PITTSBURGH--The Internet has the potential to make us socially isolated, lonely and depressed, according to the unexpected results of a study of home computer users by scientists at Carnegie Mellon University.
The findings are gathered from HomeNet, the first study to look specifically at the impact that the Internet is having over time on the social involvement and psychological well being of average Americans.
Published this month in The American Psychologist, a publication of the American Psychological Association, the findings provide a consistent picture of the downside of using the Internet extensively as a source of information or setting for friendship and or social support.
"We were surprised to find that what is a social technology has such anti-social consequences," says Robert Kraut, a professor of social psychology and human computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon who is the lead author of the article for The American Psychologist.
Even though people in the study heavily used electronic mail and other communication services on the Internet, the research found that spending time on the Internet was associated with later declines in talking among family members, reductions in the number of friends and acquaintances they kept up with, and increases in depression and loneliness.
Because the research studied the same people over time, it could rule out the possibility that people who are initially socially isolated, lonely and depressed were drawn to the Internet. Rather, according to Kraut, using the Internet seems to cause isolation, loneliness and depression.
"Our results have clear implications for further research on personal Internet use. As we understand the reasons for the declines in social involvement, there will be implications for social policies and for the design of Internet technology," he adds.
Various scientific and marketing reports say that more than 50 million Americans are using the Internet, a number that is rapidly growing. Given widespread use and with more growth expected, Kraut says the Internet could change the lives of Americans as much as the telephone did in the early 20th century or as television did in the 1950s and 1960s.
"We want to help make these changes good ones," he says.
HomeNet studied 169 personal computer users in Pittsburgh, whose communications on the Internet were monitored during their first years online. The home computer users are families with a wide range of demographic backgrounds whose common bond was a high school age student or membership in a community development group. The families used electronic mail, the World Wide Web and computer games, among other normal home computing uses. Time spent online varied a great deal among the subjects.
Members of the research team are part of Carnegie Mellon's Human-Computer Interaction Institute and include Kraut and Sara Kiesler, a professor of social and decision sciences; Tridas Mukophadhyay, a professor at Carnegie Mellon's graduate business school; William Scherlis, a senior research scientist and director of the Information Technology Center in the School of Computer Science; Vicki Lundmark, a post-doctoral fellow, and Michael Patterson, a graduate student in Social and Decision Sciences.
"We hope our findings help make things change on the Internet. We are not talking about Internet addicts, just regular people," Kraut says. "These are not just results that occur in the extremes. And these are the same people who, when asked, describe the Internet as a positive thing."
The technology that has allowed people to keep in touch with distant family members and friends, to find information quickly and to develop friendships with people around the world apparently is also replacing vital, everyday human communication.
"Many users may be substituting Web browsing or chat rooms for their stronger, real-life relationships," Kiesler says. "You don't have to deal with unpleasantness, because if you don't like somebody's behavior, you can just log off. In real life, relationships aren't always easy. Yet dealing with some of those hard parts is good for us. It helps us keep connected with people."
Greater use of the Internet was associated with statistically significant declines in the social involvement that Kiesler refers to. Decreases in social involvement were indicated by a drop-off in communication within a participant's families, the size of a person's social networks and reports by participants of increases in loneliness and depression, psychological states associated with reduced social involvement.
In all, the study uses data on 169 people in 73 families. A little over half the subjects are female users, a quarter of them belong to minorities. The subject pool also represents a fairly wide income range.
Of the different demographic groups, teenagers seem the most vulnerable to potential negative effects. What's more, teenagers used the Internet for more hours than did adults.
Mukhopadhyay offers the following advice to parents: "The basic objective is to maintain open communication and to stay vigilant. As far as the computer and Internet go, you can put the machine in a public place - in the living room or kitchen rather than the basement or the kid's room. This will automatically ensure that your teen does not use the Internet too much."
Carnegie Mellon's scientists believe the findings will spark a debate, not only for Internet users and researchers, but also for government agencies looking at growth of the Internet and for companies that write Internet software.
Scherlis notes, "We are not branding the Internet as either socially good or bad. The Internet is a complex and multi-faceted social phenomenon and it is evolving rapidly. It was created more than 20 years ago for sharing technical information among scientists. It's really only recently that the Internet has become a public resource, and the average citizen who uses the 'Net has largely inherited this set of services. Our results show that there may be real benefits from greater research and development to the broad area of user level communication and information services. Both industry and government can foster this growth through research into new services, experimentation, evaluation and standards development."
The research was sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the Markle Foundation, and a consortium of computer companies (Apple Computer, Hewlett Packard, Intel and Panasonic), software companies (Lotus Development Corporation, Interval Research), and communications companies (AT&T Research, US Postal Service, Bell Atlantic, Bellcore, US West Advanced Technologies, NTT, CNET) and others (NPD).