It has become one of the familiar stereotypes of the Internet age: the lonely soul who stares at a computer screen all day instead of interacting (whether electronically or face-to-face) with his fellow human beings. But a report released this month by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project rebuts the notion that Internet usage comes in tandem with social isolation.
First of all, social isolation remains much more the exception than the rule in this country. Extrapolating from polling data gathered during the summer of 2008, the report says that "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."
Internet users are a shade less likely than respondents in general to say they have no "core network" of people in their lives. And they're a little more likely than adults generally to have larger numbers of people in their network. Moreover, the core "discussion network" of an Internet user is less apt to consist solely of family members. "Whereas only 45 percent of Americans discuss important matters with someone who is not a family member," says the report, "Internet users are 55 percent more likely to have a non-kin discussion partner."
The study also disputes the notion that engagement with the Internet displaces participation in one's local community, finding that "most Internet activities have little or a positive relationship to local activity." As an example, it mentions that "Internet users are as likely as anyone else to visit with their neighbors in person."
Online social networking is the exception to this rule, says the report: "Users of social networking services are 30 percent less likely to know at least some of their neighbors."
For all the importance of digital communication in people's daily lives, it has not replaced face-to-face interaction as the primary way adults engage with the people who most matter to them. The average respondent to Pew's survey has in-person contact with someone in his or her core network on 210 days per year. In comparison, e-mail users employ that method to connect with their core-network members 72 days per year.
Those who text on a mobile phone said they connect with their core people 125 days per year by that means. Users of social-networking services connect to their core on an average of 39 days per year in that way.