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How Texting Changes the Way Kids Communicate

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There is one dark cloud in all this techie-togetherness. While the Pew parents were happy to be able to reach each other and their kids while apart, they were less likely to eat dinner as a family than were other households, and tended to report feeling dissatisfied with family and leisure time. A study by computer software maker Norton made a similar finding: When total time spent online increased beyond a certain point, both kids and parents reported feeling less connected.

"There was a real hunger on both sides -- kids and parents -- to have more face-to-face time," says Marian Merritt, an Internet-safety advocate for Symantec, maker of Norton computer-security products.

But it's instructive to see where the Pew parents placed the blame for the disconnect. Mostly white-collar and middle-class, they said technology had eaten into their family time by blurring the line between work and home. They were the ones glued to the computer, churning out that last report. (And probably sneaking in a little surfing after: Norton found that 47 percent of parents spend time on social networking sites, as opposed to 46 percent of their kids.)

"Kids are watching what their parents are doing and modeling that behavior," says Megan Moreno, M.D., a physician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin, who sees adolescents as patients and has also studied their online habits. "The kids whose parents are texting and taking calls while their kids are talking? Those are the same kids who take phone calls during our office visits."

Of course, some parents aren't in any position to let a cell phone interrupt one-on-one time with their kids. These are the ones who are already separated from their children by distance, whether because of deployment or some other reason. For them, "ambient intimacy" -- the sense of someone's life you get from a steady drip of mundane Twitter tweets, camera-phone pictures, Facebook updates, or other short electronic messages -- becomes a replacement for living out those moments together.

Christine Zeindler's ex-husband moved to Italy, for example, when their daughters were 5 and 7. The Quebec mother and her ex always coordinated to ensure that he and the girls maintained a relationship. Then Zeindler got her daughters cell phones with data plans.

"He has a BlackBerry, and they communicate with him constantly. That relationship doesn't require me anymore," she says. "It lets them develop their own direct relationships with their dad, and that has to be good."

Robin Mejia is a freelancer who writes about science and technology.