That’s What (Facebook) Friends Are For
And how have contemporary communication and information technologies—smart phones, social media, FaceTime, Skype, YouTube, and so on—influenced people’s connections to others? At this time, the question is open.
For instance, some research points to a serious isolating effect of these technologies. One study found that users of social media are 28% less likely to seek out their neighbors as sources of companionship than nonusers (cited in Blow, 2010). As one author put it, “we’ve become accustomed to being ‘alone together’” (Turkle, 2012, p. 1). The more digitally connected we are, the less emotionally connected we become. The more we expect from technology, the less we expect from each other:
We are offered... a whole world of machine-mediated relationships on networked devices. As we instant-message, e-mail, text, and Twitter, technology redraws the boundaries between intimacy and solitude.... Teenagers avoid making telephone calls, fearful that they will “reveal too much.” They would rather text than talk. Adults, too, choose keyboards over the human voice.... After an evening of avatar-to-avatar talk in a networked game, we feel, at one moment, in possession of a full social life and, in the next, curiously isolated, in tenuous complicity with strangers. We build a following on Facebook... and wonder to what degree our followers are friends.... Sometimes people feel no sense of having communicated after hours of connection. (Turkle, 2011, pp. 11–12)
With over 1.28 billion monthly active Facebook users worldwide and over a billion more on Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Instagram, and SnapChat (Digital Insights, 2014), social media may be hitting its saturation point. Not surprisingly, more and more people have chosen to steer clear of it primarily because they feel it makes their lives less private and more alienated. We’ve all had the experience of standing in a crowd of people—in an airport, train station, or academic quad—where just about everyone is typing, tapping, swiping, texting, or playing Candy Crush on her or his phone. One student put it this way: “I wasn’t calling my friends anymore. I was just seeing their pictures and updates and felt like that was really connecting to them” (quoted in Wortham, 2011, p. B1).
However, other evidence suggests that these technologies merely give people an additional way to establish important interpersonal ties both within and outside their immediate neighborhoods. Rather than isolating people, social media may instead allow already “isolated people to communicate with one another and marginalized people to find one another” (Deresiewicz, 2011, p. 311). They can often provide a meaningful substitute for or enhancement of traditional types of interpersonal involvement, thereby expanding the scope of people’s social support networks. The Internet, for instance, allows people to obtain support from a social circle that extends far beyond their geographic community. In addition, it gives people an opportunity to establish more diverse personal networks:
Social media activities are associated with several beneficial social activities, including having discussion networks that are more likely to contain people from different backgrounds. For instance, frequent Internet users, and those who maintain a blog are much more likely to confide in someone who is of another race. Those who share photos online are more likely to report that they discuss important matters with someone who is a member of another political party. (Hampton, Sessions, Her, & Rainie, 2009, p. 3)
To illustrate the dramatically different ends of this debate, consider the following two letters that appeared several years ago in the same edition of the New York Times in response to an earlier column on the perils of new communication technologies. The first is from an eighth grader, the second from a high school junior:
I feel it detracts from my “real” relationships. I have never had an interesting conversation over social networking.... Often when I try to have an in-person conversation with someone about a real-world event, they are looking at a screen, their mind somewhere else, and even as they are eternally “connected,” I can feel them drifting away from me. (Grossbard, 2011, p. 8)
Never before could a high-school student so brazenly reach out to a Harvard graduate student and ask for mentorship on his research paper. Never again will we think it odd for someone from the farthest corner of the globe to be exchanging witticisms on Twitter with a well-known celebrity. (Kaufman, 2011, p. 8)
So, has technology enhanced or destroyed our ties to others? Is a weekly Skype chat or tweet with your best friend from high school any more or less gratifying than going out to lunch with him or her every Friday? Is texting any more or less personal than an actual phone call? Is updating your relationship status on Facebook any more or less meaningful as a sign of commitment and exclusivity than the exchange of rings? Certainly all would agree that the way we establish and maintain close relationships is different than it was, say, 50 or even 10 years ago. But does that mean that the importance of others in our everyday lives—be they neighbors, coworkers, family members, personal friends, or Facebook “friends”—has diminished?
The Saga of Same-Sex Marriage
In the case of same-sex unions, the law’s power to either forbid or grant family rights and privileges is especially obvious...and controversial. At the time of this writing, 20 other countries—Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, England/Wales, Finland, France, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, and Uruguay—grant gay men and lesbians the right to legally marry. Australia, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and many other European countries allow same-sex couples to enter “civil unions” (sometimes called “domestic partnerships” or “registered partnerships”), which grant them many of the legal protections and economic benefits and responsibilities of heterosexual marriage. Israel and Mexico recognize marriages between same-sex couples, but only if they are performed in other countries (Freedom to Marry, 2014).
The matter was only recently resolved in the United States. In 1996 the federal Defense of Marriage Act—written at a time when three-quarters of Americans disapproved of same-sex marriage and no state allowed it—formally defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman; authorized all states to refuse to accept same-sex marriages from other states where it could become legal; and denied federal benefits such as Social Security survival payments and spousal burials in national military cemeteries to same-sex couples. But between 2004 and 2014, 36 individual states legalized same-sex marriage, creating a confusing patchwork of recognized legal status. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, meaning that gay and lesbian couples who live in states where same-sex marriage is legal are entitled to all the federal marriage benefits that heterosexual couples are entitled to. It took two more years for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule once and for all that state bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional.
The Court’s decision reflected a massive historical shift in public opinion (See Exhibit 7.4). In fact, in the last 8 years support for legalizing same-sex marriage increased in every state by an average of 13.6% (Flores & Barclay, 2013). Younger people are especially inclined to support it. In one survey, 73% of people younger than 34 support same-sex marriage rights, compared with 39% of people over 70 (Pew Research Center, 2015d).
