Skip to content
Society, Politics & Law

Family vs technology

Updated Friday 25th September 2009

Have advances in technology ruined family life? Elizabeth Silva, Professor in Sociology at The Open University, discusses in this interview for Ozone magazine

Family watching television Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Jupiter Images

Modern technology certainly changes the way families interact, but does it really damage or fragment family life as many people fear?

Not necessarily, says academic consultant Elizabeth Silva, who advised the programme makers on the social aspects of the project. A professor in Sociology at the OU, Dr Silva argues it is wrong to assume technology erodes the quality of family life.

“We can talk about changes in the way people relate to each other,” she says. “But people still ‘do’ family quite intensively. For instance mobile phones have had the potential of increasing connections between individuals which offsets this fragmentation.”

In fact, although new household technologies are often seen as driving families’ lifestyle choices, it can work the opposite way.

“There’s the idea that technology impacts upon the family and the family suffers. My take is quite different,” she explains.

“Technological change happens because people’s lives change. And it is individuals’ choices of how to live that creates processes of innovation as well.

“The family has a role like any other, like the economy or like technology itself in changing the world. The imagination is important in driving the things technologists want to find for our daily lives. People desire to see nature as it is, so colour television comes about.”

In another case, the increase in working mothers resulting from the women’s liberation movement helped create a market for laboursaving kitchen hardware.

“The time that women have to shop every day for food is no longer available so there is a need to have a freezer for food storage,” says Dr Silva. “The need to cook that food more easily and quickly, means you have developments in cooking technology like the microwave oven. The microwave oven already existed because it was developed for the navy during WW2 but it wasn’t launched for domestic use until the early 1980s.

“Technologies for housework were as important as those for work itself,” she says, “So washing machines, freezers and microwaves are terribly important. Electric Dreams is fascinating because it makes us think ‘What would life be like if we didn’t have a freezer or microwave oven?’”

Technological changes in the kitchen have played a vital but perhaps underrated role in the dynamics of family behaviour, creating a new social focus in the home away from the traditional living room.

“The kitchen, which was once a small, secluded space, becomes more integrated into the layout throughout the three decades. Walls are dropped, appliances themselves become disguised. These processes do not just conceal the housework but the housework itself becomes less demanding because you have prepared foods available and the technologies that can deal with them. And you have new agents – men, teenagers and women who don’t know how to cook – able to deal with these processes and cook. So the kitchen itself becomes a place of increased sociability.

“You can feed the family in a more flexible manner. Individuals can do it and expertise is no longer needed. That increases flexibility and the fragmentation of family practices. But that doesn’t mean that family practices are not important – it’s just a different way of doing things.”

About this article

This article first appeared in the Spring 2009 edition of Ozone, under the title of "Switching off".


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Family Fortunes: Could you help a family in crisis? activity icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Family Fortunes: Could you help a family in crisis?

Families need support for different reasons - and families may need differing approaches to the same challenges. How well can you connect families and sources of support?

Can comedy change your life? Creative commons image Icon Russell McGovern under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 license article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Can comedy change your life?

After years spent in dark comedy clubs and cramped rooms above pubs, Mary O’Hara knows what makes her laugh. But what else can a good joke do? She meets the performers and researchers who say that comedy can change how we think and even how we act.

What happened to Rio 2016's leftover food? Creative commons image Icon Indra Galbo under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 license article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

What happened to Rio 2016's leftover food?

Gourmet chefs fed the athletes of the Olympic Games. Then, they fed the poor.

Half man, half circuit: Who are the people who are choosing to become cyborgs? Creative commons image Icon Portismedia under Creative Commons BY-ND 4.0 license article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Half man, half circuit: Who are the people who are choosing to become cyborgs?

Do the people who claim to be the first of a new human/machine hybrid genuinely represent a new way of living - or are they wrong? Frieda Klotz went to the Cyborg Fair to find out.

El Niño and war drive aid agencies to the brink Creative commons image Icon By DFID - UK Department for International Development (Digging for drinking water in a dry riverbed) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license article icon

Nature & Environment 

El Niño and war drive aid agencies to the brink

Governments must act immediately to end conflicts and counter the impact of climate disruption so as to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe affecting millions.

Why are young men worldwide experiencing mental health crises? Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Unsplash article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Why are young men worldwide experiencing mental health crises?

Everywhere around the world, the suicide rates amongst men outstrips that of women. The writer Will Storr hears some stories - and asks why.

article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Improving the everyday lives of carers

Many carers feel undervalued by society and that they are having to ‘go it alone’. The European Funded DISCOVER project, which included a team from the Open University led by Dr Verina Waights, have developed a website to support carers through helping them to use digital technologies and get online. 

It's Quizmas! Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Dreamstime article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

It's Quizmas!

See if you can answer these festive questions then read what our academics have to say. 

Moving out the red: The experience of leaving Communism behind Creative commons image Icon Paul K under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Moving out the red: The experience of leaving Communism behind

Chris Swader talks about the experiences of moving from a communist to a capitalist society - and why learning to tell untruths was just one of the new skills needed to survive.