Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

The Internet Will Get You If You Don't Watch Out!

October 26, 1998

Approximately 40 percent of all America households own a personal computer. One third of those have access to the Internet. The Internet changes the way we live and interact with others, just as the telephone and television did.

The way we do business, the way scientific information is spread, and the pace of technological advances have all been accelerated and changed by the Internet. The creation and dissemination of knowledge is staggering.

How does this affect the lives of ordinary people who use the Internet for entertainment, information and communication purposes? Does it make us happier? Are we more connected and involved with each other? Or does it isolate us and make us more lonely?

Robert Kraut and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University have studied the social and psychological impact of the Internet. They studied the reactions of 169 people in 73 households. Their observations are based on data gathered after one and two years of Internet use.

The people they studied were first time users. They were given a computer, software, a free telephone line and free access to the Internet in exchange for letting the researchers automatically track their Internet use. They consented to interviews and answered questionnaires. Initial levels of social involvement and psychological well-being were taken into account, as were personality characteristics. Here’s what they found:

- Family communications. Greater use of the Internet was associated with greater declines in family communication.

- Social involvement. People who were extroverts and had larger social circles used the Internet less. Taking extroversion into account and matching the number of their friends, it was found that using the Internet resulted in fewer contacts with close and distant friends.

- Social support. Internet use decreased the amount of social support the participants received from others, although the effect was not powerful.

-Loneliness. Loneliness did not predict Internet use. Taking into account the participants beginning loneliness and personality characteristics, people who used the Internet became more lonely. Those that were wealthy, men as a group, and minorities became more lonely by Internet use than the less wealthy, women and whites.

- Stress. People who used the Internet more reported more daily stress in their lives although after-the-fact studies could not determine which particular stressors increased.

- Depression. Being depressed did not predict Internet activity. However, greater use of the Internet was associated with increased depression. This occurred despite figuring in the original depression, personality characteristics, stress and support factors.

The researchers had some disclaimers and cautions. Kraut points out that there is a trade off between declining socialization and personal well-being, and Internet advantages such as education and increased self-esteem due to learning computer skills. The sample size was small and was not statistically representative of any particular region of the country or population group.

All participants had to belong to at least one group or association. Perhaps if lonely, isolated people had been chosen, the Internet might be found to be increasing social involvement and greater psychological well-being.

The researchers describe two theories on why the Internet has a negative effect on most people:

Displacing social activity. The time that people spent using the Internet may be a substitute for time they would have spent with each other in social activities. The Internet seems to be similar to other passive, nonsocial entertainment activities like watching TV, reading or listening to music.

This explanation doesn't tell the whole story. One major use of the Internet is to promote social involvement with family and friends through e-mail, on-line chats and making new acquaintances. The Internet can be used to strengthen ties with family and friends who are physically distant. In a sense, the Internet is creating a social opportunity as well as displacing one.

Displacing strong ties. The stronger explanation is that by using the Internet, people are substituting weaker, poorer quality social relationships for stronger, better ones. The time spent on the Internet takes away from time and quality of the real world with family and friends.

Previous research has shown that only 22 percent of the people who used the Internet for two years or more made a new friend on the Internet. In the real world we make friends at a faster rate than that. Online friendships lack the opportunity to exchange tangible favors. People from distant environments have less in common as a context for conversations.

Studies show that when people want real social support, they visit each other face-to-face or over the phone while using e-mail for convenience and less weighty matters. The danger of the Internet is that we can spend too much time on weaker, less important relationships at the expense of more meaningful, vital ones. A clergyman used e-mail to exchange sermon ideas with other clergy. He acknowledged that this involvement took away his time with his wife.

The use of the Internet can be both highly entertaining and useful. Yet, if it causes too much separation from real life, it is also harmful. We need to be moderate and disciplined in the way we use the Internet. It can rob us of time that should be spent on that which is truly more important.