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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Internet Use Creating 'Withdrawn' Society

SAN FRANCISCO -- America's obsession with the Internet is causing many Americans to spend less time with friends and family, less time shopping in stores and more time working at home after hours, according to one of the first large-scale surveys of the societal impact of the Internet.

In short, "the more hours people use the Internet, the less time they spend with real human beings," said Norman Nie, a political scientist at Stanford University who was the principal investigator for the study.

Nie asserted the Internet was creating a broad new wave of social isolation in the United States, raising the specter of an atomized world without human contact or emotion.

That conclusion is certain to prove controversial because of the contention among some online enthusiasts that the Internet has fostered alternative electronic relationships that may replace or even enhance face-to-face family and social connections.

"This is not a zero-sum game," said Howard Rheingold, author of "Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier." "People's social networks do not consist only of people they see face to face. In fact, social networks have been extending because of artificial media since the printing press and the telephone."

The Stanford survey, which was conducted by the university's Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society and published Wednesday, details how the Internet is leading to a rapid shift away from mass media. The study reported that 60 percent of regular Internet users said they had reduced their television viewing, and one-third said they spent less time reading newspapers.

Regular users, spending at least five hours a week online, represented about 20 percent of those surveyed and were the group looked at most closely. In all, the study found 55 percent of those polled had Net access at home or work.

And the study found evidence that the Internet was allowing the workplace to invade the home. A quarter of regular Internet users employed at least part time said the Internet had increased the time they spent working at home without reducing the time spent at work.

In the past Nie has been the author of studies on the decline of American involvement in political and community organizations. He said that while much of the public Internet debate had been focused on the invasion of privacy, little study had been done of the potential psychological and emotional impact of what he said would be more people "home, alone and anonymous."

Nie, a co-author of the study with Professor Lutz Erbring of the Free University of Berlin, contended there was no evidence that virtual communities would provide a substitute for traditional human relationships.

"If I go home at 6:30 in the evening and spend the whole night sending e-mail and wake up the next morning, I still haven't talked to my wife or kids or friends," Nie said. "When you spend your time on the Internet you don't hear a human voice and you never get a hug."

The new study was based on a sample of 4,114 adults in 2,689 households. It is the second major research project to suggest the advent of the Internet may have negative social consequences.

In August 1998 researchers at Carnegie Mellon University reported people who spent even a few hours a week connected to the Internet experienced higher levels of depression and loneliness.

In contrast to the Carnegie Mellon study, which focused on psychological and emotional issues, the Stanford survey is an effort to provide a broad demographic picture of Internet use and its potential impact on society.

"No one is asking the obvious questions about what kind of world we are going to live in when the Internet becomes ubiquitous," Nie said. "No one asked these questions with the advent of the automobile, which led to unplanned suburbanization, or with the rise of television, which led to the decline of our political parties."

Americans overwhelmingly use e-mail as their most common Internet activity, according to the Stanford researchers. Moreover, the report found that most Internet users treated the network as a giant public library, albeit with a commercial tilt.

Despite the general perception that the Internet has become a vast cybernetic shopping mall, the Stanford study indicates that only 25 percent of the Internet users surveyed make purchases online and that fewer than 10 percent do other types of financial transactions online, such as banking.

The assertion that the Internet is leading to a new form of social isolation is certain to generate a lively discussion among social scientists.