"Genuine human interaction is more satisfying in this modern world of technological isolation masquerading as global interconnection.  Electronic communication only adds to our subjection to technology and fuels our existential despair."

-Anonymous Survey Response

[ The Internet and Social Isolation | The Internet and Social Connectivity | Other Findings ]

revious studies on the effects of the Internet on personal lives fall into two main categories: those that have found correlations between Internet usage and decreased social interactions (SIQSS, Carnegie Mellon University), and those that have found that the Internet has the potential to positively influence people’s social lives (UCLA, Pew).

The 2000 SIQSS study, for example, found correlations that suggest that the more time people spend on the Internet, the less time they spend interacting with real humans. That study characterized "heavy" Internet use as spending over 10 hours on the Internet per week. Our study, consisting of an accidental sampling of 236 Stanford University undergraduates, found the following results:

After analyzing our data on the Internet usage and lifestyles of Stanford undergraduates, we have found that the Internet’s influence on the lives of students is complex and multifaceted. While part of our data replicates previous studies on the Internet’s harmful effects, other data confirms some of the more positive social effects of the Internet. Although correlations in our data suggest that the Internet has the potential to isolate individuals, many respondents, through their multiple-choice and written responses, also reflected on the way that the Internet connects people and has the power to facilitate social interaction. What follows is a discussion of our findings regarding the Internet’s effect on the personal lives of Stanford undergraduates, a population of students with exceptionally high average levels of Internet usage.

The Internet and Social Isolation

Confirming the hypothesis that increased Internet use is closely correlated with reduced time with friends and family, a hypothesis also advanced by the 2000 SIQSS study, students who logged the most hours on the Internet:

As might be expected, students who spent the greatest amount of time on the Internet tended to use the Internet for a greater variety of activities besides communicating with friends and family. Students with the least Internet hours per day, on the other hand, were far more likely to spend a majority of their Internet time engaged in some form of communication. Along these lines, the majority of students who engaged in non-social Internet activities, such as gaming, were also the students who spent the most time on the Internet.

Also confirming the results of the SIQSS and the CMU studies and fulfilling our expectations, we found that email was the most popular use of the Internet among the students surveyed.

We also found that students who identified themselves as being more inclined towards the humanities, or "fuzzies," obtained different results than students with a technical academic focus, or "techies." Our results showed that, compared to humanities students, technical students:

Although it is possible that a greater percentage of self-identified "techies" had more academic reasons to spend time on the Internet or in front of their computers, our results suggest that a relationship does exist between students’ increased interaction with computers and decreased social interaction with peers, where social interaction may includes either person-to-person contact or online chat.

Increased time spent on the Internet also seems to detract from some of students’ daily activities:

Since many students have direct Internet access in their rooms (and all of them have access in their dormitories), the computer becomes a focal point as a means of communication, information-hunting, and entertainment. However, the Internet also serves as a major distraction, luring students away from other activities, such as socializing and academic work. In a recent interview, Professor Norman Nie commented that, "the Internet can be seen as a Skinnerian device," in that, just as psychologist B.F. Skinner created addictive behavior in mice by means of random reinforcement, part of the compelling nature of the Internet lies in a similar process. "Sometimes you click on a link and find a reward, sometimes you don’t," said Nie.

Despite the above results, students had a wide variety of opinions as to the power of the Internet to isolate people:

When asked to explain why they might feel more comfortable using email or instant chat applications as opposed to personal visits or the telephone, students varied considerably in their responses. Although it is difficult to expect that subjects will accurately self-report on how they perceive the Internet to have influenced their behavior, our results do point to a common awareness among students that the Internet has changed many social interactions.

The remarks of some students confirm the hypothesis that communication by means of the Internet has contributed to a breakdown of more personal forms of communication, whether in person or by voice contact. One question in our survey asked students to respond to the following statement: "I have friends I am more comfortable emailing of IM-ing than calling or visiting."

Over half of students felt that the statement was true.

Internet communication seems to act for some of these students as a barrier, allowing students to confine certain social interactions to the Internet, rather than elevate them to a level requiring more intimate contact and social accountability.

It seems that communicating through the Internet allows people to abandon more traditional forms of social and conversational etiquette required for more personal interactions involving the face and voice. Just as Nie predicts that the anonymity of the Internet allows people in business situations to abandon traditional morality and courtesy, these students seem to agree that some Internet communication can be significantly less personal, with the advantage that one can get away with reducing online socializing to an activity requiring a minimum of thoughtfulness, even offering the freedom to lie outright. One such student commented, "it’s easier to I-M or email and you can always say you have a class and have to go if you don’t have anything more to say."

