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Report: Tech use doesn’t add to social isolation

Americans’ love affairs with mobile phones and the Internet are not contributing factors to an increase in social isolation in the United States, according to a new study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Despite the fact that more and more of us are spending time glued to screens large and small, in its study, Social Isolation and New Technology, Pew found that the contacts and connections made by using those tools don’t come at the expense of real-life relationships.

It also said that use of social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace provides an outlet for “discussion networks that are more likely to contain people from different backgrounds,” a plus for diversity.

Face-to-face contact still “trumps” phone use for contacting family and friends, Pew said, although mobiles are eclipsing landline phones for such conversations.

“On average in a typical year, people have in-person contact with their core network ties (close family and friends) on about 210 days,” the report said. “They have mobile-phone contact on 195 days of the year; landline phone contact on 125 days; text-messaging contact on the mobile phone 125 days; e-mail contact 72 days; instant messaging contact 55 days; contact via social networking Web sites 39 days; and contact via letters or cards on 8 days.”

The findings also show that “on average,” the size of Americans’ discussion networks — those with whom people discuss important matters — is “12 percent larger among mobile phone users,” and 9 percent larger for those who share photos online as well as those who use instant messaging, according to the Pew report.

“The diversity of people’s core networks — their closest and most significant confidants — tends to be 25 percent larger for mobile phone users, 15 percent larger for basic Internet users and even larger for frequent Internet users, those who use instant messaging and those who share digital photos online,” the report said.  

Keith N. Hampton, lead author of the report and an assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said one of the study’s aims was to challenge the findings of a 2006 report that said Americans had become much more socially isolated since 1985, and that mobile phone and Internet use might be among the causes.

“Our key findings challenge previous research and commonplace fears about the harmful impact of new technology,” the Pew report said.

The study surveyed 2,512 adults in the summer of 2008, and was conducted by the Annenberg School for Communication.

‘Few Americans are ... socially isolated’
Pew contends that “compared to 1985, there has been (a) small-to-modest change, rather than a large drop in the number of people who report that they have no one with whom they can discuss important matters.

“Twelve percent of Americans have no discussion confidants,” Pew said. “Few Americans are truly socially isolated. Only 6 percent of the adult population has no one with whom they can discuss important matters or who they consider to be ‘especially significant’ in their life.”

While Americans’ “discussion networks has shrunk by about a third since 1985 ... ownership of a mobile phone and participation in a variety of Internet activities are associated with larger and more diverse core discussion networks."

The 2006 report found that a quarter of Americans said they have no one to talk to about personal troubles.

Lynn Lovin-Smith, a Duke University professor and one of three authors of the 2006 study published in the American Sociological Review, said Internet use was “only mentioned … as one of several large social changes in the past 25 years that might have influenced social ties. Longer commuting distances, more people living alone and lower voluntary group memberships are other (factors) that we mentioned.

“It’s possible for the Internet and other mobile technologies to change our society and its social fabric even if individual technology users stay connected,” she said in an e-mail interview.

“Automobile and landline telephones have had such an impact by making our neighborhoods more removed from work, and letting us keep in touch more regularly with people who are geographically distant.”

Local as well as global
One of the “surprising” findings in the Pew study, Hampton said, was that while “many of us think of the Internet as being this global communication device,” social networking Web sites, e-mail and instant messaging often wind up being used for “very, very local” communication with friends in the same area.

“People aren’t using it to reach people necessarily on the other side of the world; they’re using it to reach people within the same metropolitan area as they are, not very far off at all,” he said.

The Pew report did note “some evidence that use of social networking services ... substitutes for some neighborhood involvement.”

While Internet and mobile phone users are “just as likely to talk to their neighbors in person, face-to-face as is anybody else, there’s certainly some concern that Internet use could disengage people from their local community,” Hampton said.

“We did find that people who use social networking services like Facebook are slightly less likely to know at least some of their neighbors,” he said. “That means they don’t tend to go to their neighbors for certain types of support, such as companionship or help with family care. Instead, it appears they go to other people on their social networking sites.

“However, it turns out that they’re just as likely to give that kind of support to neighbors when their neighbors need it.”

The finding is “part of a very historical trend,” Hampton said. “It’s the same type of thing that happened when the telephone was introduced, where you were suddenly able to access certain types of social support from outside of our neighborhood settings. ... It’s just another example of how we were able to use communication technology to reach people at a distance that we couldn’t before, for different types of support.”