The Internet's Paradoxical Effect on Social Lives

Our findings partially replicate the HomeNet study's findings in the ways people use the Internet to communicate. Even though students are extremely positive about the way that the Internet allows them to feel more connected to people, it also results in perceptions of social isolation, and seems to correlate to actual findings suggesting that increased Internet use may cause a decrease in interpersonal interaction. Although email and instant chat applications seem to afford an “isolation antidote,” allowing rapid communication with more people in less time, at any time of day, such social technology does have potential and actual antisocial consequences.  In particular, that use of such "social" technology diminishes as Internet use goes up suggests that, while the Internet may not be inherently antisocial, high use of the Internet very likely causes social isolation.

Although our data do suggest that the Internet has substantially impacted the quality of the social interactions and lifestyles of Stanford undergraduates, a population in whose lives the Internet plays an extremely large role, it is necessary to keep in mind that the Internet does not necessarily isolate all who use it.  Individual differences may also factor heavily in the phenomenon of Internet isolation.  As one student remarked, “the Internet exaggerates existing conditions.  If you are isolated to begin with, the Internet can make you more isolated.  If you are social to begin with, the Internet will help you be more social.”

Need for Balance, Future Research

If one thing is clear from our survey of previous research and our own study, it is that the Internet has a complex effect on personal social lives.  On one hand, it brings together individuals and groups in ways that previously were impossible.  On the other hand, it may replace more connective, meaningful contact with less personal, weaker social ties.  Given the sometimes contradictory results of the various studies as well as methodological problems (even in our own study), more research must be conducted to pinpoint the phenomenon of Internet isolation.  Does high Internet use actually cause isolation?  Does living alone (for example, in a single dormitory room) cause one to rely more on the Internet for social interaction?  What amount or kind of Internet use is socially isolating?  Only carefully conducted studies can answer these interesting and increasingly important questions.  However, even without the benefit of future research, Internet users should closely examine their behavior, to ensure that excessive time online will not negatively impact their personal well-being.  We shouldn't throw our computers out the window, but neither should we charge on blindly into complete dependence on the Internet.  As with many things in life, it seems that moderation and balance are key to maximizing the Internet's positive effect.