Researchers link use of Internet, social isolation

Norman Nie

Norman Nie

The Internet has revolutionized the way Americans live and communicate, but at a steep social cost, according to researchers at the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society (SIQSS). Compared to those who do not use the Internet frequently, those who do—31 percent of the U.S. population, according to the study—spend a whopping 70 minutes less daily interacting with family, 25 minutes less sleeping and 30 minutes less watching television.

"[The Internet] has been an extraordinary productivity enhancer and an enormously powerful tool to stay in touch," said political science Professor Norman H. Nie, director of SIQSS. "But if you look at every major social innovation, there are both positive consequences intended and negative consequences unintended."

Nie and other researchers at SIQSS have studied those unintended consequences since 2000, when they first reported an association between Internet use and social isolation, a charge that angered some Internet users and attracted widespread media coverage. In December, Nie and doctoral students Alberto Simpser, Irena Stepanikova and Lu Zheng released a report containing even stronger evidence for the controversial connection.

The new report states that, on average, Internet users spend three hours online every day. More than half of the time is spent communicating, 8.7 percent playing games, 6.5 percent surfing and 4.3 percent shopping.

Every minute spent on the web must come out of another activity, though.

According to Nie, a self-proclaimed Internet addict, the web is but the latest in a long list of technological developments that have improved quality of life but restricted social interactions. "It's a history that began with the Industrial Revolution, when the male started to leave the house to earn a living and was not teaching his son how to carry on his craft," Nie said. "Now we have very few remaining institutions that are face to face."

The world is more connected than ever before, the professor said, but people spend less time in person with those they care about. With regards to social interactions, he explained, quantity has replaced quality.

Identifying trendsIn the online survey carried out by Knowledge Networks, a market research firm co-founded by Nie, a national panel of 4,839 respondents submitted detailed activity logs for two days spaced one year apart. Panel members reported their activities for six randomly selected hours each day.

The online format allowed researchers to collect more precise information than would have been possible through telephone interviews. Appropriate questions automatically followed each reported activity. For example, said Nie, if a person listed reading the news as an activity, he or she would be asked: Did you interact with anybody while reading the news? If so, who? Did you read the news online?

Nie and his colleagues have argued since 2000 that Internet use tends to affect socializing, sleeping and television watching more than the other way around. The new report reinforces that argument, they said. In 2000, each respondent reported Internet use for one pre-selected day, whereas the December 2004 study included two days separated by a year.

According to Stepanikova, finding the same relationship on two unrelated days reinforces the initial discovery of a link between increased Internet use and decreased social interaction. What makes the new study superior, she said, is a special analysis that elucidates cause and effect, and which requires data from two days.

A national dialogueAmericans already spend less time with family, and Nie is concerned that they may interact with their coworkers less in the future as well. "I believe the next real spurt of growth, whatever it is, is not going to require people being in offices except occasionally to meet," Nie remarked. "The workplace is one of the richest social environments we now have, and I worry it will be the next to go. … We need a national dialogue about how we invent new institutions."

In the next few months, researchers at SIQSS plan to study how telecommuting affects workers' social lives—both negatively and positively. Only 6 percent of Internet users in this study reported communicating with a friend they had first met online, and only 0.3 percent reported meeting a romantic partner that way. With single people under 65 years representing the fastest growing household type in the United States, the message is clear to SIQSS researchers: Internet use is replacing face-to-face interactions without replacing the benefits.

"The Internet has become an integral part of most Americans' lives, and for many, it's the way they do much of their personal business as well as their professional business," said Nie. "This is not all good or all bad, but there are questions we ought to start asking, and I think that [SIQSS] is the only place that's asking them."

Kenneth M. Dixon is a science-writing intern for the Stanford News Service.