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Me, Myself, and I(nternet)

Does browsing the Web make us lonelier?

The Headcase has decided on a new format, wherein our hero—well, what's a hero?—posts one shorter item daily rather than five at a time. We tinker because we care.

Considering this new isolationist policy, it seems fitting to discuss new research that links browsing the Internet with feeling lonely. In the May issue of Computers in Human Behavior, a research team led by Irena Stepanikova of South Carolina reports evidence connecting increased Web use with increased loneliness and decreased life satisfaction.

The researchers analyzed data collected from 13,776 people in 2004 and 2005. These participants recalled their daily activity two ways: in a detailed six-hour "time-diary," and in a broader, 24-hour "global recall." Both response methods connected greater Internet use with more loneliness and less general life satisfaction; this connection was larger in the "time-diary" group.

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The authors also report that the negative effects of Internet use on well-being were "five times larger" than the positive effects of personal relationships. In short, this means it's easier to damage well-being while online than to repair it through interacting with family and friends.

The researchers drew some longitudinal conclusions from 754 people tracked across both years. During this time, "time-diary" data connected increased Web use with reduced life satisfaction, while "global recall" data linking this reduction with an increase in non-email Internet communication, such as chatting.

All told, the authors found little room for silver linings. Relationships between Web use and loneliness or life satisfaction:

appear to be negative, not positive. In contrast to some previous studies, we found no evidence of links between increased time on Internet activities and improved psychological well-being.

An interesting side-note to the paper, which Stepanikova was kind enough to email The Headcase in advance, is that, looking back, people tended to overestimate the amount of time they spent online and underestimate time they spent with their families.

Today a link between Web use and loneliness might not seem suprising. But the first researchers to study the subject, back in the mid-1990s, expected the complete opposite. I talked to one of these researchers, Robert Kraut of Carnegie Mellon, for a fairly recent story on loneliness. Kraut called it "shocking" to find that internet use increased rather than decreased loneliness and depression.

John Cacioppo, fellow PT blogger and author of Loneliness, told me it's not how much we use the Internet that governs our loneliness—just how:

If you sacrifice face-to-face interactions for online interactions—if you have four thousand friends on Facebook instead of one good friend right next to you—you're more lonely.

The authors of the new study were hesitant to draw any absolute conclusions, based on limitations and variables in their research. The critical caveat is one of causation: does Internet use itself make people lonelier, or do people who were already lonely simply go online more often than others? It's the old question of which came first, the chicken or the mouse.

(HT BPS Research)
(Flickr image: poorusher)

Science writer Eric Jaffe has covered behavior for several years and is working on a book about psychiatry during World War II.

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