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Friday, April 16, 2010

Technology can let Parents Work at Home but Distract from Family Time

USA Today

Our lives were supposed to be more flexible and family-friendly thanks to the technology at our fingertips. But in this age of BlackBerrys and recession pressures and working from home after hours and on weekends, family time may not be working out the way we thought.

Busy parents who envisioned more time with the kids are finding that more work hours at home don't necessarily translate into quality time with them.

Some studies suggest parents today do have more face time with their children than their counterparts decades ago, largely driven by increased time spent with fathers. An analysis released last month by two California economists looked at a dozen nationally representative surveys from 1965 to 2008 and found the amount of time parents spend on child care is up dramatically since the 1990s, especially among the highly educated.

But a growing number of researchers say that's only part of the story. The technology that allows parents to spend more time at home — laptops and cellphones and mobile e-mail — is blurring the lines between work and personal life and distracting them from the "family time" they crave.

Studies that show parents who spend more time than ever with their kids today don't necessarily capture what's happening between them, says sociologist Barbara Schneider of Michigan State University in East Lansing. "If you're not connecting with Mom and Dad — just because you're in the house with them — what difference does it make?"

These questions have become so much a part of life in a modern technological society that the tug of war between work and family time is among topics to be discussed when about 1,800 demographers, sociologists, economists and others gather for the Population Association of America's three-day annual meeting, which begins Thursday in Dallas.

Nearly half of American workers bring work home with them regularly, according to a study of 1,800 workers published in December in the American Sociological Review.

And even though an always-on BlackBerry mom may think she's a master of multitasking, children know better.

Today's parents might not even realize how their divided attention plays out with kids, says Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

"That mother shows up in these surveys as being with the child, but is she actually, if she's on the BlackBerry in the car?" Turkle says. "A mother putting laundry in while the child sits on the couch is not the same as a mother concentrating on this screen and going into this virtual space. Kids are totally attuned. They know ... their parents are in la-la land."

The 'shared attention' factor

Turkle has been interviewing kids ages 10 through college-age for a book due next yearand has found that, contrary to popular perceptions, all social classes are caught up in technology. Not everyone has smart phones capable of accessing the Internet, but cellphones are ubiquitous and similarly alter attention.

"This is shared attention," Turkle says. "And for children, shared attention can feel like no attention at all."

One of the problems with research on family time is that much of it is based on a popular method of data collection for social scientists — time-use diaries completed by parents and collected by various entities, including the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But some researchers — even those who use them — say time-use research hasn't kept pace with the new multitasking lifestyle that has become pervasive in the USA.

"Some of the time diaries are not as good at picking up joint activities — being available but doing something other than strictly child care," says Julie Brines, associate director of the Center for Research on Families at the University of Washington in Seattle, co-author of research being presented at the population meeting. "The problem comes with our ability to analyze multitasking. It can get very complicated."

Families know this firsthand.

In Alexandria, Va., married mother of two Sylvie Venne worries about the attention she gives her daughters. "Honestly, I don't think I spend enough time with them," she says. "You try to make it up on weekends."

After the economy collapsed, Venne's position in human resources got cut from full-time to part-time, so now she works in three different departments at the same company — human resources, accounting and as an administrative assistant — just to get the same hours she had before the recession.

"I'm doubling up on the work but do it in the same time. Strangely enough, I manage to do it. ... I'm a good multitasker," says Venne, 49. "I'm stressed out, though."

A payoff in the long run

A new generation of parents needs to discover the meaning of "quality time," researchers say.

"Personally, just given the life I lead, I think there is something to this notion of quality time — spending productive time with children vs. just being around," says Peter Brandon, a professor of social demography at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., who will present his research at the meeting.

Brandon says engaging or interacting with a child in activities such as reading or playing counts as quality time rather than "passive monitoring," such as washing the dishes while the child is watching TV.

"This time with children pays off," Brandon says. He notes that good parent-child relationships result in children being happier and more successful, including at school.

