Using the Web for Social Ties

By Katrina Woznicki


One evening almost four years ago, a young woman in upstate New York named Nicole logged on to a chat room for fans of the television show "Melrose Place" and began a conversation with a 27-year-old in Montreal named Demetre. Within a few months, their public chats became a private e-mail correspondence. E-mail love letters led to four-hour telephone conversations, which led to a night out, which led to an engagement the following summer.
       At that time, the Internet was "so very much a part of my life," says Nicole, who asked that she and her husband's last names not be used. "Neither one of us were (on the Web) looking for someone. We were bored and just chatting."
       Nicole and Demetre will celebrate their second wedding anniversary this summer. Nowadays, the Web has a smaller role in her life, says Nicole. And she's embarrassed to tell people she met her husband online. "Not everyone understands how relationships are on the Internet."
       Perhaps that's because those relationships are just beginning to be studied by psychologists and sociologists, who question whether too much time online erodes natural human socialization or enhances it. Such personal interaction, like meeting a friend at a café or attending a church service, has profound benefits on overall health. Strong social networks may help lower blood pressure and reduce anxiety and depression. But will a virtual social network suffice?
       According to the latest research, a virtual network certainly has its benefits. A study released this month by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that people who use the Internet, especially women, believe it enhances their social connections. About half of the 3,533 adults surveyed used the Internet, and half of those Internet users reported having a strong social network of family and friends whom they communicated with regularly via the Web. They said e-mail has strengthened their ties with long-distance relatives and friends. In contrast, only 38 percent of those surveyed who did not use the Internet reported having a strong social network.
       "It's a connecting tool," says Lee Rainie, director of the Washington, D.C.-based project. "If there's an isolating effect to the Internet, we didn't pick it up."


Chatting With China Doesn't Count

      Those findings conflict with the popular perception that the Internet instead isolates people. Access to the Internet is so new, researchers say it's difficult to predict the long-term impact of regular use on the way we socialize. But some critics are convinced the Internet can indeed harm people socially.
       "I don't know if it's a good thing for someone to communicate (online) every day with someone in China, but they won't say hello to their neighbor," says David Greenfield, a clinical psychologist who treats people suffering from Internet-related problems at his Center for Internet Studies in West Hartford, Conn. Humans, Greenfield says, are biologically wired to socialize. That's why they marry, form families, join clubs and live in communities and neighborhoods. If you're on the Internet, he says, you're away from such social activities and environments.
not convinced virtual social networks are equivalent to real-time social networks," he says. "…We need contact of a physical nature."

       The Pew survey contradicts another well-publicized study, this one released by researchers at Stanford University in February. The Stanford survey -- which differed markedly from the Pew survey in that it did not ask people to assess the quality of their online relationships -- blamed the Internet for blurring the boundary between work and home life, and for causing people to spend more time at the office and less time with family and friends. The researchers suggested their findings, based on a survey given to 4,113 adults in 2,689 households, found use of the Internet could lead to a world lacking real human emotion -- a cyberworld in which the computer user has total control by simply clicking the mouse.
       Can the Internet really be that dangerous to emotional health? After all, distrust of new methods of communication has been common before; sometimes that distrust has proved valid, and sometimes not. Critics pointed the finger at television, claiming it would make people lazy, and in fact studies do link an upsurge in Americans' obesity levels to TV watching, among other factors. On the other hand, folks thought the telephone would ruin relationships that had been sustained through letter-writing. True, technology changed the way we communicated, but it didn't mean we stopped communicating.
       "Like every new technology, it depends how we use that technology, which means we are ultimately in control," says J.M. Spectar, a professor of law at the University of LaVerne in LaVerne, Calif., who studies the Internet's effect on society. "It's true we could become more alienated, but I see that the Internet could help us participate in the world, become world citizens."


Blaming the Messenger

      No one argues that the Internet hasn't brought people a plethora of information they didn't have 10, or even five, years ago. But if people imagine the Information Age will create a society of people who sit alone typing and reading from a a screen, the Internet is not to blame, says sociologist Jill Stein. We were well on our way to that kind of alienation long before "surf" was no longer something you did in the ocean and "chat" stopped requiring someone else in the room.
       "Our social networks are changing and I think that it's difficult to assess whether that's positive or negative," says Stein, a sociology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Changes during the past 50 years have led to a greater
sense of alienation, particularly with the
breakdown of the nuclear family and the exodus to suburbia, Stein says. The Internet, she says, is not the culprit of every societal ill. It's an "easy, convenient target."

       The Pew project's Rainie says it's possible Internet users may isolate themselves. But his findings reveal that the stereotype of "pizza boxes all around you and empty soda cans strewn around" as a Web user surfs alone is not the reality. "Sure, when they're sitting in front of the keyboard, then they're not doing other things in life," Rainie says, "but one thing they are doing is connecting to family and friends."


Affairs, Pornography and Mail for Mom?

      So what about those stories of the bored housewife who began an online affair with a man that led to a real affair in which she contracted HIV? Or the man who downloaded pornography at work, was fired and sent to jail? Greenfield says he's handled both of these cases. He contends that 6 percent of North American Internet users are compulsive, which he defines as using the Internet to the exclusion of other, offline activities. And, Greenfield says, the seductiveness and convenience of the Internet, where people can lose both a sense of time and of themselves, may cause people to take actions they normally wouldn't.
       Not surprisingly, others, including clinical psychologist Barry Gordon, disagree.
       "I don't think it's clear at all that the Internet is creating behavior that people wouldn't do otherwise," says Gordon, who has a private practice in Petaluma, Calif. "People who would have a tendency to become self-destructive in behavior would do that online as well as in their community."
       When should you pull the plug on Internet use? Moderation, experts say, is the key to just about everything. And the problem for many may solve itself. As the novelty of the Web wears off, the Internet will feel less like a casino, with distorted time and space, and more like a household appliance.
       Take Nicole, for example. Had she met Demetre in a public place, she says she probably would not have approached him. In a chat room, she felt comfortable. And now, Nicole says, she spends less time on the computer and more time with her husband.


Living Return                                          Top Return
Living Return                             Top Return