I have released a new report on Social Isolation and New Technology: How the Internet and Mobile Phones Impact Americans\’ Social Networks. Available from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the report is coauthored with my students, Lauren Sessions and Eun Ja Her (Jenny), and with Lee Rainie. You can find the press release here.
The study is based on a random sample of 2,512 U.S. adults interviewed in the summer of 2008. The goal of the study was to respond to concerns that Internet or cell phone use are associated with social isolation, smaller or less diverse social networks, or disengagement from neighborhoods, voluntary groups, and public spaces (like parks and cafes). In particular, I wanted to respond to an article published in ASR 2006 that reported that since 1985 social isolation had tripled, the mean size of people\’s core discussion networks had shrunk by a third, and that the number of Americans with at least one non-kin who they discuss important matters with dropped from 80% to 57%.
Core networks are important because they provide broad social support and help in a crisis. Core networks are highly influential in opinion formation. Diverse core networks maximize opinion quality and political participation. If the number and diversity of those with whom people discuss important matters is threatened, so is the ability of individuals to be healthy, informed, and active participants in a democracy. It is also ideal when our larger social network, which includes core ties as well as all weak ties, is diverse. Those with more diverse personal networks have access to more and better information, they tend to be more trusting and more tolerant, and they tend to be physically and mentally healthier. Traditionally, diverse personal networks are associated with participation in neighborhoods, voluntary groups, and public spaces.
The key findings are:
This study suggest that the extent of social isolation in America is not as high as has been reported through prior research. The number of Americans who are truly isolated is no different, or at most is only slightly higher than what it was 20 years ago. The more pronounced social change, since 1985, has occurred in the size and diversity of Americansâ€™ core networks. We believe we have largely ruled out one likely cause: new information and communication technologies such as the internet and mobile phone. Our findings also suggest that there is little to the argument that new ICTs decrease participation in traditional, local social settings associated with having a diverse social network. In fact, internet use, and in particular use of social networking services, has emerged as a new social setting that is directly linked with having a more diverse personal network.