Internet Net Plus for Social Life, Doesn’t Increase Isolation

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The internet and cell phones are bringing people together, not tearing us apart—at least, according to a new survey released today by the Pew Internet and American Life project. The research followed up a shocking 2006 study, which found that American social networks were rapidly contracting and that 25% of Americans reported that they had not one close friend or family member to confide in.

In contrast, Pew researchers found that just 6% of those surveyed reported having no intimate relationships. Unfortunately, the new study did confirm the other findings, showing that Americans today do have far fewer close relationships than they did as recently as 1985.

According to both studies, the average social network shrunk by one-third since 1985—and more people today are relying only on spouses or family members for emotional support.

Intriguingly, however,  internet and cell phone use didn’t replace close ties with more superficial contacts. Instead, people who most relied on these communication tools had a larger and more diverse group of close friends and family members. They were more likely to be close to someone of another race, for example.

And, contrary to net naysayers’ worries, internet use didn’t replace involvement in local activities—net users and Facebook fans are just as likely as anyone else to visit neighbors in person. In fact, bloggers and cell users are more likely to belong to local organizations like youth groups and charities, not less so. But the study did find that some use of social networks like Facebook and MySpace did replace involvement in neighborhood activities.

Such positive effects of the internet are good news for public health. Studies have shown repeatedly that the number and quality of people’s relationships affects many aspects of well-being, including longevity, cancer survival, and risks for and recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder, addictions and depression. The more connected people are, the healthier they tend to be.

Consequently, the shrinkage in network size remains a serious cause for concern—but these results suggest that mobile and internet communication are not necessarily problematic and can even be part of the solution.

The study was based on a telephone survey of over 2,500 people and controlled for obvious differences between frequent internet and cellphone users and others such as income and education. It is published on the organization’s website.