"Most researchers in this field would agree that these parental investments of time — reading with your kids, playing with them, going to concerts with your kids, going to the school, making sure you know who the kids' peer groups are — has benefits for both," he says. "These investments in parent-child interactions also means payoffs in adolescence, with potentially less risky behaviors."

Jane Waldfogel, a professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia University in New York, says there is real concern about "the spillover of (job) stress into family life and parents not giving children their full attention."

BlackBerry user Kathleen Prokesch, 42, of Sayville, N.Y., a married mother of two and an events planner with clients worldwide, has created rules for herself.

"It's a challenge," Prokesch says. "I have to make a really cognizant effort. For me, it's that 4-to-8-o'clock time period. It's really turning it off when they're here and I'm here. I stash the BlackBerry in a pocket or put it away.

"My clients know and understand up front that I do have a family and it's important to me to be able to focus on them when they need me," she says. "I will respond later."

And if she gets too wrapped up in work, Prokesch says, her seventh-grader, Emma, 12, will remind her.

"She'll say, 'Mom, you said you weren't going to return that e-mail until later,' " Prokesch says. "She understands and I'm pretty good about it. If she says something, I'll put it away."

As parents struggle to be more available to their kids, new research on work and family schedules to be presented Friday at the meeting in Dallas includes a study that shows parents' availability is on the decline because more parents are in the workforce. Although parents today may be spending more time on child care, they are less available overall. New research being presented on that issue and on dual-earner couples finds:

•A decline in parental availability over the past 30 years. Waldfogel and other researchers who examined Census data from 1979 to 2008 found that for a typical child since 1979, parents' work hours have increased 12% in a two-parent family and 23% in a single-parent family. During that period, 45% of children have had both parents working full time; 22% had at least one parent home part time; and 33% had at least one parent home full time.

•Working couples have crazy schedules. The majority of families headed by dual-earner parents have experienced non-standard job schedules (defined as other than 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday), research co-written by Brines suggests. In the late 1980s, 69% of couples had at least one spouse regularly working a night, weekend, rotating or evening shift. By 2002, that had climbed to 86%.

•Couples spend less time together or alone when they have kids. But as kids age, couples begin to spend more time together again, according to time diary data from 35,644 married respondents. Researchers from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis found that parenthood "significantly reduces the time respondents spend with their spouses," especially when both parents work.

Increasing numbers of parents say they are dedicating time to be with their children.

For divorced dad Tony Bennett, 42, of Fishers, Ind., who has primary care responsibilities for his two sons, ages 15 and 10, and his daughter, 11, "when work time is over, it's family time."

"When you try to mix the two, you don't get anything really accomplished," he says. "It makes me frustrated and the kids frustrated."

Working parents who spend less time with their children should try to make sure the time they do spend is interacting with them, vs. doing the dishes or spending more time on themselves, Brandon says.

"The trade-off is not necessarily taking away time from your kid," he says. "You're taking away time from other things."

That's exactly what psychologist Diane Halpern of Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., found when she interviewed 62 prominent women for her new book, Women at the Top: Powerful Leaders Tell Us How to Combine Work and Family.

"They take it out of their sleep. They give up on other things, often cutting out anything that doesn't either further their work or further their family. Sometimes they lose 'couple time,' " she says. "But if they make that time with their kids, they're together and end up having family events."

Clara Herrera, 40, a mother of three in Austin, says she and her husband, Lance Ellisor, 39, are like many parents of children today. They know a lot of things are competing for their attention and they've made a conscious decision to focus more time on their children, ages 11, 8 and 6.

"We want that family time," says Herrera, who was a stay-at-home mom until her youngest child started school last fall. Now she works three days a week as a substitute teacher at her children's elementary school.

"I don't think my parents ever thought, 'Am I spending enough time with my kids?' " Herrera says.

But that's a question parents today do have to ask.

"Our life really does revolve around them, and justifiably so," Venne says. "They will be gone in a few years. They will not want to do stuff with us. My older one is already 13. It's not going to be long."