediaEdge, OMD, Random House and others.

DIGITAL DEPRIVATION

Williams said interesting results stemmed from a “deprivation study,” in which the programmer solicited 59 kids and parents from Denver and Bethesda, Md., to give up either the TV, Internet, cell phone use or their MP3 player for 10 days.

The goal: to gain insight into families' digital dependency from children aged 8 to 12 and parents of kids up to age 14. Many participants lived without a number of the devices, with some even tackling the all-screen challenge, eliminating every entertainment and information gadget.

Williams said technology deprivation had a powerful effect on stress levels, influencing family togetherness; relaxation; information gathering; kids' capacity to do homework and socialize; parents' ability to keep track of their progeny; and overall communication.

“At the end of the day, technology really is the centerpiece of the modern family,” said Williams, who was in contact with participants throughout the experiment.

One anecdote involved a mother picking up her kid from school. The mother waited in the car, but her son didn't appear. Without a phone, she parked and went looking for him.

She eventually found her son waiting among a group of kids outside the gym. A simple miscommunication, but without a cell phone the situation became more time-consuming. Added to that was the son's embarrassment quotient: Mom showed up wearing slippers.

A more prominent effect on parenting was the loss of “digital supervision,” the ability to keep track of kids through cell phones while giving them wider boundaries and more control over their own lives.

“In this case, kids still had the autonomy — they just didn't have the phone,” Williams said.

But without that technology, parents lost their electronic leash and found themselves near their landlines, or simply keeping their kids closer to home.

Going without Internet use proved difficult as well. Besides the loss of e-mail, it affected everything from transportation, shopping and cooking to doing homework and paying bills.

But the biggest loss was felt in the living room when the TV was turned off. Aside from losing their chief means of entertainment and relaxation, many participants said they also missed their family's primary point of interaction.

One 8-year-old called Williams to say she was sick with a cold while her whole family was downstairs watching sports. “They're having such a good time,” the girl said. When Williams asked what she was doing, the response came in a pathetic little voice: “I'm just lying here.”

Beyond deprivation, the larger study, with results from 1,083 kids and 1,061 parents, tracked the effect computers and the Internet had on basic skills.

For example, according to the Nick study, 27% of parents and 21% of kids no longer feel they need to be good spellers due to the availability of spell-check functions. Similarly, more than a quarter of each group believes it's now unnecessary to use a printed dictionary.

Largely citing MapQuest, 20% of parents and 21% of kids no longer feel they need the ability to read maps. Instead, they said it was enough to type in locations and match the printed commands with street signs.

Applying that argument to cell phones, almost half of parents surveyed — and more than half of kids — said remembering phone numbers was obsolete.

Addressing the rise of MP3 players, more than half of all parents surveyed — and almost half all kids — said buying albums or CDs were also past practices.

Perhaps more surprising: 23% of parents and 33% of kids agreed there was no longer need to make casual conversation.

MYTHS MISLAID

Williams said the survey helps dispel myths that kids are more tech-savvy than their parents.

Nickelodeon found that only 2% of parents are not online users, as opposed to 29% of kids.

Not surprisingly, more parents than kids own cell phones — 89% compared to 27% of kids 8 to 11 and 61% of kids 12 to 14 — but a real eye-opener was on the gaming front: 64% of parents report using game consoles, as opposed to 58% of kids.