November 4, 2009

Social Isolation and New Technology

Part 4: Conclusion

Conclusion

Our findings suggest that the extent of social isolation in America is not as high as has been reported through prior research.  Today, the number of Americans who are truly isolated is no different, or at most is only slightly higher than what it was 30 years ago. Few people have no one with whom they can discuss important matters, and even fewer have no one who is especially significant in their lives. The more pronounced social change, since 1985, has occurred in the size and diversity of Americans’ core networks.

Compared to the relatively recent past, most Americans now have fewer people with whom they discuss important matters, and the diversity of people with whom they discuss these issues has declined. There is a wealth of scholarship to suggest that the implications of this trend for individuals and for American society are starkly negative. Smaller and less diverse core networks diminish personal well-being by limiting access to social support. There are simply fewer people we can rely on in a time of need – whether it is a shoulder to cry on, to borrow a cup of sugar, or to help during a crisis. Small and narrow core networks also impede trust and social tolerance; they limit exposure to the diverse opinions, issues, and ideas of others. If we increasingly rely and trust only a small inner circle of likeminded others, it becomes increasingly difficult to recognize, accept or understand opposing points of view. A great deal of research has shown that diversity within our closest relationships – even in the age of the internet – is vital for the flow of information, for informed deliberation, and to maintain the participatory ideals of a democracy. 

What is the source of this change? We don’t know. But, we believe we have ruled out one likely source: new information and communication technologies such as the internet and mobile phone. Our survey finds the opposite trend amongst internet and mobile phone users; they have larger and more diverse core networks. True, our survey is based on one point in time, we cannot completely exclude the possibility that those technologies that we associate with larger and more diverse networks were, at some point in the recent past, responsible for a sharp decline. But, it is not the case today, and given the evidence it seems unlikely there was some recent switch. We do not know if use of new technologies contributes directly to larger and more diverse core networks, or if those who use technology in a certain way are likely to have better networks from the beginning. We suspect both to be true, but we also offer a third explanation. We believe that at least some of our findings are explained by changes in how technology allows people to share information within their network. Most people mistakenly think they share much more in common with their core ties than they really do. The finding, for example, that those who do certain internet activities like share digital photos are more likely to have cross-political party discussion partners, suggests that new technologies may provide better surveillance of our network members than we had in the past. The “pervasive awareness” that comes with the use of many new “social media” may not change the composition of our social networks as much as it increase our understanding of those who are already in our social circle.  

Our findings also suggest that there is little to the argument that new information and communication technologies decrease participation in traditional, local social settings associated with having a diverse social network. When we look beyond people’s core network, to their full network of relations, we find that most uses of the internet and mobile phone have a positive relationship to neighborhood networks, voluntary associations, and use of public spaces. There is some evidence that very specific internet activities, such as use of social networking services (e.g, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn), substitutes for some neighborhood involvement – the internet allows people to obtain traditional forms of neighborhood support from a social circle that extends outside of their neighborhood. Yet, internet users continue to give support to their neighbors, and the level of face-to-face contact with neighbors is the same for internet users as it is for non-users. In addition, many internet users take advantage of the additional communication channel that email affords for local contact. While only a small number of neighborhoods have an organized channel of communication online, such as a neighborhood discussion forum (e.g., www.i-Neighbors.org), those that belong to these discussion forums are far more involved locally than are other Americans. In addition, while participation in traditional social settings – neighborhoods, voluntary associations, and public spaces – remain the strongest predictors of a diverse social network, internet use, and in particular use of social networking services, has emerged as a new social setting that is directly linked with having a more diverse personal network. People who participate in these traditional settings, as well as new ones afforded by the internet, are likely to benefit from the novel information streams to which they are exposed.

Although the reasons for a historical shift toward smaller, less diverse core networks do not seem to rest with internet and mobile phone use, the solutions may. We do not espouse technological determinism. It is clear that people shape technology far more than the other way around. For this reason, our survey results suggest that people’s lives are likely to be enhanced by participation with new communication technologies, rather than by fearing that their use of new technology will send them into a spiral of isolation.