Who’d a thunk that a vast, consuming network of virtual relationships mediated by a clumsy Facebook interface would decrease rich, meaningful personal relationships in the “real” world? Crazy talk I say.
A new study in the American Sociological Review (via the Cornell Daily Sun) would seem to suggest just that, supporting an earlier Pew Research paper from 2009 saying a similar thing, albeit with some less dramatic results. We’re losing close relationships and the goddamn internet is the reason.
The more recent study, led by Cornell professor Matthew Brashears, looked at people’s “discussion networks,” the group of associates that someone can talk about really important stuff with. Between a study done in 1985 and another done in 2010, Brashears found that the average discussion network decreased from three to two people.
“In the Internet age, you can be friends on Facebook, but you’re not really friends unless you interact,” Brashears says in the study. “[The Internet] doesn’t increase the number of close associates.” His work doesn’t actually study the why so it remains a pretty big assumption that the internet is to blame but, well, the timeline sure fits and blaming the internet for all our social problems is the New Way.
The 2009 Pew paper isn’t as doom and gloom as you might expect. A couple of conclusions:
* Americans are not as isolated as has been previously reported. We find that the extent of social isolation has hardly changed since 1985, contrary to concerns that the prevalence of severe isolation has tripled since then. Only 6% of the adult population has no one with whom they can discuss important matters or who they consider to be “especially significant” in their life.
* We confirm that Americans’ discussion networks have shrunk by about a third since 1985 and have become less diverse because they contain fewer non-family members. However, contrary to the considerable concern that people’s use of the internet and cell phones could be tied to the trend towards smaller networks, we find that ownership of a mobile phone and participation in a variety of internet activities are associated with larger and more diverse core discussion networks. (Discussion networks are a key measure of people’s most important social ties.)
I guess I have two people I’d count as fitting into the discussion group category, which is markedly down from my 1985 discussion group, which consisted of everybody that I saw ever because I was five.
- 2008 Report: Are We Too Addicted to Social Networking Sites?
- Attention: The Internet Is Killing Yours: A Q+A with Rachel Dretzin
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