Emerging Technologies

How has technology changed America’s families?

Greta Byrum
Senior Field Analyst, Open Technology Institute
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What pressures do American families experience in our new data-driven, tech-dependent society? Over the past forty years, information and communication technologies have transformed the way we work, the nature of learning and education, and the methods by which we achieve personal and collective goals. Parents, grandparents, children, and the range of loved ones who form part of the modern family today face new and challenging choices about technology use, access, and control. In this blog, Seeta Peña Gangadharan, Lisa Guernsey, and Greta Byrum capture the broad trends, helping to link questions about technology other social concerns and set the stage to reenvision social policy through the lens of the family. The piece is an excerpt of a newly published report released by New America’s program on Family-Centered Social Policy.

The advent of the personal computer and the Internet has changed society profoundly—and the family no less, as households face significant new threats and opportunities. Widespread diffusion of information communication technologies has helped quicken the pace of globalization; disrupted 19th and 20th century labor practices, including divisions between work and leisure time; embedded new kinds of automation in all facets of public and private decision making; and escalated the need for Americans to be able to comprehend and filter a constant stream of information to participate fully in work and community life. Within homes, technologies such as television, video games, and smartphones have ushered in daily routines that affect, for better and worse, how parents and children interact with each other and with extended family members. These changes affect families of all income levels, but the downsides are especially challenging for families already buffeted by unemployment and de-stabilizing cultural shifts.

As the U.S. economy transitioned from traditional family businesses and old hierarchical industrial models, getting even a low-level job increasingly requires access to, and understanding of, digital technology. Eighty percent of Fortune 500 companies, including Walmart, Comcast, and McDonald’s, now only accept job applications online. Internet use is prevalent among 94 percent of jobholders across industries, including non-technology firms, big corporations, and small businesses in urban and rural settings, and places in between, according to Pew Research Center.

This increasing reliance on digital technologies has created intense pressures and opportunities for families. Digitization, for example, presents new threats to the financial security of many families by making them more vulnerable to surveillance and discrimination in the marketplace. Take automated prediction and targeting: credit unions and banks are using automated computer decision systems to remotely disable the cars of people who owe money on subprime loans, sometimes stranding borrowers in the middle of their drive to work or school. And educational software companies now offer end users— from young students to lifelong learners—data-driven products that track and adapt content based on user behavior and ability. For young students, that might mean educational content that pegs them to a lower social stratum, and hence, content that carries a lower expectation for the user. That is, beyond traditional concerns for narrow- or niche-targeting, advanced technologies are producing new forms of data-driven, automated discrimination.

At the same time, technologies are providing important connections, as families scattered across the globe stay connected and engage in “remote caregiving.” The Bureau of Economic Assistance estimates that in 2009, foreign- born individuals sent $38 billion in remittances— something that would have been nearly impossible prior to the advent of electronic payments and information infrastructures—to households abroad. Money aside, members of “transnational” and “commuter” families use social technologies like Skype and Facebook as connective tissue, to reach out to children or aging parents abroad, keep relationships current, and pass on familial knowledge.

Researchers, policymakers, popular pundits, and journalists often note that digital technologies have the power to disrupt personal relationships and deliver uninvited content. This anxiety centers on the impact that new technologies can have on the well-being of children and the strength and social cohesion of families. Child development experts worry that cell phones and personal computer devices—now common fixtures at the dinner table—distract parents from their children (and vice versa) and prevent them from engaging in positive, nurturing conversations. In a study of caregivers and smart phones in a fast-food restaurant, researchers observed nearly two- thirds of participants using mobile devices during meals, eating and talking while engrossed in their screens, only putting them down briefly to engage in other activities.

The “anytime anywhere” access of Internet-enabled technologies has produced a thicket of benefits and dangers that families struggle to navigate. The same information technology that allows today’s children and young adults to trade friendly emails with grandparents and “kick start” micro investments in worthy causes also exposes them to a range of content and activities, including violent video games, “sexting,” pornography, cyberbullying, and other forms of online harassment.

There are also great disparities in how families use technology, whether merely for entertainment, or for social and educational betterment.

The effects of new technology vary widely across socio- economic and other divides. Children from low-income families, for example, spend more time with TV and videos than children from affluent families, and are three times more likely to have a television in their bedroom. There are also great disparities in how families use technology, whether merely for entertainment, or for social and educational betterment. Parents in low-income families struggle to acquire digital literacy and often do not have easy access to teachers, librarians, mentors, and other educated professionals to help.

While researchers are unlikely to come to consensus about the beneficial or harmful effects of digital technologies, these technologies will continue to play an integral role in families’ life choices and opportunities. Today, families have no choice but to use digital communication to interact with the many public institutions that no longer accept paper applications or other communications. Public assistance programs have increasingly become “smart,” meaning participants are now more likely to interact with an algorithmically trained virtual assistant rather than a human caseworker. Caregivers must also contend with digital systems in schools and elsewhere, as learning processes become computer-driven. In short, technology is becoming the primary medium through which people gather, do schoolwork, shop, apply for jobs, schedule child care, communicate with teachers, read to their children, share neighborhood news, and spread the word about family celebrations and hardships.

Families that lack adequate access to and understanding of modern information technology are now at risk of falling prey to technology’s threats while missing its opportunities. Yes, access has improved: between 1984 and 2011, the number of households that reported having a computer increased from 8.2 percent to 75.6 percent. The number of households accessing the Internet increased from 18 percent in 1997 to 71.7 percent in 2011. But despite this rapid diffusion of computer-driven technology, poorer families still struggle to join the information age. The U.S. Department of Commerce reported that among low-income households ($25,000 or less), computer use stands at 57 percent, while Internet use is at 49 percent. For the wealthiest households ($100,000 or more), 97 percent have computers, and 96 percent have Internet access. Many rural areas lack broadband infrastructure, and even in some cities, up to 50 percent of families do not have access to broadband services at home. Local library systems—many under severe budget constraints—are overloaded with patrons, often children and job seekers, seeking Internet access. It is crucial for students to be able to use tech tools and different types of social media; yet in some regions, commercial establishments such as McDonald’s, Starbucks, or other restaurants with WiFi are the only places for low-income students to do their homework.

This article is published in collaboration with New America. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Authors: Greta Byrum designs, implements, evaluates, and documents collaborative neighborhood technology projects. Lisa Guernsey is Director of the Early Education Initiative and Director of the Learning Technologies Project, two projects in the Education Policy Program at New America. Seeta Peña Gangadharan is a Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute (OTI). 

Image: Carl Krawitt makes dinner for his son Rhett, 6, left, and daughter Annesley, 8, center, in their home in Corte Madera, California January 28, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage.

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