Lonesome Internet blues, take 2

Another day, another dubious study finds that the Net makes you lonely -- and the press goes nuts.

Published February 18, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Want your name on the front page of the New York Times and other newspapers? Just author a study concluding that Internet use is bad for you.

"A Newer, Lonelier Crowd Emerges in Internet Study," blared the Times' front page on Wednesday. The Washington Post's cover similarly trumpeted "A Web of Workaholic Misfits? Study Finds Heavy Internet Users Are Socially Isolated."

As with the widely discredited 1998 Carnegie-Mellon study that claimed Internet use made you sad and lonely, the findings of this new study -- by the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society -- are highly questionable. But that hasn't stopped its conclusions from being reported as big news.

So once more, with an inevitable feeling of dij` vu, let us descend into the trenches of study-demolishing and identify the self-contradictions in this latest attempt to brand Internet users as bummed-out bums.

Point 1: Norman Nie, a Stanford professor who is the study's co-"principal investigator," identifies "a key finding" of the study: "The more hours people use the Internet, the less time they spend in contact with real human beings."

Point 2: The study reports that the overwhelmingly most popular use of the Internet -- far more widespread than e-commerce, chat or even Web surfing -- is e-mail.

In other words: when it comes to human contact, in Nie's view, e-mail just doesn't count.

I guess all those people you're exchanging e-mail with -- your family, friends, co-workers, long-lost school buddies, new friends you made in an online discussion -- aren't real human beings. Because you happen to be communicating with them via the Internet instead of the telephone or the postal service or a conversation on the street, they have become fake, and your "contact" with them has become a bogus exchange.

All those headlines about "isolation" and "loneliness" drew on one of the study's most baleful findings -- that people who use the Internet a lot spend less time with friends and family and don't go out as often.

But when you look closely at the survey's numbers this conclusion seems pretty insignificant. This chart tells the story: Here you can see that, for example, 27 percent of heavy Net users -- 10 or more hours a week -- report that they spend less time talking to friends and family on the phone. But then, 9 percent of people who spend an hour or less online a week report the same thing. (Maybe people are looking for any excuse not to call Mom, or maybe the "less time" here isn't a lot less time.) Meanwhile, a total of 15 percent of the same heavy Net users report "spending less time with family and friends"; 13 percent say they spend "less time attending events outside the home."

Those figures are not landslide results -- only 1 in 7 of the most avid Internet addicts is hanging out less with "real human beings." A "newer, lonelier crowd" this does not make.

Then notice how the study values phone contact -- despite its distance and technological mediation -- more highly than Internet contact. Consider that some significant portion of the drop in phone contact is probably a transfer of phone time to e-mail time. Throw in the likelihood (mentioned once in the study's summary) that some reduction in phone time in Internet households probably stems from a single phone line's being tied up by the modem. Before you know it, conclusive findings of increased "social isolation" quickly dissolve into a heap of misinterpretation.

Nie plays just as fast and loose with the telephone analogies in his interpretive comments. "E-mail is a way to stay in touch," he admits, "but you can't share a coffee or a beer with somebody on e-mail or give them a hug." Of course you can't do those things over the phone either -- yet the telephone is treated as a superior, "real" form of human contact by his study, and a transfer of people's time from phone calls to Net use is presented as a social problem.

Nie interprets his findings in full-bore cautionary mode: "The Internet could be the ultimate isolating technology that further reduces our participation in communities even more than did automobiles and television before it," he argues. Meanwhile, his study reports that the longer you've been online, the more hours per week you're likely to spend on the Net: In other words, as people get more familiar with what the Internet has to offer and more comfortable with it, they spend more time with it.


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Are all these people knowingly choosing "social isolation" as they get to know the Net? Are they all helplessly enthralled by the new technology's seductive powers even as it is sucking their lives dry of human connection? Or do they understand the Net better than Nie -- and realize that they aren't "reducing participation in communities" but rather spending time in different kinds of communities, whose members communicate online and group themselves based on choice and interests rather than accidents of geography?

If you're interested in the ever-burgeoning field of bad Internet research it's worth your time to look up the Stanford report's findings yourself. Each reasonable result is matched by a failure of interpretation: For example, the researchers found that Net users spend more time working at home than non-Net users, but they never seem to have asked whether Net users might be grabbing some time at work for personal online communication ("goofing off").

Some critics have raised questions about the Stanford study's methodology: Researchers collected their data via online surveys, so in order to get answers from their non-Internet users they gave those people Internet hookups -- which sure seems like it would turn them into Internet users pretty fast. And of course any study based on self-reporting is suspect: There are, notoriously, often discrepancies between what people actually do with their time and what they say they do with their time.

Still, the biggest questions this story raises for me aren't about the research at all but about the journalistic response to it. Why is the media so invested in the notion that Net users are lonely "misfits" when the evidence is so scant? What is it about negative reports on Internet use that causes a newspaper editor to salivate? Whence arises the schadenfreude-fueled glee that the print media often seems to take in telling us that the Net can wreck your life?

Well, one of the study's findings is that -- surprise! -- Internet use steals time people used to spend reading newspapers and watching TV. (The chart's here.) In a sense, then, the mass media's message is: If you leave us for that new Internet thing, you're gonna pay the price.

Now, we all know that you're unlikely to be able to share a coffee or a beer with a newspaper reporter or a TV anchorperson, and rarely will either of them give you a hug. With the Net, on the other hand, it's a lot easier to join a discussion or send e-mail to gripe with a friend about some pathetic TV show or argue with a columnist's rant.

According to the Stanford study, in the same heavy-Net-user group where 15 percent spend less time with family and friends, 65 percent are spending less time watching TV. So unless you believe that staring at the tube is less isolating than conducting an e-mail correspondence, I'd say that represents a healthy net gain in the sum of human connection. But you'd never know it from reading the papers.

Which, come to think of it, may help explain why Net users are abandoning traditional media in the first place: The more you know about the Net the less easy it is to swallow the way it's so often misrepresented on the front page.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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