Internet users tend to communicate more frequently with their friends and family than people who don’t use the web, according to a new study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Funded by the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts, the project appears to contradict the findings of other recent studies suggesting that the internet contributes to social isolation, especially among teens.
“If there’s an isolating effect to the internet, we didn’t find it,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. “It just jumped out of the data that people like eMail for the way it lets them communicate with their friends and with their family.”
The Pew study of 3,533 adults found that 59 percent of internet users say they communicate more often with significant family members. Sixty-six percent say eMail has improved their connections with friends.
Nearly three-quarters of internet users say they had visited family or friends the day before they were surveyed, while only 61 percent of non-users reported they had visited someone.
“Internet users have a more robust social network than people without internet access,” Rainie said. Pew determined this by asking respondents how many dependable friends they could rely on during a time of need. Only 8 percent of internet users said they had no one to turn to for support, compared with 18 percent of non-users.
“There’s a pretty deeply believed impression that heavy internet users are scraggily looking guys surrounded by pizza boxes with no social skills at all. That’s not what we found,” he said.
The Pew report refutes the results of several studies released this year about the social impact of the internet, particularly among children.
According to a study released this spring by the Kaiser Family Foundation, called “Kids & Media: The New Millennium,” heavy media users were less happy at school, had fewer friends, got along poorly with their parents, got into more trouble, and were more often sad, bored, or unhappy than their peers.
Similarly, a study by Berenter, Greenhouse & Webster, which surveyed 157 boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 12, found that students classified as frequent computer users tended to have fewer friends and were less likely to play sports.
Another study, released by Stanford University’s Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society, found that 25 percent of those surveyed who use the internet more than five hours per week claimed to spend less time than they used to with friends and family, either on the phone or in person. Ten percent reported that increased internet use decreased the frequency of their out-of-home social activities.
In contrast, Rainie said, the Pew report found “the heaviest internet users didn’t pay any social price for their internet use.”
Parents and children eMail each other as frequently as they call each other, while siblings are more likely to eMail than phone one another.
Twenty-four million Americans said they have used the internet to hunt for long-lost family and friends. Fifteen million said they have learned more about relatives after using eMail.
“When you look at the internet population as a whole, several other traits really stand out and really challenge the idea that the internet is an isolating mechanism in people’s lives,” Rainie said.
According to the study, 16 million Americans have gone online for the first time in the past six months. Nine million of those people are women, 3.5 million are older than 50, 2 million are African American, and 1.5 million are Hispanic.
The study also found that gender, age, and the amount of internet experience a person has directly affects the types of activities people do on the internet.
“Men are more likely to go online and access the internet more frequently than women do, but women are essentially rewriting the social landscape in the way that they are using eMail,” Rainie said. “They were using it aggressively. They felt good about the way it was connecting them to their family and friends.”
To measure daily internet use more accurately, Pew asked respondents what they have ever done online as well as what they did yesterday online. Of the 3,533 Americans surveyed, 1,690 were internet users. Princeton Survey Research Associates conducted the telephone survey.
Pew Internet and American Life Project
Kaiser Family Foundation
Stanford University Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society