Dispelling One of the Biggest Internet Myths

We recently mentioned The USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future’s 2014 Digital Future Report in an article regarding the Internet’s political power. With data going back to 2000, this report is the longest and one of the most wide-ranging studies of digital trends. In addition to looking at how the Internet affects politics, the report provides an in-depth look at how it affects our social skills. One of the most common complaints about the Internet in general, social media in particular, is that it makes us less social. We spend so much time “interacting” online that no one socializes in person anymore. And this is an argument common to most new communication technologies. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, some people resisted the idea of telephones because they believed no one would visit each other anymore if they could make a phone call instead. That wasn’t the case then, and I say it’s not the case now. What’s the Real Story? The report asked Internet users and non-users alike how much time they spend socializing face-to-face with family each week. Surprise—Internet users reported 17 hours of quality family time per week, while non-users reported only 14. Both groups reported spending 7 hours per week face-to-face with friends. Answers to these questions have remained relatively stable for each group since 2007, meaning that those who do use the Internet aren’t using it to ignore family any more than in years past. Hmm, that doesn’t fit the “Internet makes us less social” argument at all. Maybe the Internet’s causing us to ignore someone besides our family and friends. Well, that argument doesn’t fly, either. In 2013, Internet users reported spending 2.4 hours per week participating in clubs and/or voluntary organizations. Non-users reported only 1.2 hours of such activity. Online Friendships Meet the Real World In 2000, Internet users surveyed for the report said they met an average of only .7 online friends in person. By 2013, though, that number rose to 3.7. It’s not absolutely clear from the numbers alone whether that increase means that we’re making friends online, and meeting more of them, or whether more of our real-world friends are now online friends as well. The former scenario seems more likely, though, since 52 percent of users say that the Internet has increased their contact with friends, and 44 percent say the same about contact with family. Only 6 and 7 percent, respectively, said the Internet had reduced their contact with each group. Your Smartphone, on the Other Hand When asked about the Internet’s role in maintaining social relationships, 58 percent of Internet users believed it’s important, 24 percent said it’s not important, and 18 percent were undecided. Asked the same question about texting, 48 percent of texters think doing so is important and 30 percent think it isn’t. According to the report, the number of people who report feeling ignored because household members use the Internet too much, 52 percent, is nearly identical to the number who feel the same way about TV: 50 percent. The real winner when it comes to ignoring others: 89 percent of Internet users and 92 percent of non-users feel ignored because household members spend to much time with their smartphones. Yes, Age Matters The younger we are, the more likely we are to consider the Internet and your phone important to your social relationships. That sounds like the second least surprising scientific conclusion ever, losing only to the news that cats are good at sleeping. Still, it’s something worth noting: our relationship with the Internet itself varies wildly based on our age, meaning long-term trends are likely to skew towards views shared by today’s young. Eat Some Crow, Luddites Personal observations and individual experiences vary, and no one should be online close to 24/7. But Internet and social media fans now have new ammo for the tired, “get off my lawn” arguments that we now know are patently false. So go ahead, see what’s new with all your Facebook friends. If those status updates are taking too long to load, maybe getting a new connection plan is the right move. Image by West McGowan/Flikr

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Will Smith is a copywriter living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His favorite word is “petrichor,” and aside from wordplay, he loves reading history, watching Dodger baseball, and racing with the Sports Car Club of America.

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