The Study
An introduction to this study of family use of the Internet.

The Families
Feature stories reflecting the Internet's impact on study participants' lives.

The Diaries
Statistics reported by people taking part in the project.

The Researchers
Janna Q. Anderson of the Elon School of Communications and 25 student researchers compiled this study.

The Neighborhood
Details about the town of Elon, N.C. and the neighborhood in this study.

Elon University

Pew Internet & American Life Project

"I have been using computers since I was in elementary school, but at that time, an Apple IIe was an up-to-date computer. It was not until the end of high school that I learned to effectively use the Internet. Now it is hard to imagine life without this kind of technology." - Nicki Watkins

Nicki Watkins Nicki Watkins

As Anita Watkins sat in her home recovering from neck surgery, she ordered thousands of books on the Internet. With each click of the mouse on her notebook computer, a new book was being added to the order for the new Garret Elementary School Media Center. Like many others with fast-paced lives, not even major surgery meant that Anita had time to rest.

Now recovered from her operation, Anita is back to work in full swing as the lead teacher for media centers and lead technology teacher for high schools throughout the Alamance-Burlington School System located in Burlington, N.C.

Anita's daughters, Nicki and Tiffany, are computer-savvy, too. All three women are proud Net users who say they enjoy the convenient communication it offers.

Screening offensive materials in the schools

One of Anita's many responsibilities is making sure that Internet sites are properly filtered before students are allowed to use them. The schools use filtering software called I-Gear. "It helps to block offensive sites and offensive words," Anita explains. She is also able to block Internet sites if they don't have educational merit or if they are offensive and don't meet curriculum needs.

When a site falls into one of these categories, Anita said, "teachers and media specialists may call in and request a that the site be blocked."

Throughout her work as a media specialist, Anita has continued to recognize that one of the primary purposes of allowing students to use the Internet within the schools is to access educational information. Whether working on her own or helping students with Web-based research, Anita fully recognizes the importance of using credible sites.

"I see Web sites as informational if they are credible," she said, "that is if they are educational or government sites. I don't often rely on information from individuals' Web pages. If it is from a credible source, the information found on the Internet is much more current and up-to-date than traditional print materials."

The incredible power of e-mail

Because she is on the go, constantly traveling from school to school, Anita's job would be much more complicated if she did not have access to e-mail.

When asked if she feels that e-mail has replaced traditional letter writing, Anita laughingly responded, "Absolutely! What's a letter?"

Anita first became acquainted with e-mail in the early '90s through use of a system named FREDMail. The Alamance-Burlington School System now uses First Class Client, a more up-to-date e-mail system, also allows employees to chat with each other if they are using it simultaneously. "E-mail made it easier for me to get technical support and to get answers to questions," Anita said. "It has made it easier to plan things."

Korea to Texas e-mail keeps you in touch

Anita is not the only person in the Watkins household who benefits from the use of e-mail. With a boyfriend in the Army, communication would pose a problem for most relationships, but not for 18- year-old Tiffany Watkins. Tiffany and Walt Garrison, her boyfriend of three years, are both avid users of e-mail and Instant Messenger.

Twenty-year-old Walter Garrison joined the Army shortly after graduating from Western Alamance High School. He was stationed in Korea for a year, and is currently stationed in Texas. Throughout the miles, they have managed to stay close through their constant use of the Net.

A freshman at North Carolina State University, Tiffany also uses e-mail and Instant Messenger to keep in contact with high school friends.

"Instant Messenger is so convenient," she explained. "It is fast, and you can talk to more than one person at once."

Chatting with friends and relatives is cool

Nicki Watkins, a junior at Elon University, also enjoys using e-mail and instant messaging to keep in contact with family and friends. Nicki sometimes even chats in a group with Tiffany and Walt.

"I find this especially fascinating because we are in different states and countries and are still able to talk with each other and respond as if we were sitting in the same room," Nicki said.

On one occasion, e-mail was able to reunite Nicki with a friend from the past. "I received an e-mail from a girl I had been friends with in elementary school," she recalled. "I had moved in the fifth grade and had not seen her since. She had seen my name on an e-mail that had been forwarded along several times, and decided to e-mail me. We e-mailed back and forth a few times after that."

Incredible amounts of information online

Tick-tock, tick-tock...she's waited until the last minute again! Nicki has found that the Internet is a great research tool, especially on those long nights before a project or paper is due.

"I am often amazed at new informational Web sites I find on the Internet," Nicki said. "Whether it is an encyclopedia or an atlas that I need, I feel comfortable getting on the Internet to find up-to-date information.

"I have been using computers since I was in elementary school, but at that time, an Apple IIe was an up-to-date computer. It was not until the end of high school that I learned to effectively use the Internet. Now it is hard to imagine life without this kind of technology."

Tiffany commented that she is currently doing research on the Internet for a project in her speech class. While in high school, she used the Internet to look up foreign newspapers for her French class. Another resource Tiffany found especially helpful to her in reading these papers was the French-English translator she found online.

Living a little in the real world

Despite the all of the obvious benefits of using the Internet, some things are just better when seen through a window that does not lead into a virtual world.

Recently, Tiffany decided to stop communicating with Walt through Instant Messenger long enough so she and a friend could go to Texas to visit Walt in person. The Internet was, however, a key element in this journey toward face-to-face communication. Tiffany was able to use the Internet to comparison shop and eventually buy plane tickets.

Anita said she was able to get information on places for the church youth group to stay on a separate Texas trip. Nothing was booked online, but Anita still found the information to be helpful.

It can be isolating at times

Although the Internet has proved to be an especially helpful tool for the Watkins family in keeping in touch with family and friends, Nicki also said that the Internet has the ability to isolate family members.

"With my mom's job and my sister's chronic need to talk with her boyfriend over Instant Messenger, I feel that the Internet sometimes isolates our family," Nicki said. "I realize that the Internet is not completely to blame, but my mom often spends long days and nights at work trying to troubleshoot and update computers or order books online for new libraries.

"With everyone's already hectic schedules, this leaves very little time for our family to spend together without the computer around."


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