fwd, nytimes: Internet use causes depression and loneliness

Sunah C Cherwin (slippery@pobox.com)
Sun, 30 Aug 1998 17:30:40 -0700

>August 30, 1998
> Researchers Find Sad, Lonely World in Cyberspace
> n 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.
> 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.
> 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
> 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
> 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
> "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."

Sunah Caroline Cherwin              +             http://pobox.com/~sunah
San Francisco Women on the Web TechTeam ++ +++ +++ ++ HTML Writer's Guild