report: social isolation and new technology

report: social isolation and new technology

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:

Core Networks:

  • Americans\’ are no more socially isolated than they were in 1985.
  • The average size and diversity of core networks has declined over the past 20 years.
  • Cell phone users and those who use IM or share photos online have larger discussion networks.
  • Internet users are more likely to discuss important matters with at least one non-kin (i.e. there discussion networks are more diverse).
  • Looking beyond discussion networks, to include those who are the most significant (people\’s strong ties), cell phone and internet use are associated with larger and more diverse core networks.
  • Face-to-face contact is still the most common mode of contact with strong ties. However, mobile phone contact has replaced the landline phone as 2nd most frequent. Landline phones tie with texting (SMS) as 3rd most frequent channel of communication.
  • Most new technologies are not used primarily for \”distant\” social contact. Email, IM, and use of social networking services (e.g., Facebook) for messaging are used with strong ties at any distance; often more locally than globally.
  • Most people list few core network members (strong ties) as \”friends\” on social networking websites (e.g., Facebook).
  • Looking at people\’s full social networks, internet use is associated with having access to more people in different social circles, and those who use social networking services have even more diverse networks (Although! Participation in neighborhoods, voluntary groups, and public spaces are still the most powerful predictors of network diversity).


  • Internet and mobile phone users are as likely as anyone to see their neighbors in-person.
  • Users of social networking services are less likely to know at least some neighbors.
  • Internet users are less likely to get some types of support from neighbors, but are generally as likely to be supportive neighbors (i.e. the internet allows people to access traditional neighborhood support from a wider geographic area, but they still give support locally).
  • People who use a neighborhood discussion forum (such as my are much more likely to know neighbors, talk to neighbors, and exchange support with neighbors.

    Voluntary Groups

  • Mobile phone users, bloggers, and frequent internet users at work are more likely to belong to a local voluntary group.

    Public Spaces

  • Internet use does not pull people away from public places. Internet use is associated with frequent visits to parks, cafes, and restaurants.
  • Internet access has become a common component of people’s experiences within many public spaces. e.g., of those Americans who have been in a library within the past month, 38% logged on to the internet while they were there, 18% in a café or coffee shop, 5% who visited a church.

    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 Americans’ 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.