The financial strains of living in the 21st century have made it difficult for most couples to survive on only one income. For instance, it’s estimated that it will cost two-parent, middle-income families about $245,340 to raise a child born in 2013 to the age of 17, up from $25,230 in 1970 (Lino, 2014; U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2001). Since the mid 1970s, the amount of an average family budget earmarked for mortgage payments increased 69%. And the cost of a college degree has increased 1,120% over the past three decades (Jamrisko & Kolet, 2012).
But incomes have not risen proportionately (see Chapter 10 for more detail). In fact, in constant dollars, median household incomes have remained stagnant since 1990 (ProQuest Statistical Abstract, 2015). Consequently, among families with children, nearly half (45%) are headed by two working parents; and about 29% of children under the age of 15 live with a stay-at-home parent, compared to half in 1975 (Glynn, 2012; ProQuest Statistical Abstract, 2015).
Some sociologists feel that the single most important step society could take to help these dual-earner families would be to assist them with childcare demands. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), signed into law by President Clinton in 1993, was a step in that direction: It guarantees some workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid sick leave per year for the birth or adoption of a child or to care for a sick child, parent, or spouse. However, it has some important qualifications that seriously limit its usefulness to the working population:
The law covers only workers who have been employed continuously for at least one year and who have worked a total of at least 1,250 hours (or about 25 hours a week). So temporary and part-time workers are not eligible.
The law exempts companies with fewer than 50 workers.
The law allows an employer to deny leave to a “key” employee—that is, one who is in the highest-paid 10% of its workforce—if allowing that person to take the leave would create “substantial and grievous injury” to the business’s operations.
In 2008, an amendment was added to FMLA that permits a spouse, child, parent, or next of kin to take up to 26 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a member of the Armed Forces who is undergoing medical treatment for a serious injury or illness. Other than that, FMLA provisions have not changed in 20 years.
Currently, only about 60% of the civilian U.S. workforce is eligible for FMLA benefits. Of those workers, about 13% actually take the leave they’re entitled to (U.S. Department of Labor, 2014). Many of those who don’t take leave are parents who need the time off but can’t afford to go without a paycheck. According to one survey, of those eligible workers who needed leave but didn’t take it, 78% cited the inability to afford unpaid leave as the principal reason. In fact, 1 out of 10 workers who take unpaid leave under FMLA ends up going on public assistance to make up for the lost wages (National Partnership for Women and Families, 2005). Moreover, relatively few private employers go beyond the minimum unpaid leave policies mandated by FMLA. For instance, despite evidence showing that paid family leave policies increase worker productivity and improve morale, loyalty, and retention (National Partnership for Women and Families, 2014), only about 12% of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave through their employers (ProQuest Statistical Abstract, 2015).
And although working women (especially those with college degrees) have more access to maternity leave than ever before (Tsai, 2012b), taking advantage of such opportunities can make them vulnerable to discrimination. For instance, employers might be hesitant to hire people who might leave for a year at a time (Blau & Kahn, 2013).
To make matters worse, the United States lags behind other countries in its support of dual-earner families. Of the nearly 200 countries examined in a recent study, 180 offer guaranteed paid leave to new mothers; and 81 offer paid leave to fathers. In addition, 175 countries require paid annual leave for all workers (not just new parents) and 162 limit the maximum length of the workweek. Only Suriname, Liberia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Western Samoa, Tonga…and the United States offer none of these protections (Heymann, 2013). In contrast, France and Spain provide 5½ and 4½ months of paid leave, respectively, and allow both parents to stay at home until their child’s third birthday, at which point they can return to their prior jobs. Germany and Sweden provide almost a full year of paid leave to both parents (Ray et al., 2009). All member countries of the European Union must allow parents—both mothers and fathers—to request part-time, flexible, or home-based work arrangements in addition to paid leave (Rampell, 2013) They are also prohibited from paying part-time workers lower wages than full-time workers and from limiting paid leaves to full-time workers. In contrast, American workers who reduce their hours typically lose their benefits and take an hourly wage cut (Coontz, 2013b). Exhibit 7.5 shows how much paid and unpaid leave two parents are allowed for a new child in wealthy, industrialized nations.
If we are truly concerned about preserving and helping families, then perhaps we need to find more effective ways to reduce the conflict between work life and family life. The American workplace has always valued people who put their work ahead of other (translation: family) obligations. But perhaps that is starting to change. Some states as well as some private companies have devised programs to provide more assistance to working families. For instance, in New York, new mothers can utilize the state’s temporary disability insurance program, which provides a little under $200 a week. New Jersey provides workers who take family leave two-thirds of the worker’s last eight weeks of pay, to a maximum of $584 a week (Bernard, 2013). In 2014, Apple announced that it would include egg freezing and storage, extended maternity leave, adoption assistance, and infertility treatments in its benefits package for female employees.
At the federal level, some calls for change can be heard. In 2009, a bill called the Healthy Families Act was introduced in Congress. This bill would guarantee workers in businesses with 15 or more employees one paid hour off for every 30 hours they work, enabling them to get up to seven paid sick days a year. They could use their days to care for a sick child, parent, or spouse, or anyone else close to them. However, business groups have fought the legislation, arguing that in tight economic times it would impose added financial hardships on employers (S. Greenhouse, 2009). The bill remains in committee and has never come to a vote. Another piece of legislation, the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act, was also introduced in 2009. This bill would have given all federal employees four weeks of paid leave each year for the birth or adoption of a child. It was approved by the House of Representatives but never came to a vote in the Senate and, hence, never became law. In 2015, President Obama recommended that federal agencies give their employees up to six weeks of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child, a benefit he wanted to extend to all American workers. To date none of these steps have been approved and implemented.