Social scientists have long suspected that the internet contributes to our growing isolation. But Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, set out to test that assumption. He says they found that Americans aren't as isolated as we thought and that being active on the internet might actually help prevent social isolation.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, as we heard, the Internet helps us stay connected near and far and transmit our views endlessly across time and space. So why then is there such a widespread perception that our computers cut us off? Maybe it’s because we're physically isolated when we use the Web, or maybe it’s because of a 2006 study that tried to gauge social isolation in America. That study asked the same questions as a study 20 years earlier and found that, sure enough, we have grown more isolated. Lee Rainie, of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, says that the 2006 study had a huge impact on social scientists concerned about isolation. So, Pew set out to test, or rather retest, the assertion that people are increasingly isolated and then reexamine the assumed connection between isolation and use of the Internet. The old survey measured how many confidantes people had, and Rainie said that if you had no one to confide in you were considered socially isolated.
LEE RAINIE: They found that between 1985 and 2004 that the level of social isolation in America had almost tripled. The second thing they found that was even among those who did have confidantes that they could discuss important matters with they had fewer confidantes than before.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And basically this 2006 study blamed this increasing isolation on the presence of the Internet in people’s homes.
LEE RAINIE: It was a pretty logical suspect to look at, because the rise of the Internet and the rise of mobile phones in people’s lives directly coincided with this major social change, the shrinkage of networks and the growth of isolation. But it was a guess. There was, there was no direct evidence. So we asked people in our phone survey, who are the people with whom you discuss important matters in your life. And then we, of course, asked about their technology use, and we figured out who was an Internet user and who was a broadband user, and we asked about some of the things that they did online. Did they belong to social networking sites? Did they use instant messaging? Did they share pictures online? And what we found was that the people who are Internet users and the people who are cell phone users have bigger networks than others, they have more diverse networks than others and it very much challenges the notion that technology is the cause of this major social change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But what specifically did you find along those lines?
LEE RAINIE: We found that there was no increase in social isolation between 1985 and our survey in the summer of 2008, so we challenged the findings that total isolation had tripled in that 20-year span. We did find that networks had shrunk.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And by networks we mean circle of friends.
LEE RAINIE: Yes. In 1985 the average American reported three people in that core social network. In 2008 when we gathered our data they reported about two people in that core social network. But we also then said, well, maybe the Internet’s the cause of this shrinkage of social networks, but we found the exact opposite. Internet users and cell phone users had bigger and more diverse networks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the things you found that I found particularly surprising was that, for instance, frequent Internet users and those who maintain a blog are much more likely to confide in someone who is of another race, and that those who share photos online are more likely to report that they discuss important matters with someone who is a member of another political party.
LEE RAINIE: Yes. There are interesting sort of suspicions about why that’s so. When you participate in social networking sites you’re learning more about people when they are sharing stuff like their pictures or their blog posts or their social network wall posts and stuff like that. So, they're learning that, oh, my buddy isn't a Republican like I thought he was, he turns out to be a Democrat. Or, oh, this part of his spiritual life is very different from what I thought it used to be. And so we're learning more about the diversity of our friends, in ways that our parents couldn't have learned.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We often think of the Internet as this, you know, global communications network, but your study found that the Internet is actually used to communicate locally, just as much as over long distance.
LEE RAINIE: There is the suspicion that Internet use and cell phone use is removing people from local life, from their neighborhoods, from the voluntary associations in their communities and from the public spaces, like parks and restaurants and bars in their communities. And so we asked about that, and it turns out that Internet users are no more likely to be removed from their communities than anyone else. In fact, they're just as likely to be as deeply involved.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, Lee, there was one finding that does seem to go against this trend. It seems that Internet users don't really rely on their neighbors for help. In fact, they are 40 percent less likely to rely on neighbors for help in caring for themselves or a family member and are 26 percent less likely to rely on their neighbors for help with small services, like repairs and lending tools. Do you think that’s just because they have access to an Internet full of help?
LEE RAINIE: I think that’s partly the story, but it also might be the case that Internet users as a class of people just don't need that level of help [BROOKE LAUGHS] compared to other, other folks, that, you know, they're more likely to be employed, they're more likely to have higher incomes, they're more likely to have other sources of support that are available to them. But the second side of that equation definitely does hold up. Internet users and cell phone users are just as likely as everyone else to be contributors to their neighbors, to offer social support to the people in their communities that need it. It might be that they need less help, but they are certainly willing and able to offer as much help as everybody else to their local community.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you’re saying Internet users are just basically more involved.
LEE RAINIE: They can be, yes.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] That’s exactly – that’s exactly right. The fact of the matter is, in many cases the Internet allows people just to be more engaged and more active in their networks because they can reach out to more people more quickly than people who don't use it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s almost axiomatic that the Internet is hazardous to your health. Is this a rebuke to that conventional wisdom?
LEE RAINIE: For centuries, when new technologies come on the scene there’s almost an instinctive human reaction, particularly among those who are challenged by the new technology, to blame the technology for any social ill that happens to arise at the same time. Something has gone on with our social networks in the past 20 years. Our data matched the data that the previous researchers had collected showing the networks are shrinking. And so, now we're inviting other social scientists and researchers like ourselves to go out and find the real culprit and not just think that the Internet lies behind it just because the Internet was being adopted at the same time this harmful social trend was emerging.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lee, thank you so much.
LEE RAINIE: Thanks, Brooke.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lee Rainie is the director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, the next national Census is in 2010. Here’s [LAUGHS] how not to answer when they come to your door.
TIM MEADOWS AS CENSUS TAKER: How long have you lived at this address?
CHRISTOPHER WALKEN AS MR. LEONARD: Oh man, there you go with the numbers again.
TIM MEADOWS AS CENSUS TAKER: Just take your time.
CHRISTOPHER WALKEN AS MR. LEONARD: Well, what do most people say?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from NPR.