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The Internet is no 21st-century boob tube

Latest Pew Internet study finds that Web use isn't isolating people from friends and family.

Remember when you were young and your family used to gather 'round the television eating dinner on TV trays, fixated by programs like M*A*S*H and All in the Family? Chit chat about what happened at school and work was relegated to commercial breaks. And then it was bedtime.

Well, it turns out the Internet isn't exactly following the model of the boob tube in co-opting family discourse, according to a new national survey of 2,252 adults from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

"We were surprised to see that lots of families treat the Internet as a place for shared experiences," Tracy Kennedy, author of a new report about the survey called "Networked Families," said in a statement. "They don't just withdraw from the family to their own computer for private screen time. They pretty regularly say, 'Hey--look at this!' to others in the household."

More than 50 percent of Internet users who live with a spouse and at least one child go online with another person at least a few times a week, the survey found. Asked about the impact of new technologies, 47 percent said they have increased the quality of communication between family members, and the same percentage said there had been no difference.

One quarter said their family is closer today than when they were growing up; 11 percent said their family is not as close they were in the past; and 60 percent said new technologies have not made any difference in the closeness of their family members. Much of this has to do with the fact that cell phones have become vital communication tools for families.

And the notion of the anti-social computer geek doesn't necessarily apply to Internet users, who socialize as frequently as non-users, the survey found.

Meanwhile, the Internet continues to steal viewership from the TV. One quarter of adults say they now watch less TV as a result of the Internet. Roughly 9 in 10 Internet users say the time they spend online has no impact on the amount of time they spend with friends and family.

Families' "heavy home Internet use suggests that many households are hubs of personal communication networks, as people log on individually to e-mail, IM, post on social networking sites, and chat," the study concludes.

"They are both together with their families and connecting outward to friends and relatives elsewhere. They are neither isolated individuals nor Dick and Jane's traditional family. Rather, their households are active sites of the interplay of individual activity and family togetherness."

HH = household. Most adults consider their family today to be as close, or closer, than the family they grew up in as children thanks to the internet and cell phones. Pew Internet & American Life Project Networked Family Survey