This month we’ve seen a lot of interesting talk about different technologies and how they affect teens here at the YALSA blog. Now that we’re wrapping things up, I thought it might be interesting to pull back a little and look at the larger social effect of the Internet on society. There are two reports by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in particular that can tell us how the Internet has changed our social lives.

A 2006 study published in the American Sociological Review contented that over the previous 20 years, Americans had become more socially isolated as the number of people with whom they discussed things declined and the diversity of those groups of people decreased.

While a 2009 Pew Research Center report corroborated some of the findings of the 2006 study, it also cast some of the findings of that study in doubt. Here are some of their findings:

  • It was true that “an increasing number of Americans have no one with whom they can discuss important matters, but that “compared to 1985, there has been a small-to-modest change, rather than a large drop in the number of people who report that they have no one with whom they can discuss important matters.” In fact, 12% of subjects said they didn’t have such a person, but only 6% of adults said they had no one “especially significant” in their lives.
  • Again, it’s true that the size of core discussion networks has declined–by about 1/3, or about one person. And diversity had declined as well, with discussion networks now mostly centered around family members.
  • However! The Pew study determined that these shrinking, homogenizing social networks weren’t due to mobile phone use. Having a mobile phone–as well as using the Internet for sharing digital photos and for IMing–was correlated with having a large discussion network, and Internet users were more likely to discuss things with non-family and were less likely to rely exclusively on spouses or partners for discussion. Additionally, blogging was linked with a 95% higher likelihood of having a discussion partner of a different race.
  • Face-to-face communication is still the most common means of having contact with people in our discussion networks. Mobile phones come in second; texting and landline phones tied for third; email, IM, and social networking websites came next (in that order); and sending cards and letters was the least frequent method of communication.
  • Owners of a mobile phone, people who used the Internet frequently at work, and bloggers were more likely to belong to some sort of “local voluntary group,” which includes things like neighborhood associations, sports leagues, youth groups, and church or social clubs.
  • And lest you think Internet users are just holed up at home, the report also found that Internet users were 42% more likely to visit a public park or plaza than non-users, and were 45% more likely to visit a coffee shop or cafe. Being a blogger made you even more likely to visit a public park.
  • Those who use the Internet and use a social networking website had social networks that were about 20% more diverse than non-Internet users.

So in short, the average American does have fewer people with whom her or she can discuss important things, and those networks of people with whom we discuss things are becoming less diverse, but using the Internet or a mobile phone isn’t associated with those findings. In fact, face-to-face communication is still king, using the Internet and cell phones and related technology is increasing our interaction with one another and even getting us out into public more often.

I thought it was interesting that Internet users were more likely to join voluntary associations, so another Pew study from earlier this year on the social side of the Internet and the way people who are in these groups view and use the Internet caught my attention.

Some 75% of American adults are in one of these groups–more than you’d think since apparently younger people aren’t “joiners”–and the basic finding of this report is that 80% of Internet users participate in groups compared to 56% of those who don’t use the Internet. And social media users are even more likely to be active in those groups: 82% of social network users were members of an organization and 85% of Twitter users were. The researchers also found that 24% of people who are active in groups said they discovered at least one of those groups on the Internet.

The report also explores the impact of the Internet on these voluntary associations. They found that the majority of Americans said the Internet has had a “major” impact on the ability of groups to:

  • communicate with members
  • draw attention to an issue
  • have an impact on society at large
  • organize activities
  • raise money
  • recruit new members

Of people who were active in groups, 48% said their groups have a page on a social network site like Facebook, and 30% of people said the groups to which they belong have their own blogs.

One of the findings by which I was most encouraged was that “Internet users are more active participants in their groups than other adults, and are more likely to feel pride and a sense of accomplishment.” And Internet users were more likely to attend meetings and events for groups in which they were active, volunteer their time to one of their groups, contribute money to one of their groups, or take a leadership role in one of their groups.

I tend to be pretty excited about the Internet and new technology, but I know there are definitely people–and studies–that worry about what the Internet is doing to society and to individual people and their ability to socialize and develop and be part of our wider society. But I think that both of these reports help to counter those impressions. While our networks of trusted discussion partners may be shrinking on average, Internet users aren’t seeing that negative outcome, and some Internet users are even experiencing more diverse social networks. The Internet lets groups and clubs reach more people and have more of an impact on the world, and Internet users are, on average, more likely to be involved in those groups and clubs and to feel pride in what they do with those groups. That’s news I like to hear!

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