Popular culture adores scare stories about the internet and our cell phones are destroying America, creating a generation of lonely Americans, pecking at their keyboards and gadgets, isolated and depressed. Remember the claim from 2006 that social isolation had doubled over the course of two decades? Turns out, it was bogus.
Thanks to the World Internet Project, we now know what has really been happening to our social lives lately. Take, for example, friendships in the U.S. An annual survey of more than 2,000 American households has been conducted every year starting in 2000. (The same people do not participate each year, so the kinds of claims that can be made are qualified by that.) Hua Wang and Barry Wellman analyzed data from 2002 and 2007, when the same relevant friendship questions were included both times. They zeroed in on people between the ages of 25 and 74.
Here are the 3 friendship questions participants were asked:
- Offline friendship: "How many friends outside of your household do you have that you see or speak to at least once a week?" (See if you can guess the average answer to this question, as of 2002 and 2007.)
- Virtual friendship: "How many online friends do you have whom you have never met in person?"
- Migratory friendship: "How many friends, whom you originally met online, have you since met in person?"
The authors also looked at whether friendships were different for people who were nonusers of the internet, light users (under 1 hour a day), moderate users (1-3 hours/day), or heavy users (more than 3 hours/day).
Here are some highlights from their results:
- Isolation nation? Hardly! In both years (2002 and 2007), only 5% of Americans had no friends whom they saw or talked to at least weekly.
- On the average, adults had 9 offline friends in 2002 and 11 in 2007. So in the Internet age, our friendships are not dwindling – they are increasing.
- The number of offline friendships increased between 2002 and 2007 for all four groups, but it increased the most for heavy internet users. Specifically, nonusers gained about 1 friend, light and moderate users gained about 2, and heavy users gained 3.
- The number of virtual and migratory friendships also grew between 2002 and 2007. Americans had an average of 2 online-only friends in 2002 and 4 in 2007. They had an average of .7 migratory friends in 2002 and 1.3 in 2007.
Wang and Wellman have several explanations for the increase in the number of friendships we have:
- Changing technologies: "…the proliferation, popularity, and penetration of social media; increasingly diversified Internet users; and ubiquitous mobile connections…afford ample opportunities for fostering preexisting ties and developing new ones."
- Changing social structures: the important people in our lives are not just those we live with or near; we now connect to other people as individuals rather than (just) as members of small, dense groups such as nuclear families, and our connections range far and wide.
- Changing norms: There are several new norms that are relevant but perhaps the most significant is that Internet use is now considered ordinary.
Their bottom line:
"It is not that people are becoming intimate strangers in the Internet era; it is that people's social connectivity is quantitatively – and probably qualitatively – different than before. Changing social connectivity is, after all, neither a dystopian loss nor a utopian gain but an intricate, multifaceted, fundamental social transformation."
[Note. If you are interested in how the Internet and mobile devices are changing our lives, you might like Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman's book, Networked: The New Social Operating System. I discussed it in "The 3 Revolutions Rocking Our Social World."]