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Internet's Toll on Social Life? No Cause for Worry, Study Says

Research: A UCLA survey contradicts reports that the medium causes isolation and erodes human contact.


A sweeping study of the Internet released Wednesday paints a strikingly new portrait of Net users--not as members of an increasingly lonely and lethargic breed, but as vibrant socialites who engage with friends and family, devote more time to civic activities and even exercise more than non-Internet users.

The study, published by the UCLA Center for Communication Policy, addresses one of the fiercest and most fundamental debates of the Internet Age: To what extent does time online come at the expense of human interaction?

The UCLA study is the first of its kind to argue that such social costs are so far negligible or nonexistent, a finding that contradicts some earlier research.

A controversial Stanford University study released in February, for example, asserted that the Internet is causing widespread social isolation and eroding human contact among family members and friends.

Similarly, a 1998 Carnegie Mellon University study found higher levels of depression and loneliness among those who went online only a few hours a week.

Jeffrey Cole, director of the UCLA study, said such thinking now appears to be wrongheaded. Internet use "is not coming at the expense of social life," he said. "These are not lonely, alienated people."

Robert Kraut, author of the Carnegie Mellon research, said the two studies may not be as contradictory as they seem, but simply a reflection of the fast evolution of the Internet and its growing acceptance as the town square of the future.

Kraut, who did not review Cole's full study, started surveying Internet users in 1995 when the online population was barely a fraction of today's total. Since then, the Internet has grown into a global medium for games, chat sessions, online purchases and romance.

"The Internet is not the same place it used to be," Kraut said. "The Internet has changed and the social environment has changed with it."

The 50-page UCLA report is the first installment of an unprecedented research project designed to track the Internet's year-to-year influence in thousands of U.S. households--including those without Internet access--over at least the next decade.

Cole, a leading expert on the influence of television, said social scientists have long lamented the lack of research on that medium as it became widespread in the 1940s and '50s. The aim of the UCLA Internet study, he said, is to avoid repeating that mistake with a medium that is spreading into the home at a faster rate than electricity, telephones or television did.

The study, based on a survey of 2,096 American households, seeks to measure such things as how many residences have Internet access, attitudes about privacy issues and patterns of online stock trading.

The study found two-thirds of respondents had access to the Internet, including 47% who had online access from home, and that Internet users spend an average of 9.42 hours per week online.

There was some evidence that the rush online may be slowing. Among nonusers, 59% said they are not likely to acquire access to the Internet in the next year, and one-third of nonusers said they are simply "not interested" in gaining access.

Although it is often assumed that the Internet is supplanting other media, the study found that Internet users are more likely to read books and newspapers and listen to the radio or talk on the phone than nonusers.

If any medium is losing ground, it appears to be television. Internet users and nonusers spend about the same amount of time reading books and newspapers, but Internet users watch about 4.6 hours less television per week than nonusers.

The finding likely to foster the greatest debate is Cole's contention that Internet use is not compromising real-life social contacts, a sacrifice that is regarded as inescapable by some researchers.

When Stanford's study was released in February, its principal author, political scientist Norman Nie, said that the Internet was leaving more people "home, alone and anonymous." When you spend time online, he lamented, "you don't hear a human voice and you never get a hug."

The study and Nie's expressions of dismay were widely criticized among Internet aficionados, who have long contended that the technology actually helps foster relationships, encouraging people to expand their social circles, not abandon them.

A spokeswoman for Nie at Stanford said he had not yet read the UCLA study and would decline comment until he could examine it.

Kraut, the Carnegie Mellon social psychologist who wrote the 1998 study of Internet users, said the Internet has become a vastly more social place as more people have poured online. In his study, he based his finding on surveys conducted from 1995 to 1997.

"In 1995, if you wanted to talk to a friend on the Internet, they probably weren't online," he said. Today, services like instant messaging, Internet games and wireless e-mail have created an environment where it is sometimes difficult to avoid social interaction on the Net.

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