The Connected Family: Technology Is the Tie That Binds

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The modern American family is increasingly reliant on technology for internal communication, coordination, entertainment, and household management. As digital devices, applications, and media multiply, acquisition costs fall, and market penetration grows, each family member — from the youngest to the oldest — is more and more able, and likely, to choose his or her own digital road when it comes to spending time at home.

Digital technology is also helping to ease household management for busy families, as well as stretching the boundaries of the physical household and making it easier to seamlessly integrate distant grandparents or kids away at college into everyday family life.

3 KEY FINDINGS

  • Media and communication usage in the home is becoming more personalized, customized, and fragmented. Families now often spend time in separate “bubbles” of technology, pursuing their own media streams within the home.
  • Social media and communication technologies are interconnecting the family at all age levels — from young to old.
  • Boundaries between home and work, and distance among family members based on geography, no longer exist for the networked family.

3 DRIVERS

Several drivers are rapidly changing the landscape for family communication and household management/coordination.

1. Technology has a growing presence in the home. Despite a severe recession and increased convergence of functionality among communication and entertainment devices, the number of consumer electronics owned per US household has remained remarkably steady — having only fallen to 24 devices per household in 2011, from 26 in pre-recession 2006.

At the same time, the fast pace of innovation in ICT has continued to push new devices and functionalities into the hands of American consumers. For example, LCD TVs, e-readers, smartphones, and tablet computers — all largely missing from the consumer technology landscape in 2006 — saw rapid uptake in 2010, bringing new capabilities and spurring new behaviors as they entered the home.

2. More household technology is networked. Penetration of the Internet and mobile phones into US homes and family life has continued to grow steadily.

  • Internet connectivity is up nearly 10 percent since 2005 — with more than 77 percent of the US population using the Internet. Two- thirds of US homes with Internet access have Wi-Fi wireless networking, and a 2010 Census report showed that the vast majority (92%) of American households now access the Internet via a broadband connection.
  • Smartphone adoption continues to rise. Recent Nielsen data indicated that there were more than 228 million mobile-phone users in the United States, a third (31%) of whom have Internet-connected smartphones.
  • Other common electronic devices, e.g., game consoles, set-top cable boxes, and TVs, are increasingly Internet-ready as well. In addition, these now often come with embedded online services — such as Web browsing, movie and music streaming, and social networking applications — pre-programmed into the device.

3. Consumption patterns for media and communications are shifting within the home. Media and communication usage in the home is becoming more personalized, customized, and fragmented. For example, with fluid program availability, fewer families sit down together at the same time of day to watch a favorite TV program. More than two hours of all TV programming consumed in the home each day is now timeshifted due to the availability of video on demand and digital video recorders (DVRs). The videostreaming service Netflix now accounts for the largest percentage of consumer bandwidth usage in the United States. Consumers are also increasingly likely to be media multitaskers: 42 percent of Americans report surfing the Internet while watching TV; 29 percent talk on the phone while doing so; and 26 percent report texting or using some form of instant messaging at the same time as taking in a TV program. Rates for smartphone users may be even higher than these.

3 BUSINESS IMPLICATIONS

  • Households and families increasingly cannot be viewed as a single behavioral monolith as far as technology is concerned. Companies providing devices, content, or communication channels should be aware that today’s average wired household is a hive of multidirectional messaging and interplay, and should focus more on understanding how the individual demographic groups within the home behave — and how their behavior shifts as new life stages and life events occur (e.g., motherhood or the middle-school years).
  • At the same time, age-based targeting of family communication needs may also be increasingly difficult as family members connect across, and sometimes leapfrog, generations via channels such as social media. Understanding the use cases, not just the statistics of users, will be important when developing products or services to tap these lines of communication.
  • The idea of a “silver digital divide” is quickly growing outdated. Technology is bringing senior members of the family closer to the rest, for keeping up with family news, giving and receiving care, and catching up with lost connections. Older family members should be considered active participants in the digital family and household. And with ample time — and potentially more disposable income than parents — grandparents may be a profitable segment to target, both for personal purchases and as providers of IT to grandkids and kids at gift-giving occasions.