In the first concentrated study of the social and psychological effects of Internet use at home, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have found that people who spend even a few hours a week online experience higher levels of depression and loneliness than they would have if they used the computer network less frequently.
Those participants who were lonelier and more depressed at the start of the two-year study, as determined by a standard questionnaire, were not more likely to use the Internet. Instead, Internet use itself appeared to cause a decline in psychological well-being, the researchers said.
The results of the $1.5 million project ran contrary to the expectations of the social scientists who designed it and to many of the organizations that financed the study. These included companies such as Intel Corp., Hewlett-Packard, AT&T Research and Apple Computer, as well as the National Science Foundation.
"We were shocked by the findings, because they are counterintuitive to what we know about how socially the Internet is being used," said Robert Kraut, a social psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon's Human Computer Interaction Institute in Pittsburgh. "We are not talking here about the extremes. These were normal adults and their families, and on average, for those who used the Internet most, things got worse."
The Internet has been praised as superior to television and other "passive" media because it allows users to choose the kind of information they want to receive and, often, to respond actively to it in the form of e-mail exchanges with other users, chat rooms or electronic bulletin board postings.
Research on the effects of watching television indicates that it tends to reduce social involvement. But the new study, titled "HomeNet," suggests that the interactive medium may be no more socially healthy than older mass media. It also raises troubling questions about the nature of "virtual" communication and the disembodied relationships that are often formed in the vacuum of cyberspace.
Participants in the study used inherently social features such as e-mail and Internet chat more than they used passive information-gathering such as reading or watching videos. But they reported a decline in interaction with family members and a reduction in their circles of friends that directly corresponded to the amount of time they spent on line.
At the beginning and end of the two-year study, the subjects were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as "I felt everything I did was an effort," and "I enjoyed life" and "I can find companionship when I want it." They were also asked to estimate how many minutes each day they spent with each member of their family and to quantify their social circle. Many of these are standard questions in tests used to determine psychological health.
For the duration of the study, the subjects' use of the Internet was recorded. For the purposes of this study, depression and loneliness were measured independently, and each subject was rated on a subjective scale. In measuring depression, the responses were plotted on a scale of 0 to 3, with 0 being the least depressed and 3 being the most depressed. Loneliness was plotted on a scale of 1 to 5.
By the end of the study, the researchers found that one hour a week on the Internet led, on average, to an increase of .03, or 1 percent, on the depression scale, a loss of 2.7 members of the subject's social circle, which averaged 66 people, and an increase of .02, or four-tenths of 1 percent, on the loneliness scale.
The subjects exhibited wide variations in all three measured effects, and while the net effects were not large, they were statistically significant in demonstrating deterioration of social and psychological life, Kraut said.
Based on these data, the researchers hypothesize that relationships maintained over long distances without face-to-face contact ultimately do not provide the kind of support and reciprocity that typically contributes to a sense of psychological security and happiness, like being available to baby-sit in a pinch for a friend or to grab a cup of coffee.
"Our hypothesis is there are more cases where you're building shallow relationships, leading to an overall decline in feeling of connection to other people," Kraut said.
The study tracked the behavior of 169 participants in the Pittsburgh area who were selected from four schools and community groups. The findings will be published this week by The American Psychologist, the peer-reviewed monthly journal of the American Psychological Association.
Because the study participants were not randomly selected, it is unclear how the findings apply to the general population. It is also conceivable that some unmeasured factor caused simultaneous increases in use of the Internet and decline in normal levels of social involvement. Several social scientists familiar with the study vouched for its credibility and predicted that the findings would probably touch off a national debate about how public policy on the Internet should evolve and how the technology itself might be shaped to yield more beneficial effects.
Pub Date: 8/30/98