The Pew Internet and American Life Project is a great resource for current research about the role that technology plays in our daily lives. In November, 2009, they released the findings from a new study, Social Isolation and New Technology, on mobile phones, the internet, and Americans’ social networks. This research contradicts a 2006 study claiming that these kinds of technology were making people more isolated. (Unfortunately, all the links I found to this original study seem to be broken, so it must not be available any more.)
The methodology for this research was interesting because they didn’t compare people who used the technology with people who didn’t because demographic information, such as age and education, tends to separate users from non-users. Therefore, any differences could be attributed as much to demographic information as to the technology use. Instead, they divided groups with similar demographic characteristics into technology users and non-users. This way they could see the difference between, for example, educated women who use technology for social networking, and educated women who do not. The study focused on what they called “core networks,” the groups of people with which people interact, either face-to-face or virtually, comparing the core networks of different groups of individuals.
So, what did they learn? Here is a small sampling of their findings:
- People who own cell phones and who use the internet to share photos and send instant messages have larger core networks—12% larger for cell phone users, 9% larger for photo sharers, and 9% larger for IMers.
- Americans who share photos online are 61% more likely than their non-photo-sharing peers to join in discussions with people who have different political views.
- People who keep blogs are 95% more likely to have discussion partners of a different race than non-bloggers.
- 60% of people who participate in an online neighborhood discussion forum know their neighbors, as opposed to 40% of neighbors who don’t.
The Pew researchers are careful to explain that since these results are derived from a survey taken at a single point in time, there is no justification for drawing any conclusions about causality. At this point, no one can say that online social networks and mobile devices make people more social, but this evidence should allay some people’s fears that technology is turning us all into anti-social hermits!
More on Social Networks
2016 Pew Update
"Facebook usage and engagement is on the rise, while adoption of other platforms holds steady."
Why Gen-Y Johnny Can't Read Nonverbal Cues
A “kids these days” article with some alarming, albeit unsupported, conclusions about the consequences of mobile devices and social networking.