An introduction to this study of family use of the Internet.
"I really think that it's too hard to say right now how the
Internet may change things. Technology goes in unpredictable directions. I think
we will have to wait and see."
The sound of little 1-year-old Preston playing loudly is almost dwarfed by a sound that has became just as familiar to the Jarvis family in the past few years - the familiar tune played by AOL Instant Messenger.
Every member of the Jarvis family aside from young Preston is now very tech-savvy. They first went online in the early days of the Internet, after getting an offer for a free month of GNN, an online service was later acquired by AOL.
"At first mom was a little reluctant to use the computer at all, Web or not," recalls Leah, 16.
Son's journey to college brings Net home
Kathy Jarvis wound up catching on at the time many parents do - when her son left home. "As Jacob went to college I found that I needed to learn more about using the Web so that I could e-mail and Instant Message with him to save money on phone bills," Kathy says. "That was before we had Preston. Now I think I get to check my mail once a month if that much. Last time I checked, I had over 700 accumulated e-mails, most of which are junk mail."
One of the reasons the Jarvis family is so tech-savvy resides with Michael, the head of the household. He manages Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center's computer network, and began to acquaint the family with personal computers in the early pre-Pentium days of 386s.
"I really wanted to expose the kids and Kathy to the ease that even the PCs of that time could bring to your life," Michael says. "Jacob especially took to the computer and before I knew it he was impressing me with his self-taught knowledge on the subject."
When asked about what drew him to the computer the most, Jacob replies with a smile, "At first it was the games. Then as the Net began to come about I really got into that after begging mom to sign up for access. I really enjoyed newsgroups and browsing the Web in those early days."
Soon after, Leah, Jacob's little sister, began to wonder what was so great about Jacob's "new toy," and she too was drawn into the Internet.
Potholes on the road to the Net
"With Leah we encountered some bumps along the way," Kathy recalls. "She began to use the Internet constantly during the summer break, and we all thought she was addicted.
"She would stay up literally all night chatting with random people in chat rooms on AOL. I became a very concerned mother. Luckily, after pleading with her and even taking the modem away for awhile, the phase passed."
Ironically, Michael is probably the member of the family who uses the Internet the least.
"I only use the Net at work, and then only in a very limited capacity for work-related tasks," he says. "When I get home at night, I don't want to see another monitor screen. Coming from a very tech-heavy job, it's nice to distance myself from it in the evenings."
Time for Internet is evening for everyone else
It's during the evenings that Net usage heats for the other members of the Jarvis household. "I like to get online for around a couple of hours each night and download music or write e-mails" Leah says. "I used to Instant Message and chat a lot as well, but now I really don't since Napster first graced my computer screen."
Kathy also enjoys some occasional Napster time herself, noting that she has learned to do many other things online as well.
"I really enjoyed online shopping this past Christmas," she says. "It helped me to save time, and in some cases money, and avoid what I'd say was at least one additional day of fighting the crowds."
When asked if she fears online credit fraud Kathy explains, "I take risks using my credit card all the time, we all do. If someone is going to steal it, then they are going to no matter whether it's online or not.
"I love to get health information online as well as go to sites such as about.com and sites that have online contests," Kathy says with a smile.
Younger generation gets into Web design
Jacob and Leah have both designed their own personal Web pages.
"Mine is nothing compared to Jacob's," Leah says. "I used one of those wizards that walk you through making a generic looking Web page that's identical to millions of others who have used the wizard. Jacob has actually taught himself PhotoShop and HTML coding. He's also had two summer internships working with the Web master at WFUBMC, where dad works."
Jacob says his abilities have grown gradually over time. "When I got the internship at WFUBMC it really helped me to learn a lot more and to feel as if I had some professional skills," he said. "They were so amazed in the Web department there that I had no formal training in Web design. I just smiled and said, 'No, I learned it all from the Net.'"
Dail-Up disappearing acts
When the topic of the potential of social isolation due to excessive Web use is brought up the Jarvis family, they tend to have very different answers.
"I really think that it is a double-edged sword," says Kathy. "When Jacob is away at college, it keeps us in closer contact to him, yet when he comes home he uses the Net a lot to keep in contact with his friends from college who are also at their homes which are scattered across the U.S.
"Sometimes Michael and I will complain to him that he uses it too much while he's at home on breaks."
Leah, says that she has, "seen small signs of isolation," but no more than she sees from TV-watching or any other activity. "When you're doing something you like, you're naturally going to tune out what is going on around you to a certain extent," she explains.
"I haven't really seen any serious signs of isolation in our family," Michael says with a strong tone of assurance in his voice. Remembering an incident from years past, Jacob says, "I really don't get home much, and I don't really think this is a problem, but I do think that Leah went through a small addiction phase that passed. Other than that I think that we are isolation-free."
Computer fearful to computer savvy
When asked if he ever thought bringing home that first 386 computer would change his family life as much as it has Michael replies thoughtfully, "No, not really. I definitely thought that the kids might get into it somewhat, but the real shock for me has been the fact that Kathy got into it.
"She has gone from hating computers to using them on a daily basis. She can even install programs now, as well as uninstall them. What's even more amazing is the fact that she has self-taught herself to do all of this.
"We truly have a wired family in this household, I knew that the minute our family began exchanging online cards last year for special occasions."
Looking to the Net future
As they think ahead and speculate at how the Internet and home computers will continue to change their lives, Kathy, Michael, Leah and Jacob are extremely optimistic.
"I look forward to getting a faster connection to the Net so that waiting won't be such a big fact in the process anymore," Kathy says eagerly.
Michael on the other hand wants to see them possibly get into home networking, "I really think that is the next step for our family," he explains. "We already have three computers in the house, so it's very logical."
Leah wants more stability overall. "I am tired of bugs and crashes and new versions of software that aren't much better than the old ones," she says. "I want to see an improvement in performance and speed of computers in the future."
And rounding it out, the family member with arguably the most PC knowledge aside from dad, Jacob, says it's hard to say just how computers will affect his family in the future. He smiles with the optimism and fervor of youth, saying, "I really think that it's too hard to say right now how the Internet may change things. Technology goes in unpredictable directions. I think we will have to wait and see."
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