Internet Paradox: A Social Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Well-Being?
With the advent of the World Wide Web, a network of computers previously relegated to the world of science, engineering, and business opened to U.S. And international households. By 1998, approximately 40% of all households owned at least one computer and one third of these homes had access to the Internet.
Many sociologists, communication theorists, technologists, and scholars subscribe to the belief that the Internet, in-home computer usage, and widespread availability of virtual access are transforming modern social and economic life.
Problematic to these issues, however, is whether the changes have been beneficial or detrimental; some argue that the Internet is causing social isolation and forcing a break from genuine social relationships, as they "hunker alone over their terminals or communicate with anonymous strangers through a socially impoverished medium."
Others argue that the Internet leads to more and better social relationships by freeing people from mundane restraints of geography, isolationism, or factors outside normal controls (e.g., illness, schedules). This group argues that the Internet allows people to become socially involved on the basis of common interest rather than the vicariousness of convenience.
The Carnegie Mellon University did a study entitled "Internet Paradox: A Social Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Well-Being?" encompassing many of the debates and variables in this arena and is one of two research projects this paper will explore.
Technology attributes will not determine the answer to this debate; computers and the Internet are used in many ways: entertainment, education, consumer activity, information retrieval, and communications. If people use the Internet mainly for communication with others through email, distribution lists, multi-user dungeons (MUDs), chats, and other such applications, they might do so to augment traditional technologies for social contact, expanding their number of friends and reducing the difficulty of coordinating interaction with them.
On the other hand, these applications disproportionately reduce the costs of communication with geographically distant acquaintances and strangers; as a result, a smaller proportion of people's total social contacts might be with family and close friends.
In an effective dissertation, Putnam argued that this social disengagement is having major consequences for the social fabric and for individual lives. At the societal level, social disengagement is associated with more corruption, less efficient government, and more crime. When citizens are involved in civic life, their schools run better, their politicians are more responsive, and their streets are safer. At the individual level, social disengagement is associated with poor quality of life and diminished physical and psychological health. When people have more social contact, they are happier and healthier, both physically and mentally.
This research paper will focus in on the effects of the Internet usage on depression and its effect on interpersonal communication.
Social Communication and the Internet
If people were to use the Internet primarily for entertainment and information, the Internet's social effects might resemble those of television. However, research has shown that interpersonal communication is the dominant use of the Internet at home. That people use the Internet mainly for interpersonal communication, however, does not imply that their social interactions and relationships on the Internet are the same as their traditional social interactions and relationships, or that their social uses of the Internet will have effects comparable to traditional social means of communication.
Generally, strong personal ties are supported by physical proximity. The Internet potentially reduces the importance of physical proximity in creating and maintaining networks of questionably strong social ties. Unlike face-to-face interaction or even the telephone, the Internet offers opportunities for social interaction that do not depend on the distance between parties.
The Carnegie Mellon University report states that it demonstrated that after one to two years of using the Internet, individuals exhibited reduced social interactions and increased depression. Consequently, use of the Internet is responsible for reduced social interaction and increased depression.
This could be easily turned into fodder for anti-technologists, demagogues of every stripe, and a potentially destructive position for a society to take. Irresponsible use of the data collected will likely panic any number of parents, educators, and pseudo-scientists into attempting to regulate, ban, or demean an emergent new technology.
The most significant defect about this study, and one that scientists should find overwhelming, is that there is no control group. There is no way to say if the results are due to the Internet, due to the economy, due to the specific demographics of the group chosen, or could be induced by any activity with one or more characteristics of the Internet. In fact, for one of the results, there is no evidence to suggest that the variance was not simply due to a simple statistical result-based variance.
The study showed teens used the Internet more than adults. No surprises here. Most teens have more curiosity and more "disposable time" than most adults. Greater use of the Internet showed subsequent declines in family communication. No surprises here. Any new, self-absorbing activity decreases family communication. What this study really fails to show is that the introduction of any new, fascinating, individual activity decreases family communication.
The Internet is merely one instance of such an activity, and why it is singled out as being a bad influence when compared with, say, chess playing, ham radio, computers without Internet access, amateur astronomy, learning a musical instrument, building model airplanes, or rebuilding a car should cause objective thinkers to question.
The conclusion drawn by the study is that using the Internet decreases family communication, increases loneliness, and furthers depression tendencies in users. Without a control group, it is impossible to say what the real conclusion should have been.
The measure of loneliness is also subject to the same arguments and evaluation. There are those who do not have wide social circles. The smallness of social circles is in no way dependent upon Internet access or lack thereof.
The premise behind why, exactly, having a large social circle is a good thing and a small social circle is a bad thing is somewhat obscure based on current data.
The issue of "loneliness" created by the Internet and its non-empirical measurement does not support the findings in this study. If a person devotes a significant amount of time in a new self-absorbing activity, that person will inevitably spend less time interacting with friends and family. Again, without the benefit of a control group, it is impossible to say if the real conclusion should have been that any new, self-absorbing activity decreases social interaction, and thereby a limit in communication and increase in a sense of "aloneness."
Depression is studied in the research plan. The thesis suspends on the premise that stress often triggers depression and social support is often the buffer against depression. Using covariates of stressors and social support, the Carnegie Mellon study (CMU) determined that a) minorities were more depressed with prolonged use of the Internet, b) those test subjects with higher initial stress reported increases in depression, and c) the greater the use of the Internet in all study cases, the greater the depression.
In an opposing view, problematic to accepting this study at face value is the fact that there was no control group in place. The report states, "those with initial higher stress reported greater increases in depression." Empirical data is missing that provides the correlation between the Internet as the cause of the stress. It could be argued, therefore, that any new, self-absorbing activity with the potential for failure could increase an individual's propensity for depression onset.
In an interesting experiment, designed to allowed depressed Internet users a way of controlling their own depression with tools in the medium that purportedly causes the depression (i.e., the Internet), Clark, et al. conducted a study to take a depressed online user beyond bibliotherapy, medication, and in-office therapy, and allow the subject to work in a multimedia environment to manage their own depression.
The conclusion to this study was that the Internet is a valuable medium for those candidates best qualified to use bibliotherapy (the use of books, printed materials, and other means of printed communication) in self-management of non-clinical, non-chronic types of depression, but the idea of personally controlled depression-intervention tools via the Internet is an idea whose time has not yet arrived.
Another interesting alternative to social interaction, sense of community, and 'guaranteed' communication with political and civic leaders has developed in the past few years; the virtual town meeting.
Purported to being a "system of collaborative filtering," the virtual town hall process expounds that the more people participating in a given discussion, the higher prominence the discussion topic will be given. This gives users the power to emphasize the issues that they feel to be most important.
Important to the integrative process of communication, the successful virtual town hall integrates online activities with a series of offline actions. Initiatives are often published in newspapers, public workstations made available with instructions for proper use, and bring the "digitally…