How Facebook Is Destroying the ‘Nuclear Family’

A new study published this week by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that cell phones and computers are actually good for “nuclear families.”

According to Pew research, Internet, cell phones, e-mail, IM and Twitter make nuclear families closer by enabling family members to stay in touch between times when they’re physically together.

The study found that a whopping 70 percent of American married couples or partners in which both people have cell phones call each other every day. About 64 percent use cell phones to coordinate schedules and nearly half — about 42 percent — connect with children by cell phone every day. Half of all parents surf the Web with their kids.

That’s interesting, and seems to run counter to the conventional wisdom that computers and consumer gadgets enable family members to withdraw into their own little worlds and social groups. But there’s something much more profound going on: The wall of separation between the nuclear family and the extended family is being eroded by technology.

What Is a ‘Nuclear Family’?

After World War II, the traditional family unit, which we now call an extended family (mom, dad, the kids plus a grandparent or two at least, plus often other uncles, cousins, etc.) was nearly killed off by a wide range of changes in American culture, including the broad use of technologies like TVs and portable radios, the rise of car culture, increases in tract housing, and changing employment patterns.

The nuclear family concept shattered traditional family structures as they existed around the world for thousands of years. It did this by physically — and therefore socially — isolating the core family unit from the extended family. The dark side of the rise of nuclear families can be over-simplified by saying that the nuclear family concept was a social movement designed to get grandma out of the house.

Why the ‘Nuclear Family’ Is Dying

Just as technological and cultural changes ushered in the nuclear family 60 years ago, new changes are showing it the door. The biggest of these is the rise of social networking.

Facebook, which has emerged as the most important social networking site, was originally designed for college students. But people kept using the service after graduation, and it evolved into a social network for young people in general. About six months ago, the walls came down altogether, and people of ages ranging from 12 to 90 started flooding in. There goes the neighborhood.

These older people are doing the same things on Facebook that younger people always did: they’re re-connecting with people they know, and staying in touch. They’re updating their current “status,” posting pictures, joining groups and following the people they care about. But while young people tend to emphasize connecting with friends, older people are more likely to use Facebook to stay in touch with relatives. And it’s a powerful medium for that.

Nuclear family members are posting pictures, talking about school activities and telling what’s going on in their everyday lives, and grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and others are tuning in — and getting increasingly familiar with the rest of the extended family over vast distances. People are sending comments, and chiming in on family conversations. Facebook is bringing extended families together in real and meaningful ways.

Last month I wrote a column in this space about how the main effect of social networks is an expansion in the number of professional contacts and personal friendships you can maintain. This turns out to be true with family relationships as well. Social networking enables you to psychologically expand the number of people in your close, core family – the people you share your everyday triumphs and tragedies with — from two, three or four to 20, 30 or 40.

Social networking is destroying the isolation of the nuclear family from the extended family and, in doing so, essentially eroding the nuclear family concept.

The point of the Pew study was to show that nuclear family cohesion is being re-enforced and enhanced by the use of consumer electronics. Another way to look at that trend is to understand that communication over electronic media turns out to be real and meaningful. But electronic communication is unbound by geography or time – the very factors that separated and alienated extended family members from nuclear family members and created the social phenomenon of the nuclear family.

Now that social networking and other electronic forms of staying in touch are on the rise, Americans and people across the world are returning to the traditional state of things, where “families” can include grandparents, uncles, cousins and adult siblings and where the isolation of the nuclear family is neither possible nor desirable.

Are you over 30 and on Facebook? If so, I’d love it if you would drop by my Facebook profile and write something on my wall about how you’re using Facebook to stay in touch with members of your extended family.

In addition to writing for Datamation, where this column first appeared, Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows magazine. He can be reached at or his blog:

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