August 30, 1998

Researchers Find Sad, Lonely World in Cyberspace


In the first concentrated study of the social and psychological effects of Internet use at home, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have found that people who spend even a few hours a week online experience higher levels of depression and loneliness than they would have if they used the computer network less frequently.

Those participants who were lonelier and more depressed at the start of the two-year study, as determined by a standard questionnaire administered to all the subjects, were not more likely to use the Internet. Instead, Internet use itself appeared to cause a decline in psychological well-being, the researchers said.

New questions on public policy on the Internet.

The results of the $1.5 million project ran completely contrary to expectations of the social scientists who designed it and to many of the organizations that financed the study. These included technology companies like Intel Corp., Hewlett Packard, AT&T Research and Apple Computer, as well as the National Science Foundation.

"We were shocked by the findings, because they are counterintuitive to what we know about how socially the Internet is being used," said Robert Kraut, a social psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon's Human Computer Interaction Institute. "We are not talking here about the extremes. These were normal adults and their families, and on average, for those who used the Internet most, things got worse."

The Internet has been praised as superior to television and other "passive" media because it allows users to choose the kind of information they want to receive, and often, to respond actively to it in the form of e-mail exchanges with other users, chat rooms or electronic bulletin board postings.

Research on the effects of watching television indicates that it tends to reduce social involvement. But the new study, titled "HomeNet," suggests that the interactive medium may be no more socially healthy than older mass media. It also raises troubling questions about the nature of "virtual" communication and the disembodied relationships that are often formed in the vacuum of cyberspace.

Participants in the study used inherently social features like e-mail and Internet chat more than they used passive information gathering like reading or watching videos. But they reported a decline in interaction with family members and a reduction in their circles of friends that directly corresponded to the amount of time they spent online.

At the beginning and end of the two-year study, the subjects were asked to agree or disagree with statements like "I felt everything I did was an effort," and "I enjoyed life" and "I can find companionship when I want it." They were also asked to estimate how many minutes each day they spent with each member of their family and to quantify their social circle. Many of these are standard questions in tests used to determine psychological health.

For the duration of the study, the subjects' use of the Internet was recorded. For the purposes of this study, depression and loneliness were measured independently, and each subject was rated on a subjective scale. In measuring depression, the responses were plotted on a scale of 0 to 3, with 0 being the least depressed and 3 being the most depressed. Loneliness was plotted on a scale of 1 to 5.

By the end of the study, the researchers found that one hour a week on the Internet led, on average, to an increase of .03, or 1 percent, on the depression scale, a loss of 2.7 members of the subject's social circle, which averaged 66 people, and an increase of .02, or four-tenths of 1 percent, on the loneliness scale.

The subjects exhibited wide variations in all three measured effects, and while the net effects were not large, they were statistically significant in demonstrating deterioration of social and psychological life, Kraut said.

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Based on these data, the researchers hypothesize that relationships maintained over long distances without face-to-face contact ultimately do not provide the kind of support and reciprocity that typically contribute to a sense of psychological security and happiness, like being available to baby-sit in a pinch for a friend, or to grab a cup of coffee.

"Our hypothesis is there are more cases where you're building shallow relationships, leading to an overall decline in feeling of connection to other people," Kraut said.

The study tracked the behavior of 169 participants in the Pittsburgh area who were selected from four schools and community groups. Half the group was measured through two years of Internet use, and the other half for one year. The findings will be published this week by The American Psychologist, the peer-reviewed monthly journal of the American Psychological Association.

Because the study participants were not randomly selected, it is unclear how the findings apply to the general population. It is also conceivable that some unmeasured factor caused simultaneous increases in use of the Internet and decline in normal levels of social involvement. Moreover, the effect of Internet use varied depending on an individual's life patterns and type of use. Researchers said that people who were isolated because of their geography or work shifts might have benefited socially from Internet use.

Even so, several social scientists familiar with the study vouched for its credibility and predicted that the findings would probably touch off a national debate over how public policy on the Internet should evolve and how the technology itself might be shaped to yield more beneficial effects.

"They did an extremely careful scientific study, and it's not a result that's easily ignored," said Tora Bikson, a senior scientist at Rand, the research institution. Based in part on previous studies that focused on how local communities like Santa Monica, Calif., used computer networks to enhance civic participation, Rand has recommended that the federal government provide e-mail access to all Americans.

"It's not clear what the underlying psychological explanation is," Ms. Bikson said of the study. "Is it because people give up day-to-day contact and then find themselves depressed? Or are they exposed to the broader world of Internet and then wonder, 'What am I doing here in Pittsburgh?' Maybe your comparison standard changes. I'd like to see this replicated on a larger scale. Then I'd really worry."

Christine Riley, a psychologist at Intel Corp., the giant chip manufacturer that was among the sponsors of the study, said she was surprised by the results but did not consider the research definitive.

"For us, the point is there was really no information on this before," Ms. Riley said. "But it's important to remember this is not about the technology, per se; it's about how it is used. It really points to the need for considering social factors in terms of how you design applications and services for technology."

The Carnegie Mellon team -- which included Sara Kiesler, a social psychologist who helped pioneer the study of human interaction over computer networks; Tridas Mukophadhyay, a professor at the graduate business school who has examined computer mediated communication in the workplace; and William Scherlis, a research scientist in computer science -- stressed that the negative effects of Internet use that they found were not inevitable.

For example, the main focus of Internet use in schools has been gathering information and getting in touch with people from far-away places. But the research suggests that maintaining social ties with people in close physical proximity could be more psychologically healthy.

"More intense development and deployment of services that support pre-existing communities and strong relationships should be encouraged," the researchers write in their forthcoming article. "Government efforts to wire the nation's schools, for example, should consider online homework sessions for students rather than just online reference works."

At a time when Internet use is expanding rapidly -- nearly 70 million adult Americans are on line, according to Nielsen Media Research -- social critics say the technology could exacerbate the fragmentation of U.S. society or help to fuse it, depending on how it is used.

"There are two things the Internet can turn out to be, and we don't know yet which it's going to be," said Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard University whose forthcoming book, "Bowling Alone," which is to be published next year by Simon & Schuster, chronicles the alienation of Americans from each other since the 1960s. "The fact that I'm able to communicate daily with my collaborators in Germany and Japan makes me more efficient, but there are a lot of things it can't do, like bring me chicken soup."

Putnam added, "The question is how can you push computer mediated communication in a direction that would make it more community friendly."

Perhaps paradoxically, several participants in the Internet study expressed surprise when they were informed of the study's conclusions by a reporter.

"For me it's been the opposite of depression; it's been a way of being connected," said Rabbi Alvin Berkun, who used the Internet for a few hours a week to read The Jerusalem Post and communicate with other rabbis across the country.

But Berkun said his wife did not share his enthusiasm for the medium. "She does sometimes resent when I go and hook up," he said, adding after a pause, "I guess I am away from where my family is while I'm on the computer." Another possibility is that the natural human preference for face-to-face communication may provide a self-correcting mechanism to the technology that tries to cross it.

The rabbi's daughter, Rebecca, 17, said she had spent a fair amount of time in teen-age chat rooms at the beginning of the survey in 1995.

"I can see how people would get depressed," Ms. Berkun said. "When we first got it, I would be on for an hour a day or more. But I found it was the same type of people, the same type of things being said. It got kind of old."

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