Digital Society Forum Digital Society Forum
Dossier 17/07/2013

The impact of digital technology on the family

Since the 1960s, the twin processes of women's liberation and increasing individualism have helped to shape new interpersonal codes within the family. As François de Singly points out, the goal of a "happy family" has gradually been replaced by the goal of "happy individuals" within the family collective. The family has become a setting for the development of very different personalities, which in our society have earned the right to be independent.

This reversal has contributed in particular to the transition from patriarchal authority to shared parental authority, and the development of selected and optional relationships between members of the household, including with young children.
In the 1990s, this trend was bolstered by the growing number of connected and increasingly mobile personal devices in the home. Almost everybody now has a multifunctional tool which for interpersonal communications and for work, school and domestic purposes or for pure entertainment. The multifunctional nature of these devices has brought about a change in family life: it makes the way in which each of us spends our time in the home more opaque.
The increasingly individual nature of these tools, combined with their multifunctionality, results in the following paradox: in the home, the personal lives of the different family members are now very visible, but in an opaque manner. This risks jeopardising the balance between the development of our personal private lives and the development of the family's private life. François de Singly talks about "private life splitting into family life and personal life".

New tools, new tensions

While promoting independence and optional choices, these new tools also cause a range of tensions related to surveillance, in particular of children by their parents. The nuclear family is the first unit to be affected. The question "where are you?" has been superseded by "what are you doing there?". Couples are also affected, and sometimes we even see surveillance of parents by their children. A striking example of this can be found in single-parent households, where parents have to look after their children, go out less and end up browsing the internet at home, while also trying to be discreet about their personal lives. At a time when this generation gap is widening, children have more expertise in the use of digital tools but do not apply the appropriate safeguards. This leads to misunderstandings and there are calls emerging for new forms of dialogue and a changing in the way we "do things together." Increasingly seen as optional, it probably makes less of a contribution to fostering overall family unity, but promotes new, more selective ties. Digital tools now enable us to share in new ways, offering a unique flexibility and more space for comment.

The growth of uses dedicated to domestic life and family life outside the home – at work or elsewhere – is a sign that these tools also help to strengthen family life by, and this is the key, re-energising family networks and remote togetherness. Family ties are maintained in workplaces, when on the move (for work or school) and even at school. This interpersonal continuity can also be a restriction, notably for teenagers who are looking to become more independent. Lastly, for most French people, family life with digital tools means spending more time cultivating relationships: making contact with family members who don't live at home or no longer do, adult children, grandchildren, young children they don't have custody of, nieces and nephews in the case of single people without children, spouses or companions they don't live with, etc.

From protection to projection

Tensions around surveillance of family uses of digital technology (notably of children by parents) ensure that family relationships augmented by digital technology are often approached from the perspective of protection: controlling downloads, knowing what each person accesses, plays, listens to, shares... in short, what people do and where they are. It is more difficult to observe or assess the extent to which these digital practices and new forms of sharing enable us to act and project ourselves collectively and individually. The reduction in the amount of time spent sharing within the domestic space (each person having their own screen rather than everybody watching the same screen), does not mean that there is less sharing within households, but that it is split, more optionally and selectively. This is especially true because the way in which we spend our social time has fallen out of synch (meaning existing tensions between the activities of parents and children, unconventional professional and social activities and the constraints that they place on internal family organisation) reinforces this impression of splintering. Sociologists have shown that using digital tools and content crystallises tensions or complicities within a household, but that it is not the root cause. "These tools are used as a release valve from family life as much as to construct it and experience it", explains sociologist Anne-Sylvie Pharabod. The growth in uses dedicated to domestic and family life outside the home, at work or elsewhere, is a sign that the tools also serve to strengthen family life. When we observe relationships between parents and children on Facebook, we see that, ultimately, complicity generally prevails over surveillance, and projection over protection.
It is time to recognise the role of self-projection in family digital practices and take a closer look at what they create and build, rather than what they destroy. Because the closer you look at it, as the research suggests, they really do not seem to be destructive...

François de Singly interviewé par Anne Sylvie Pharabod, sur les nouvelles technologies dans la vie familiale

Partie 1

Interview François de Singly (partie 1) par digitalsocietyforum

Partie 2

Interview François de Singly (partie 2) par digitalsocietyforum

Partie 3

Interview François de Singly (partie 3) par digitalsocietyforum

Partie 4

Interview François de Singly (partie 4) par digitalsocietyforum


To react to this article, I log in I sign up

Louis Lemarcq
Louis Lemarcq 15/05/2018 10:21:48

Et oui, comme souvent et surtout depuis l'émergence et la prépondérance d'internet et des nouvelles technologies, tout repose sur la confiance

Sign up

Join the Digital Society Forum to discuss and react on articles and be informed of upcoming events