November 4, 2009

Social Isolation and New Technology

Appendix A: Extended Literature Review

What role might new technologies play in how core networks have changed in the past 20 years?

McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Brashears suggested that widespread adoption of the internet and mobile phone may contribute to the constriction of core discussion networks observed in the 2004 GSS. In particular, they suggest that there is evidence that these information and communication technologies (ICTs) encourage distant, relatively weak social ties over more locally-based, strong ties. The implication is that internet and mobile phone use encourage a withdrawal from local social settings that have traditionally been associated with network diversity: neighborhoods and voluntary associations [7]. McPherson et al. suggest that the cell phone might enhance some contacts outside the home (e.g., arranging meetings in restaurants or bars), but they argue that these encounters do not contribute to the number of confidants. The exchange of weak ties for strong ties, and the withdraw from local social contact, are the reasons they suggest for why the internet and mobile phone could be responsible for smaller and less diverse core networks (our strongest social ties).

Other scholarship provides some support for the notion that mobile phone use may play a role in a trend toward smaller, less diverse core networks.

The mobile phone has dramatically changed how people access social support. In the discussion of important matters, mobile phones  make those with whom we are closest and most comfortable easily accessible anytime, anywhere [33]. Studies of mobile phone users confirm that most interactions over the phone are with strong social ties [34, 35]. As a result, critics worry that mobile phone use may lead to intense participation in closed networks at the expense of broader social participation [36]; a pattern that might resemble the small, low-diversity networks what were observed by McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Brashears.

At the same time, there is less evidence to suggest that internet use narrows and constrains social networks.

The internet has become a deeply integrated component of the everyday lives of the majority of Americans. Some early studies of online Americans found that some types of internet use – e.g., home internet use, but not use at work – had a negative impact on interaction with strong social ties as well as time spent on broader public activities [37]. However, these findings have not been replicated in more recent studies [38, 39].

Most resent research provides little indication that internet use is detrimental to social ties [40, 41]. Some internet activities, such as email, blogging, and the use of social networking websites have even been associated with larger and more diverse personal networks [42-44]. There is evidence that a substantial number of internet users form new social ties as a result of their online activities [45-47].

There is also little evidence to suggest that internet use encourages people to withdraw from neighborhood networks, local institutions, or public settings.

Studies of internet use and geographic communities – neighborhoods – find that internet use increases the number of local social ties [16, 48] as well as participation in local civic activities [49, 50]. Studies of wireless internet use in public spaces find evidence that the presence of a wireless infrastructure may attract new people and more frequent use of public spaces, and that this is associated with large and diverse discussion networks [28, 29]. And, a recent meta analysis suggests that there is a positive relationship between internet use and political engagement [51].

In sum, while the rise of the internet and mobile connectivity coincides with the reported decline of core discussion networks, the mixed evidence on mobile phone use and internet activities does not provide a clear link between these trends. However, until now, no study has focused directly on the composition of core networks and the role of internet and mobile phone use.

Cite this publication: Keith Hampton, Lauren Sessions Goulet, Eun Ja Her and Lee Rainie. “Social Isolation and New Technology.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (November 4, 2009), accessed on July 23, 2014.