[ Executive Summary | Methodology | Results | Conclusions | Critiques ]
A study by the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society (SIQSS) in 2000 found that increased Internet use correlated with isolating behaviors such as spending less time with friends and family. The more time people spent on the Internet, the less time they spent interacting with humans in the "real world." However, many have raised questions about both the study's methodology and its conclusions.
Because the study was "itself conducted over the Internet," only those respondents who had Internet access prior to receiving InterSurvey WebTV were considered.
90% of Internet users reported using email; this is more than any other activity (even general ones like "Surfing" or "General Information").
Especially by those reporting high Internet use (more than 10 hours a week), more hours on the 'Net correlated with reporting less time talking to friends and family over the phone, spending time with friends and family, and attending events outside of home.
About 15% of Internet users who are online 1 or more hours a week reported working more at home, while spending the same amount of time at the office. Some users reported working more at both home and the office, with the number growing along with the amount of Internet use.
The more that people's reported Internet use increased, the more likely they reported spending less time watching TV or reading newspapers.
Norman Nie, one of the principal investigators, contends that "the Internet could be the ultimate isolating technology," reducing participation in communities. The SIQSS study shows that "the more hours people use the Internet, the less time they spend with real human beings… [such use is] at the expense of time people spend on the phone gabbing with family and friends or having a conversation with people around them." Citing the heavy use of email, he notes that it "is a way to stay in touch, but you can't share a coffee or beer with somebody on e-mail or give them a hug."
Nie said that while "we may be seeing the beginning of telecommuting…work appears to be intruding into every other aspect of our lives, and that's one of the clearest trends in these data."
Nie worries that the anonymity of the Internet may cause psychological, emotional, and even ethical problems. "When we lived in small communities, the old story was that you said to yourself, 'I'll see this guy and his wife at church on Sunday so I better be honest with him today.' Then we moved to the big anonymous cities and it became 'Hell, I'll hardly ever see this guy.' Now, it's becoming 'Hell, I won't ever even know this guy's name.' "
Many, such as Jakob Nielson, criticize the study for its over-reliance on self-reported measures. "You cannot simply ask people to self-report how their behavior has changed," he argues. "It is well-known that it is very difficult to estimate time consumption." Furthermore, not only did the study ask people to report their own hourly usage patterns, but also it asked them explicitly whether using the Internet had caused them to do various other activities more ore less frequently, rather than merely asking them how many hours they spent on such activities.
A common confusion in scientific studies is that between correlation and causation. In particular, this study showed that high Internet use and working at home are correlated, but it does not show that such high Internet use causes one to work at home. It might be the case that working at home causes one to use the Internet more (which seems logical), or that the two variables are caused by something else (such as income or job type). Similarly, because of the self-reporting bias described above, one cannot conclude that "more Internet use causes one to spend less time with one's family and friends"; one can only conclude that "reporting that one uses the Internet more correlates with reporting that one spends less time with one's family and friends."
One of the results of the study-that email is the most popular use for the Internet-contradicts, to some degree, the idea that the Internet is isolating. Email, when compared to most other Internet uses, is fundamentally communicative. While it lacks the subtlety of a face-to-face conversation, you "can't share a coffee or beer or a hug by telephone either," or by "snail mail," for that matter (Langa). Byte.com's Fred Langa contends that the SIQSS researchers have an "anti-Web/anti-tech bias" which causes them to disparage new technology (such as email) yet laud old technology (such as the telephone) (Ibid.). While he admits that "there are times when there's no substitute" for hearing someone's voice or seeing someone in person, he contends that a number of emails are "communication that otherwise would not have happened" and thus increase one's connectedness to other people. Other critics draw an analogy between SIQSS's conclusions and those of early 20th century social scientists who claimed that the telephone would end peoples' social lives (Chattanooga Publishing Company).
Various other people say that the study should have had "a more random selection of survey respondents studied over a longer period of time" (Weird Science, qtd. in Newsweek). Langa asks why SIQSS "never asked the survey participants if they themselves felt more or less connected" by the Internet. The New York Times contends, "The problem isn't the Internet. The suburbs and the long automobile commutes to our workplaces have…left us too far apart" (Ibid.). Indeed, if one could show that high Internet use correlates to living in a socially isolating suburb, one could ascribe many of the negative effects to habitat, not technology.