Bad News From Cyberspace?
October 30, 1998
Author: Dorothy Shore Zinberg, Belfer Center For Science and International Affairs
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Science, Technology, and Public Policy
Bad News From Cyberspace?
Dorothy Shore Zinberg
To the dismay of the true believers who insist that the internet has the potential to become the greatest force yet unleashed for individual freedom, intellectual development and even global democracy, the most recent findings from a survey carried out by a well-credentialed academic group have left the perpetrators themselves dismayed.
Contrary to their own expectations, the authors of Home Net, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, reported that spending time on the internet led to statistically significant increases in feelings of loneliness, depression and a loss of friendships.
This is clearly a bad-news-good-news verdict. The bad news casts a pall over the unbridled enthusiasm that has been fueling the rush to cyberspace in homes and schools. The good news is that social science has been vindicated, at least in this instance, because here is a study where the findings run counter to the researchers' expectations and commitments. The data were not repackaged, and the authors published their findings without torturous reinterpretations of their observations.
It is quite unlikely that Apple Computer, Bell Atlantic, Intel Corporation, the Hewlett Packard Corporation, Netscape Communications and many other hi-tech organizations would have happily funded the study were the researchers known for an anti-technology bias. Undoubtedly, all concerned expected a glowing report.
The news release made headlines: "Carnegie Study Reveals Negative Potential of Heavy Internet Use on Emotional Well Being." One could imagine worried parents beginning to think that it was time to jettison or at least severely curtail the use of this technology that only yesterday had promised so much: no parent would knowingly want to increase an offspring's social isolation or contribute to the further breakdown of the family.
Were these results to be accepted as fact, the financial and policy implications for the information technology industry could be devastating. How did these unanticipated results come about?
The study, Internet Paradox: A Social Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Well-Being, was published in American Psychologist (September, 1998). Begun in 1995 when Home Net researchers gave PCs and free internet accounts to 256 people in 93 families in an area near the university, the research was designed to collect longitudinal data that would "examine the effects of the Internet on social involvement and psychological well-being". No one in the experiment had previously owned a computer or subscribed to an e-mail account.
Immediately, the sample is suspect. Who in 1995 did not already have a PC? Between home and work, the majority of Americans use a computer; more than 70 million are on-line, and that does not include those who have access through their place of employment. In addition, the study dropped the control group early on because it pleaded boredom and was unwilling to participate over time.
By using standard personality tests, the researchers were able to control for depression, demonstrating that the subjects were not depressed before they began to spend considerable time on the internet. Not surprisingly, subjects in the study found it easier to log-off when a "virtual" friendship became contentious than it was to work out a disagreement within the family. Both circumstances led to disappointment and, in some in instances, depression.
The study is obviously seriously flawed— the sample was not randomly chosen so the results, even they were accurate for the small group of subjects, cannot be generalized to any other part of the population. Nevertheless, the experimental group is one of the few whose use of the internet has been systematically monitored over a period of two years. It is too early to "prove" in any definitive way just what the long-term impact of the Internet on individuals and governance will be.
Understanding the social-psychological effects of the telephone and television has taken decades, and in the case of TV particularly the final word has not been spoken. The authors have provided a template for improving badly needed longitudinal research.
Social science is not a science. (Please save your brickbats. My mind is closed on this issue.) As a believer in the value of N=1— a research sample of one, namely, myself— I have great empathy for the beleaguered researchers who are on the right track. Having watched so many people lose themselves in wanderings through the web as an excuse (unacknowledged) for not showing up at family gatherings or social dinners; or students as described by Sherry Turkle in her book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, spending hours in chat rooms where they have created virtual personas without having a grip on their real-world identities, I know that all is not unmitigated gain on the internet.
So the next step is to improve the methodology of the Carnegie-Mellon team and dig into the assessment knowing that like almost everything in life the net will most likely turn out to be both a remarkable tool that is bringing us information beyond our wildest dreams and a trade-off in time lost with teachers, families and friends. Being able to unplug from unpleasantness might well provide immediate satisfaction but the hard-won gains of working through disagreements and tension in real time and space appear to contribute more to a sense of well being. Sure sounds reassuringly old-fashioned.
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