The study surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,512 adults in summer 2008. It finds that Americans are not as isolated as has previously been reported. People’s use of mobile phones and the internet is associated with larger and more diverse discussion networks. Internet use in general and use of social networking services in particular are associated with more diverse social networks.
The researchers claim that the number of Americans who are truly isolated is at most only slightly higher than it was 30 years ago. Few people have no one with whom they can discuss important matters, and even fewer have no one who is especially significant in their lives. But they do confirm a more pronounced change, over the past two decades, in the size and diversity of people's core networks.
These paragraphs, I feel, are important:
Compared to the relatively recent past, most Americans now have fewer people with whom they discuss important matters, and the diversity of people with whom they discuss these issues has declined. There is a wealth of scholarship to suggest that the implications of this trend for individuals and for American society are starkly negative. Smaller and less diverse core networks diminish personal well-being by limiting access to social support. There are simply fewer people we can rely on in a time of need – whether it is a shoulder to cry on, to borrow a cup of sugar, or to help during a crisis.
Small and narrow core networks also impede trust and social tolerance; they limit exposure to the diverse opinions, issues, and ideas of others. If we increasingly rely and trust only a small inner circle of likeminded others, it becomes increasingly difficult to recognize, accept or understand opposing points of view. A great deal of research has shown that diversity within our closest relationships – even in the age of the internet – is vital for the flow of information, for informed deliberation, and to maintain the participatory ideals of a democracy.
As we would expect, Hampton and his colleagues clear up some of the thinking about the contribution of technologies to this trend:
What is the source of this change? We don’t know. But, we believe we have ruled out one likely source: new information and communication technologies such as the internet and mobile phone. Our survey finds the opposite trend amongst internet and mobile phone users; they have larger and more diverse core networks.
What about local social networks? The researchers conclude:
Our findings also suggest that there is little to the argument that new information and communication technologies decrease participation in traditional, local social settings associated with having a diverse social network. When we look beyond people’s core network, to their full network of relations, we find that most uses of the internet and mobile phone have a positive relationship to neighborhood networks, voluntary associations, and use of public spaces. There is some evidence that very specific internet activities, such as use of social networking services (e.g, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn), substitutes for some neighborhood involvement – the internet allows people to obtain traditional forms of neighborhood support from a social circle that extends outside of their neighborhood. Yet, internet users continue to give support to their neighbors, and the level of face-to-face contact with neighbors is the same for internet users as it is for non-users.
As we know, many people use the internet to reinforce local connections. The research finds that people who belong to a neighborhood discussion forum are far more involved locally than are others. (Previously: Maybe neighbourhood blogs reflect neighbourhood demographics?)
From the press release:
“There is a tendency by critics to blame technology first when social change occurs,” argued Prof. Keith Hampton, the lead author of the Pew Internet report, Social Isolation and New Technology. “This is the first research that actually explores the connection between technology use and social isolation and we find the opposite. It turns out that those who use the internet and mobile phones have notable social advantages. People use the technology to stay in touch and share information in ways that keep them socially active and connected to their communities.”