With the growing popularity of the Internet and World Wide Web, there is increasing interest in the impact these new communication technologies have on society and social institutions. Computers have evolved from the bulky, expensive and mysterious equipment owned by large corporations to affordable, functional tools for work and fun, at the office or at home. As a consequence of technological developments that enabled computers to exchange data using regular telephone lines, a revolutionary medium of communication has emerged. Computers, connected to the global telecommunication network, have become powerful tools of instantaneous communication around the world. Two distinct functions of this connectivity are: (1) online media--new agents of information and entertainment, similar to traditional media such as television, radio and print, and (2) computer mediated communication (CMC)--new channels for interactive, two-way communication that rival telephone conversations in their capacity to sustain conferencing and asynchronous communication. For the purposes of this study, we treat online media and CMC as online media.
According to recent estimates, 42% of the U.S. adult population (84 million) use the Internet. Of these, 37 million use the Internet from home on a daily basis (Strategis Group, 1999). At the end of 1998, 37% of U.S. households were connected to the Internet and it is estimated that the household internet penetration will reach 58% by year 2003 (Intelco, 1999).
Traditionally, families and households have been defined as social systems. However, modern households possess an additional technological dimension brought about by several media technologies--television sets, videocassette recorders, telephones, answering machines, radios, and now computers. Both the social and technological dimensions are important for understanding modern domestic systems, sometimes referred to as the "domestic socio-technical system" (Silverstone, 1991, p. 140). Humans and technologies in households are interconnected as members or elements of the same system. When a new element is introduced to the system, the system goes through a process of integration that may result in the reorganization of roles, relationships and functions.
Within this context, this study examines online media in the socio-technical context of existing media technologies, gender and generational differences, and family communication. Specifically, the study asks (1) if online media has affected the levels of use of the existing media, (2) if online media has affected levels of communication among family members, (3) if there are gender and generational differences in the patterns of online media use, computer mediated communication, and the consequent displacement effects, and (4) whether online media have displaced some of the functions served by the existing media.
Does the emergence of a new communication medium affect the usage and the functions of existing media? Does the new medium displace the `old' media? When radio was a new medium, Lazarsfeld (1940) studied its impact on print media in response to a legitimate concern that broadcasting would mean the end of print media. This line of inquiry was continued for every new technology--television (Belson, 1961; Mendelsohn, 1964; Williams, 1986), cable television (Kaplan, 1978; Sparkes, 1983), VCR (Harvey & Rothe, 1985; Henke & Donohue, 1989) and more recently computer mediated communication (Finholt & Sproull, 1990; James, Wotring, & Forrest, 1995; Robinson, Barth, & Kohut, 1997). The argument that underlies the displacement thesis is logical. For most of us, the amount of time available for the consumption of various types of media is limited. Thus, the basic model of time displacement assumes a zero-sum relationship for amount of time invested in various activities. Consequently, when a new media activity is introduced into our scheduled lives, we may expect a corresponding reduction in the time spent with other media activities and/or non-media tasks.
Despite the logical appeal of the displacement model, research findings have not consistently supported this model. Studies that affirmed the model found a symmetrical relationship (increase-decrease) between the new media and the existing media. For instance, Weiss (1968) found that the introduction of television into people's schedules reduced the amount of time they spent with most other media. Similarly, Robinson (1981) reported that those who spent more time watching television spent less time with other media such as radio and non-media activities such as social visiting. In a recent study, James and associates (1995) found that the amount of time spent on computer bulletin boards significantly reduced time spent in television viewing, book reading, telephone talking and letter writing. Conversely, several other studies found support for a complementary relationship (increase-increase) between new and traditional media--exactly the opposite of the prediction of the displacement model. Grotta and Newsom (1982) found such a complementary relationship between cable television and television; they reported that cable television actually increased television use. Similarly, Robinson and associates (1997) found evidence of a "symbiotic or supplemental relationship" (p. 77) between CMC and print media as each seems to reinforce the use of the other. Finally, there were studies that found no evidence of either symmetrical or complementary relationship between the "new" and the existing media. Lazarsfeld's study (1940) did not support the expectation that radio would reduce the amount of time spent in newspaper reading. Nor did Robinson and associates (1997) find any evidence of CMC displacing time spent with radio or television.
Such conflicting research findings introduced more complex models that incorporate the concept of functional equivalence or similarity to explain the unevenness of displacement data. Himmelweit, Oppenheim and Vince (1958) argued that those media experiencing most displacement at the onset of a new medium are those serving the same functions or offering the same gratifications as the new medium. For example, television displaced radio listening, movie attendance and comic reading (Himmelweit et al., 1958), because television serves the same "escape" function of its predecessors (Schramm, Lyle, & Parker, 1961). Functional equivalence perspective explains Kaplan's findings that cable television decreased local network television viewing and theater attendance (Kaplan, 1978). Lazarsfeld's finding (1940) that radio did not decrease newspaper reading maybe because radio and newspaper serve different functions.
The principles of competition and coexistence posited by bio-ecological theory of niche help clarify the development of functional niche. The theory of niche explains how various life forms that depend on the same limited resources compete for these resources and coexist in the same environment. Although the theory was originally proposed in the context of bio-ecology, its principles of competition and coexistence have been used by sociologists, geographers, archeologists, economists, psychologists and historians (Hawley, 1968). Dimmick and Rothenbuhler used the theory to study competition between and coexistence of media industries (1984). At the core of this theory is the concept of community--a set of species or populations cohabiting a bounded environment with finite resources. When several forms attempt to consume the same limited resources available in the environment, the use of resources by one species constrains the availability of resources to other forms. The result is competition. In a resource-limited environment, competition between two forms can become so severe that it eventually drives the weaker of the two forms to extinction or exclusion from the community (Hardin, 1960). Another possibility is that the new medium alters the niche of one of the forms in order to reduce competition to tolerable levels, so that both forms can coexist within the same community.
The niche theory has primarily addressed how various populations compete to consume resources in the environment. Dimmick and Rothenbuhler (1984, p. 106) define niche as "the function or role of a form or population within the community." For instance, lizards in the desert compete with other life forms to consume certain type of foods (Pianka, 1975), and media industries compete with one another for available advertising dollars (Dimmick & Rothenbuhler, 1984). However, media can also be seen as a resource that is "being consumed", whose niche is similar to that of a particular type of food in meeting the nutritional needs of different life forms in the environment. When the function of a certain media in a community is the satisfaction of some needs of the populations in the environment, the focus is on the functional niche of the resource. When a new medium is introduced into the community, it competes with the functional niche of other media in meeting those needs of populations in the environment. When the new medium serves the same functions as the old media, such competition can result in either of them becoming irrelevant or secondary in meeting the needs of the population. Functional displacement in this context occurs when the new resource displaces the existing...