Contrary to what many people believe, Internet use does not foster social isolation, but actually enhances the size and diversity of people's social networks, a U.S. study found.
Rather than pull people away from social settings, neighborhoods, voluntary associations and public spaces, use of the Internet and mobile phones led to greater participation in those activities, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project report released Thursday.
The findings were in stark contrast to a widely reported 2006 study by U.S. sociologists who concluded that since 1985 Americans have become more socially isolated and have smaller and less diverse discussion networks. The study suggested that new technologies, such as the Internet and mobile phones, may have contributed to the trend.
However, the Pew study found that 6% of the adult population has no one with whom to discuss important matters, which is unchanged since 1985. And while the average size of Americans' core discussion networks has dropped by about a third, that isn't the case among people who use the Internet in general and social networking services, such as Facebook, in particular.
The Pew study found that compared to non-users the average size of core discussion networks is 12% larger amongst mobile phone users, 9% larger for people who share photos online and 9% bigger for those who use instant messaging. Also, mobile phone users tend to have core networks that are 25% more diverse, while Internet users' networks are 15% more likely to include non-kin discussion partners.
People who use the Internet to upload photos to share online are 61% more likely to have discussion partners who cross political lines, and frequent at home Internet users were 53% more likely to have a confidant of a different race.
The Pew study did find some evidence that use of Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and other social networking services substitutes for some level of neighborhood involvement. Users of such services are 30% less likely to know at least some neighbors.
However, excluding users of online social-networks, Internet users in general were no more or less likely than non-users to know at least some of their neighbors. In addition, mobile phone users, bloggers and frequent Internet users at work are more likely to belong to a local voluntary group, such as a sports league, youth group or social club.
Also, Internet users are 42% more likely to visit a public park or plaza and 45% more likely to visit a coffee shop or cafe.
"It is clear that people shape technology far more than the other way around," the Pew study concluded. "For this reason, our survey results suggest that people's lives are likely to be enhanced by participation with new communication technologies, rather than by fearing that their use of new technology will send them into a spiral of isolation."
The Pew Internet & American Life Project's "Personal Networks and Community Survey" was based on telephone interviews with 2,512 adults between July 9, 2008, and August 10, 2008. The survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research International.
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