Email, IM's, chatrooms, blogs, discussion boards. Today much of our communication takes place online. From MySpace to Yahoogroups to Blogspot many of us have relationships with people we may never meet in person. The researchers call this Computer-Mediated Communication. This blog will explore in laymens terms the findings of this research.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Internet Use and Social Isolation: Unravelling the Paradox

Internet users are isolated...
no wait...
Internet users are social...
no wait...

Reading social science research can be confusing. And this is not exclusively because of the big words they use to describe everyday activities. The most confusing thing about social science research is that two researchers investigating the same phenomenon will come up with contradictory results.

This is especially true of one area of CMC research relating to the sociality of Internet users. While the popular image of the heavy Internet user continues to be that of the social outcast, loner, without any "real world" relationships, researchers have been painting a more complex picture.

Some of the research into this area indicates that heavy Internet use correlates with greater social isolation. (Kraut, et al., 1998) However, other research indicates that Internet users have more social contact than nonusers. (Robinson, Kestnbaum, Neustadtl, and Alvarez , 2000) So, what's going on here?

Perhaps you've heard the story of the four blind men who were trying to describe an elephant. One man grabbed a hold of the elephant's trunk and said, "An elephant is very much like a tree." The second man put his hand against the elephant's side and said, "No, an elephant is very much like a wall." The third line man grabbed a hold of the elephant’s ear and argued, "You are both wrong. An elephant is like a leaf." The fourth man, holding on to the elephant's tail, contradicted them all by saying, "No, an elephant is definitely like a rope."

Recent research by Shanyang Zhao (2006), of Temple University, indicates something similar has happened with the study of social isolation and Internet usage. The problem according to Zhao is that researchers have typically not differentiated between different types of Internet use.

Zhao (2006) divides Internet use into two broad categories: social and nonsocial. Social Internet use includes e-mail, chat rooms, instant messaging, discussion boards and newsgroups. And nonsocial use would be like Web surfing, listening to Internet radio, downloading music, and checking the news.

The study found that those who use the Internet primarily for nonsocial activities that fewer social contacts than those who did not use the Internet at all. Heavy nonsocial users experienced the greatest social isolation.

However, social Internet users have more social contact than either nonsocial users or people who do not use the Internet at all. Heavy social Internet users showed the greatest amount of social contact of all categories.

One could assume that the majority of this social contact came from online sources. However, that assumption would be wrong. Zhao found that social Internet users also maintained many of their social contacts by the more traditional means of telephone and in person visits. E-mail users, particularly, used e-mail to stay in contact with people with whom they had a face-to-face relationship. Chat users also had significant numbers of face-to-face contacts, however, they also had many contacts which were exclusive to the Internet.

By contrast, nonsocial users had fewer face-to-face or telephone social contacts than the social Internet users.

Zhao (2006) was careful to point out that his study was descriptive in nature and did not imply anything about causation. Indeed, one might assume that Internet use is driven by the personality of the Internet user. In other words, someone who is a social person will engage in social activities online as well as off-line. That would explain the higher number of social contacts in face-to-face settings. Likewise, those who are more solitary in their "3-D" life would probably follow more solitary pursuits online as well. Thus, the Internet becomes an extension of one's personality. Of course, that could be the substance for a different type of study.

There is another possibility for differences in the research results, as well. Many of the studies finding that internet users had fewer social contacts came from a time when there were fewer internet users. Consider that in 1999 about 28 percent of households had internet service in the US. In 2005 that number had nearly doubled to 55 percent. Additionally, nearly 73 percent of Americans use the internet on a regular basis. The internet is no longer the exclusive domain of technically oriented individuals, academics and business people taking care of business. The internet population has broadened out to be more representative of the culture at large rather than being a culture unto itself. That means that the internet, today, has a different, more diverse population than it did just a few years ago.

For the time being, the lesson may well be that when we evaluate studies of CMC, we may need to pay more attention to the selection of subjects in interpreting the results.


Kraut, R., Patterson, M., Lundmark, V., Kiesler, S., Mukopadhyay, T., & Scherlis, W. (1998). Internet paradox: A social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well-being? American Psychologist, 53 (9), 1017-1031.

Robinson, J. P., Kestnbaum, M., Neustadtl, A., & Alvarez, A. S. (2002). Information technology and social time displacement. IT & Society, 1 (1), 21-37.

Zhao, S. (2006). Do Internet users have more social ties? A call for differentiated analyses of Internet use. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(3), article 8.


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