Family and technology focus of 25th annual family symposium

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With 91 percent of American adults owning a cell phone, and teens spending an average of nine hours a day using social media, new technologies are changing everything from how we meet people and develop relationships to how parents raise their children and stay connected.

The impacts of new technology on relationships and family dynamics was the focus of the 25th annual National Symposium on Family Issues, held recently at the Nittany Lion Inn on Penn State’s University Park campus.

Lynn Schofield Clark, professor of media, film and journalism at the University of Denver, spoke about how technology has facilitated migration, noting that with the advent of the Internet and smart phones, migrants can now find jobs, housing and support before they move. Technology has also helped with transnational families, allowing family members who live in other countries to still be a part of the family dynamic. “It these situations, it is often the children who are more technologically savvy than their parents, acting as cultural translators and technical brokers,” said Clark.

Jodi Dworkin, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, also talked about how adolescents are emerging as active users of technology and the drivers of innovation in the family. “Youth impact the family system by introducing these new technologies, and much of parenting is reacting to that impact,” Dworkin explained. “Understanding technology use is not just about parental control but the role teens play in how technology is being used in support of family relationships.”

The symposium also explored the role technology plays in relationship formation. Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology at the University of Washington and expert for the reality TV show “Married at First Sight,” spoke about matchmaking as a science, and how many of these companies now employ social scientists to create matching algorithms to boost finding a potential partner.

“Dating apps give us more choices, but because there are so many choices, we may be less likely to make a decision. Choice itself becomes a variable in online dating — and the process can be exhausting, especially if you’re unsuccessful,” she said, adding that more research is need to determine the quality and methods to measure long-term satisfaction of relationships formed online.

Michael Rosenfeld, professor of sociology at Stanford University, also talked about dating apps, saying they have the advantage of increased safety and a large choice set if looking for someone with specific characteristics. However, he noted apps facilitate but don’t make dating easy; just over one percent of heterosexual couples were formed via a dating app within the last year, as marriage rates are continuing to fall.

Katherine Hertlein, professor of marriage and family therapy program at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, spoke about how social media can interfere with marriages, escalate surveillance, and ultimately make it more difficult for spouses to trust one another again following infidelity. “The impact of technoference — the interference of technology into relationship events — can also be huge when couples spend more time online, and engaging with their partners less,” explained Hertlein.

Technology is also impacting family ties. Rukmalie Jayakody, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State, discussed how the introduction of television has impacted population health, such as lower fertility rates and declines in sexually transmitted disease. “Television also helps restructure social activities by promoting family and community social integration — we come together to discuss what we are watching,” she said.

Another presenter, Zoya Gubernskaya, assistant professor of sociology from the University of Albany, spoke about how mobile phones increase intergenerational contact. Her research team looked at availability of phone access in 21 countries and how the number of phones available compared to users affects contact. “We found that younger people were more likely to contact parents when mobile phone availability increases, and that women are more likely to contact their parents,” Gubernskaya explained.

The symposium concluded with a presentation on mental health conditions associated with social media use. Brian Primack, professor of medicine, pediatrics and clinical and translational science at the University of Pittsburgh, has researched the startling increase in major depression among U.S. teens, and how suicide rates have surged to a 30-year high among all groups of people.

He noted that while there are many positives associated with social media — such as increased opportunities to make connections — constant exposure to negative news affects our mental health. Additionally, depression can stem from viewing posts with filled with unattainable images. “It’s easy for people to feel they are not successful and having a good life after spending time on social media,” Primack said.

In a first-of-its-kind, nationally representative study, Primack and his research team found associations between social media use and depression among U.S. adults age 18 to 30 —  as their usage of social media increased, so did their depression.

“The symposium brought together discussion on how these amazing new technologies are changing families and relationships in both positive and negative ways, and directions for the future of population and family research,” said Jennifer Van Hook, professor of sociology and demography and symposium organizer.

For more information, visit 2017 Family Symposium.

The Family Symposium series is funded in part by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and sponsored by Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute, Population Research Institute and the Child Study Center, as well as Penn State’s departments of Sociology, Human Development and Family Studies, and Psychology.

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Last Updated November 01, 2017