Does the Internet Really Wreck Your Social Life?

For the contrarians among us, a running counterargument to the rise of cultural beacons like Facebook and Twitter is that the social Web is anything but social.

As the argument goes, friends amassed on social networks and time logged in virtual worlds are a pale substitute for social connections of the more traditional kind, and technology, writ large, is more of a driver of isolation than meaningful interaction.

But a new study released today by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication and the Pew Internet Project aims to tear down that well-worn stereotype. It finds that Internet and mobile phone users have larger and more diverse social circles than their technology-resistant counterparts.

“There is a tendency by critics to blame technology first when social change occurs,” Keith Hampton, a professor at the Annenberg school and the report’s lead author, said in a statement.

Researchers at Pew and Annenberg collected responses from more than 2,500 U.S. adults and found a positive correlation between technology usage and an expanded “discussion network,” defined as the network of people with whom an individual feels comfortable talking over important issues.

“It turns out that those who use the Internet and mobile phones have notable social advantages,” Hampton said. “People use the technology to stay in touch and share information in ways that keep them socially active and connected to their communities.”

Mobile phone users proved, on average, to have discussion networks 12 percent larger than the tech holdouts. Among respondents who said they share photos online and those who use instant messaging services, both groups reported social circles nine percent larger than people who don’t use those technologies.

The survey asked a variety of questions to divine correlations between heavy technology users and various elements of involvement in the analog world, such as joining community groups, visiting neighbors in person or spending time in old-fashioned places like parks and restaurants.

The study also positions itself in opposition to previous research that had highlighted a trend of increasing social isolation among Americans. The researchers in this report argued that there has been no discernible rise in isolation since 1985, encompassing the revolutions ushered in by both the PC and the Internet.

“All the evidence points in one direction,” Hampton said. “People’s social worlds are enhanced by new communication technologies. It is a mistake to believe that Internet use and mobile phones plunge people into a spiral of isolation.”

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