“I don’t think teenagers are getting something from the internet they cannot get at home”
Interview with W. Bradford Wilcox, Director of the:
and Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia (USA)
Could you explain the results of your
World Family Map Project?
The next report from the Social Trends Institute and the World Family Map
Project will focus on “The Empty Cradle”–specifically, the ways in which
declines in fertility and marriage have serious implications for the fiscal
health of governments and for the health of the economy more generally. The
Empty Cradle will detail the ways in which public pensions are threatened
by declining numbers of young adults in countries like Greece and Germany,
how the long-term economic health of countries like China and Japan is
threatened by low fertility, and how the global retreat from marriage is
hurting young adults’ human capital formation and labor force
How do you think the family presented by TV
series and movies is influencing the idea of family present in the new
couples that become married?
Yes, a growing body of research suggests that contemporary TV and media are
encouraging young adults to embrace a hedonistic ethics that encourages
them to have fun in their twenties, postpone marriage until their thirties,
and have smaller families. The idea is to seek fulfillment and happiness in
life at all costs. The problem with this pop culture ethics is that it
doesn’t make room for the ethics of mutual sacrifice that is integral for a
successful marriage and family life.
How inter-family relationships have changed in the last decades because
of the time dedicated to media?
One thing we see is that family members are spending so much time on TV,
computers, and smart phones that they are not devoting as much time to
common meals, extended conversations, and family activities (e.g., sports,
games, etc). This is a problem because our research indicates that family
time builds stronger and happier relationships in the family.
Is the USA family different from European or Latin American families
from a sociological point of view? In what ways?
Yes, in the sense that Americans are more individualistic, more mobile, and
more work-centered than Europeans and Latin Americans. All these traits put
strains on marriage, in particular. This is why the U.S. generally has
higher divorce rates than most European and Latin American countries.
No, in the sense that most countries in Europe and the Americas are losing
an appreciation for the institution of marriage. Many people are coming to
view marriage as “just a piece of paper” across these three continents. As
a consequence, cohabitation is rising throughout Europe, Latin America, and
the United States. Unfortunately, this means that large numbers of children
are now being born to cohabiting households in these three continents.
Do you think teenagers look to the Internet to find something they
cannot get at home or is there some new need to be on-line?
Generally, I don’t think teenagers are getting something from the internet
they cannot get at home. Instead, I think the internet and other forms of
electronic communication—like texting— are an engaging distraction for many
teens. But the problem is that they cannot substitute for real face time
with family and friends. And new research suggests that extensive time
spent online is associated with higher rates of depression.
What’s the future?
There are both sobering and hopeful signs when it comes to the family.
On the one hand, in the society at large, marriage is clearly losing ground
as the primary locus for sex, lifelong love, and the bearing and rearing of
children. I don’t this trend will change in the short term.
On the other hand, many religious and secular civic organizations are
trying a number of innovative approaches —from YouTube videos to
homeschooling—to renew marriage and family life in our late modern world.
This creativity is paying off, I think, in that we are seeing the return of
large, stable families in many religious communities around the world–from
the United States to Israel. This counter trend gives me hope for the long
term, especially as the limitations of government aid become more apparent
amidst the new fiscal realities.