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Family Face Time

Thanksgiving at Grandma's isn't complete without a Norman Rockwell family pose. Make sure that you use a digital camera.

In 2008, 44% of Internet users said they posted photos online – four times as many as in 2003. But despite this showy display, meaningful family time is becoming a fragmented image. Many families gathering this year are struggling to balance technology connecting them to the world with face time for family under one roof.

A 2009 survey of 2,000 households by the University of Southern California's Annenberg Center for the Digital Future reveals that 28% of Americans say they're been spending less time with members of their households.

This is up from 11% in 2006. During the past decade, Annenberg surveys show that shared family time ranged from 22.6 to 29.8 hours per month. By 2008, family time dropped to 17.9 hours, an erosion of 30%.

This decline coincides with the explosion of social networks. Facebook's user base catapulted to 200 million in 2009 from 140 million in 2008. Internet users don't report a drop in face-to-face time with friends. In the survey, 52% of users say the Internet is "important" or "very important" in sustaining social relationships.

In 1994, fewer than two of every 10 Americans used the Internet; in 2009 more than eight in 10 are online. In 2000, when Annenberg began its surveys, 11% reported that family members spent too much time online. By 2008, it had grown to 28%.

Women particularly report feeling ignored. About half (49.2%) say they're "sometimes" or "often" ignored by a family Internet user. Only 39.1% of men report similar feelings.

There's no doubt that the Internet creates positive outcomes. We connect with long-lost classmates and forge closer bonds with distant grandparents through Skype and e-mail. On the other hand, my daughter didn't attend her five-year high school reunion because Facebook offers her daily updates.

It's not the first time that technology has reconfigured family interactions. Years ago, there were three major TV networks, and families compromised to watch one show together. Family members also shared a landline phone.

Now we have hundreds of channels, and you can watch TV on a laptop. Six years ago, I had one-on-one conversations with my older daughter as we rode in our van. Today, phantom passengers hitch a ride via text messages sent to my younger daughter.

It's a 24-7 world. But there's a finite amount of hours to interact, and any scarcity of resources requires a trade-off as well as an opportunity cost.

Today's technology demands a more solitary time commitment. That's why families must budget face time, sending a message that digital tools are only one form of connection.

Without setting boundaries, we may forget to live in the moment. The risk is a real-time disconnect with the people who matter the most.

Thanksgiving at Grandma's isn't complete without a Norman Rockwell family pose. Make sure that you use a digital camera.

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