Families gather around TV to do their own thing

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Electronic media, once a force for togetherness as whole families gathered around the radio or television, are now pulling families apart, according to a report from the UK’s communication’s regulator, Ofcom.

James Thickett, Ofcom’s director of market research, said: “What we find is that there has been a trend for people to converge on the living room, to watch the 37in high-definition television, but when they get there they start to do something else like surf the internet as well.”

It seems that TV viewing figures are holding up at 3 hours 45 minutes a day only because people are surfing the net at the same time. Radio listening has dipped below three hours a day.

It is a phenomenon that has been described by the music channel MTV as “connected cocooning” — where teenagers and young people in particular spend large amounts of their time at home using the computer to interact with the world outside their families. But the habit is moving up the age range.

One result is that social networking is becoming more popular with 25- to 34-year-olds than with 15- to 24-year-olds. The older generation’s interest seems to be the kiss of death for the younger -- although Facebook and MySpace remain extremely popular with under-16s.

Although their love of being online shows no sign of abating, the percentage of 15- to 24-year-olds who have a profile on a social networking site has dropped for the first time – from 55% at the start of last year to 50% this year. In contrast, 46% of 25- to 34-year-olds are now regularly checking up on sites such as Facebook compared with 40% last year.

This age group is also behind the explosion in usage of Twitter.

Before leaving the world of electronic communications there is another trend to note.

Call me old fashioned, but it has taken me until now to confirm that LOL in online- or text-speak means Laugh out loud. I had guessed that was the case; now I discover that it is part of a growing lexicon of acronyms that, while amusing and often handy, can also be used to evade the scrutiny of parents. Some examples: PIR (Parent in room), PAW (Parents are watching), 99 (Parents are no longer watching). It can get worse:

Teenagers, for their part, text in code for a reason, says Anne Mitchell, president of the Institute for Social Internet Public Policy, based in Boulder, Colo. “It is usually because they are involved in activities which they don’t want their parents to discover, such as casual sex, drugs and alcohol,” she says. Indeed, parents may be startled by such popular terms as GNOC (“Get naked on camera”), POS (“Parent over shoulder”), LMIRL (“Let’s meet in real life”) and IWSN (“I want sex now”).

Kids may use such codes simply to look cool, without meaning anything sinister. Abbreviations are of the essence in texting, which is a pretty private activity anyway. Only mutual trust between kids and parents can avoid the pitfalls. As one expert says, “The best thing is to embrace it and use it as a bonding experience with your child,” she says.

It pays, anyway, to learn the new language:

The consequences of misunderstanding the lingo can be mortifying. Cassandra McSparin, 23, of Jim Thorpe, Pa., knew a woman whose friend’s mother had died. The woman texted her friend: “I’m so sorry to hear about your mother passing away. LOL. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

It turns out she thought LOL meant “Lots of love.”

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | internet, social networking, teenagers

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Family Edge looks at news and trends affecting the family in the light of human dignity. Our focus is the inspiring, creative, humorous, annoying, ridiculous, and dangerous ideas in the evening news. Send tips and brainwaves to the editor, Tamara Rajakariar, at tamara.rajakariar@

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