The Internet and Social Connectivity

Despite confirming the negative social impact of the Internet, student comments and responses were often quite positive in their assessment of the Internet’s effect on their abilities to communicate and socialize. These results therefore seem more reflective of the more positive social implications of the Internet as discussed by the UCLA and Pew studies.

An overwhelming majority of students surveyed (82%) said that they feel the Internet connects, rather than isolates people.

We also found, quite unexpectedly, that students who spent the most hours on the Internet per week also spent the most hours talking on the phone per week. This contrasts with our results that showed that higher Internet use was correlated with less visiting time and less chat time.

We therefore cannot jump to the extreme conclusion that heavier Internet use necessarily negatively impacts social contacts. Many students reported that the Internet has facilitated their communication with professors and has allowed for easier and cheaper long-distance contact with family and friends.

One of the most common ways students agreed that email makes social connections easier, was the lack of temporal constraint that it offers. Students remarked that email and instant chat allow them to communicate with others regardless of time zone or time of day. One student reported that with the Internet "you can constantly be in contact with people…if I want to drop a little email to someone, I can do it anytime. If I were to call I could only do it at certain times."

Email also seems to encourage a greater quantity of communications since people can use the Internet to multitask, chatting with multiple people at a time, or sending out an invitation or message to several people at once. However, a downside to this is that talking to many people at once could lead to less intimate conversations, because the user is not focusing on one person at a time (as opposed to a phone call).

Clearly, the Internet does not always stifle the social relationships of students. On the contrary, many agreed that the Internet has facilitated and strengthened certain relationships and forms of communication.

Other Findings of Interest

One of our hypotheses was that the Internet might lead to the abandonment of traditional relationships in favor of more impersonal methods of social interaction. Although a slight majority of respondents agreed with the statement that "I have friends I feel more comfortable emailing or IM-ing than calling or visiting," nearly half of students also denied the truth of the statement. Despite Stanford students’ high exposure to the Internet, the nature of their social relationships with friends are not necessarily changing as much as we might have predicted.

Gender Differences

That same question, however, did yield an interesting and unexpected difference: while exactly half of the males surveyed answered that they had friends they felt more comfortable emailing or IM-ing than calling or visiting, 64% of females, nearly two-thirds, responded that they felt the statement was true. In other words, a significantly higher number of females differentiated between types of relationships that they confine to Internet-based settings, as opposed to social relationships involving more direct forms of interpersonal contact. While it is impossible to explain without further research why we encountered such a noticeable gender difference, our finding has a possible relation to a result published by the Pew study, that one of women’s primary motivations of using email is that it takes less time than talking. Perhaps women make more discriminations in how they use their time for socializing, or are simply more aware of the differences in the quality of their various social interactions.

Freshmen versus Seniors

Another interesting comparison highlighted by our results was the difference in the quality and quantity of Internet hours per day, between freshmen and seniors. One of the largest differences was in students’ use of chat applications:

This difference could be attributed to several factors. Firstly, most freshmen are experiencing living away from home for the first time, and are more eager to maintain frequent communications with high-school friends and family members.

Another factor, which we had predicted prior to conducting our study, was that freshmen are simply of a younger generation, and have been exposed to the Internet from a younger age than upperclassmen. Although they are only four years younger than the seniors, the four year difference in this case crosses the cusp of Internet development. Because of the rapid growth of the Internet, college seniors are more likely to have used email and Internet in junior high, or even high school, than freshmen. Perhaps their increased use of Internet chatting therefore reflects a higher overall comfort level with interacting with their peers by means of the Internet.

Yet another factor in freshmen’s high level of socialization through instant chat may also relate to the fact that most of them, newly arrived at Stanford, have easy access to a faster Internet connection than they have ever experienced. Such a fast connection may encourage them to take up chat applications with greater frequency, since their fellow freshmen have the same ability to communicate instantly by means of the Internet.

In contradiction to our expectation that freshmen would overall spend the greatest amount of time on the Internet, we also discovered the following difference across students of all four undergraduate classes:

This fact could possibly be attributed to the fact that many seniors live in single dormitory rooms, where they are less likely to interact with other people once inside their room, thus turning to the Internet, either as a form of communication, or as simply something to do.

Another factor in seniors’ use of the Internet is possibly the fact that a higher number of seniors may be involved in advanced research projects or thesis preparation, for which the Internet is a useful tool. Seniors may also use the Internet to search for potential employment or graduate school opportunities, a potential use of the Internet which younger undergraduates are less likely to pursue.