The form families take, and their internal organisation, have been changing in the process of modernisation. Formal marriage has increasingly given way to cohabitation as the basis of partnership and having children, while more recently the marriage contract has been extended to same-sex couples of either gender to enable them to formalise their relationships.
In contrast, the trend in the other direction has been the rise of singlehood. Increasing numbers of adults in a partnership with or without children or living alone are resisting the idea of formal or informal partnership in favour of staying single. These self-determined ‘singletons’ are joined by the growing proportion of others, who – as a consequence of marital or partnership breakdown, in which children are involved – become single parents.
Nevertheless, despite the importance of these latter family formations, in policy terms there is still, albeit implicitly, a broad consensus, reinforced judicially and through the tax and benefits system of the desirability of formal marriage and children as the basis of family life. The commitment to it of a substantial section of the adult population remains strong.
Family types define the various contexts in which children of the current era grew up and stayed in, or left, the family home. As we have seen, since the 1980s there has been a postponement of leaving home, forming continuing partnerships, getting married and having children. At its simplest level this points to increasing stress laid on family functioning largely borne by parents.
The purpose of this chapter is to examine whether there is an identifiable digitalising effect on family functioning. How are young people and their family members using and affected by digital devices? What are the intergenerational connections over use, what concerns do parents have about their children's online activity and what are the rules, if any, governing the communications? Who are the gatekeepers, mentors and significant others for young people in the digital world?
Digitalisation and its counterparts
On the face of it, digitalisation seems unlikely to have an effect on family structures and dynamics, but that would perhaps be an oversimplification.