Culture, Communication and Change: An investigation of the use and impact of modern media and technology in our lives

Modern communication technology makes it possible to stay connected anywhere, all the time, and the flow of information is nearly limitless. With all the benefits afforded by this newfound capability, however, come potential consequences. Following the ever increasing flow of information through our computers, televisions, and phones has been a stream of concerns about the change in how we, as humans, communicate. Will the new ways in which we acquire, process, and relate information in turn change us as individuals, families, and societies?

The University of Cambridge, in partnership with BT, ran an international research project investigating these questions. Importantly, this work was aimed at stimulating a debate based on real research and not on speculation or fear.

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Method

The project used qualitative and quantitative data collection methods. Regarding the qualitative part, diaries and semi-structured interviews were employed in order to gather data from 63 families from UK, US, Australia and China about their use of and feelings about communications technologies. For the quantitative part, an online survey was conducted with 1,269 people in the UK, 1020 people in US, 1132 people in Australia and 1178 people in China.

The survey of 1,269 people and in-depth interviews with families in the UK revealed that those people who have frequently felt overwhelmed are also more likely to feel less satisfied with their life as a whole. Conversely, those who felt in control of their use of communications technology were more likely to report higher levels of overall life satisfaction. The study has used the findings to introduce a 'five-a-day' Balanced Communications Diet to help families get the most out of communications.

The study does a great deal to combat some of the prevalent fears about technology use, for example, the research shows that children in the UK still prefer to communicate face-to-face, dispelling the myth that they only communicate via technology or are losing the desire and ability to participate in in-person interactions. Moreover, 65% of adults and children surveyed in the UK cited face-to-face conversation as their preferred method of communication. In addition, the study found that many people are consciously controlling their use of technology with 36% of adults and 43% of young people (aged 10 - 18) taking steps to limit usage. Just under half (42%) of adults and children surveyed have prioritised reducing usage of social networking sites, this was followed by a reduction in sending text messages (20%), and then emails (19%). 

The Balanced Communications Diet:

  • Be aware
    Before you can make any changes, you need to understand how you and your family are using technology. Many families who took part in the research were surprised and at times dismayed by their technology habits. Keeping a log of your family's use of technology will help you identify good and bad habits and also changes you may want to make. 
  • Location, location, location
    Think about where technology is located in the home. Parents often complained that their children abandoned family time to go on the computer or video game console in their room. Similarly, children reported feeling that they lost out on parents' attention when they were 'quickly' checking up on work in the home office. Keeping computers and consoles in a central location will allow your family to share what they are doing online, or at least all be in the same place while using technology. 
  • Have rules
    Set some boundaries about how, when and where technology is used. Our research showed that rules around technology usage reduced anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed. The rules are up to you: try removing technology from the dinner table, organise a family games evening either with or without technology, use parental controls to manage use of social networks or the time spent on the family computer, or agree limits on the number of text messages sent in a day. Just remember, whatever rules are introduced, it's important to talk them through and agree them as a family - and parents sometimes need just as many rules as children!
  • Education
    Be a good example: teach and demonstrate the importance of balance and safety in the way technology is used. It's important for parents to set good examples, so think about your own behaviour. For example, avoid checking your smart phone unnecessarily when with your family. It's easy for children to pick up bad habits from you. In addition, children are using technology at an increasingly early age and teaching safe and responsible use is vital from the outset, it's important to make sure your children are taking the right steps to keep themselves safe.
  • Find your Balance
    Don't be concerned by overly positive or negative hype about communications technology. Every family and individual uses technology differently. We hope that this advice helps you find a healthy balance for you so that you have control of technology and are making the most of all forms of communication whether it's by phone, email, social media or face-to-face.  

Details

The results of this project were officially published on the 5th of July 2011 during two events, one at the Design Council and the other one at the Telecom Tower, in the presence of academic community, press and media. The event at the Design Council started with a research presentation by the project lead team from the Engineering Design Centre followed by a mediated discussion with a panel of experts from a variety disciplines. The second event at the Telecom Tower was a 'round table' debate involving two families that took part in the research and academics from the University of Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Queensland University of Technology and moderated by a media personality.

The results of the project were published in a number of press articles, including:

http://www-edc.eng.cam.ac.uk/~akm51/CCC/Daily_Telegraph_article_05.07.11.pdf

http://www-edc.eng.cam.ac.uk/~akm51/CCC/Daily_Mail_article_05.07.11.pdf

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-14038864

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/8615989/One-in-three-overwhelmed-by-technology.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/celebritynews/my-perfect-weekend/8622740/My-perfect-weekend-Mariella-Frostrup.html

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2011653/Twitter-Facebook-email-taking-family-life.html

http://www.itpro.co.uk/634669/users-are-overwhelmed-by-communications-tech

http://www.pcpro.co.uk/news/interviews/368479/q-a-why-children-need-a-balanced-diet-of-tech

http://www.eng.cam.ac.uk/news/stories/2011/technology_use/

http://respekt.ihned.cz/c1-52572070-unaveni-facebookem (For those who can read Czech)

Acknowledgements

This research would not have been possible without the help, support, and guidance of a number of people. We would like to thank:

  • Our collaborators in BT Retail, Gavin Patterson, John Petter and Jasmine Holland, for sponsoring this project and providing active help throughout the research and generation of this report.
  • Xunhua Guo, Qiang Wei, Ye Liu, Ya Wang and Hao Wang from Tsinghua University, as well as Quan Li and Jie Zhang from BT China for their dedication to the work that allowed us to add the Chinese perspective to this research.
  • Natasha Dwyer from Victoria University in Australia and her colleagues Emma Koster, Cameron Laird, Ella Hewitt, Fehim Klebic and Argirios Mavroudis, for their hard work in contributing the Australian perspective.
  • Graham Jones, Kaz Karwowski, Juan Diaz and Ingrid Chaires from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for contributing the American perspective.
  • Kent House Consulting Ltd., JRQ Research, MyOpinions and Fishburn Hedges for their support during the different stages of this research.
  • All the participants of our studies for their insights and much appreciated time and effort.
  • Ana Medeiros and Kai Ruggeri from the Engineering Design Centre for their help with data analysis.
  • Jeff Patmore, Mary Lumkin, and Sue Hessey from BT Research and Technology, whose tireless and persistent efforts and contributions made this research possible.