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Deconstructing the Internet paradox

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue April, April 1 - April 30, 2000 | BY Joseph M. Newcomer 

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Recent studies have examined the effects of the Internet on its users. One such study is from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), entitled "Internet Paradox: A Social Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Well-Being?" This report concludes that the Internet, in opposition to claims made otherwise, actually increases depression and loneliness. I say the study is flawed and the conclusions are unwarranted.

First off, you don't have to take my word for it. Read the original report at http://www.apa.org/journals/amp/amp5391017.html and decide for yourself.

The CMU report states that it is demonstrated that after one to two years of using the Internet, individuals exhibited reduced social interactions and increased depression. Consequently, use of the Internet is responsible for reduced social interaction and increased depression. This is fodder for anti-technologists, demagogues of every stripe, and I believe is a destructive position for a society to take. It will panic any number of parents, educators and pseudo-scientists into attempting to regulate, ban or demean a new technology.

The most significant defect about this study, and one I find overwhelming, is that there is no control group. There is no way to say if the results are due to the Internet, due to the economy, due to the specific demographics of the group chosen, or could be induced by any activity with one or more characteristics of the Internet. In fact, for one of the results, there is no evidence to suggest that the variance is not due to simple statistical variance in the result.

The study showed teens used the Internet more than adults. No surprises here. Most teens have more curiosity and more "disposable time" than most adults. Greater use of the Internet showed subsequent declines in family communication. No surprises here. What this study really appears to show is that the introduction of any new, fascinating, individual activity decreases family communication. The Internet is merely one instance of such an activity, and why it is singled out as being a Bad Influence when compared with, say, chess playing, ham radio, computers without Internet access, amateur astronomy, learning a musical instrument, building model airplanes, or rebuilding a car makes me wonder. The conclusion is

Using the Internet decreases family communication.

Without a control group, it is impossible to say if the real conclusion should have been

Any new, self-absorbing activity decreases family communication.

Now, about this "loneliness" measure. There are those of us who do not have wide social circles. The smallness of our social circle is in no way dependent upon Internet access or lack thereof. Why, exactly, having a large social circle is a Good Thing and a small social circle is a Bad Thing is somewhat obscure.

I find the whole issue of "loneliness" and its measure quite bizarre. If a person devotes a significant amount of time in a new self-absorbing activity, guess what: that person will spend less time interacting with friends and family. The conclusion is stated as

Using the Internet increases loneliness.

Without a control group, it is impossible to say if the real conclusion should have been

Any new, self-absorbing activity decreases social interaction.

There appears to be an unstated assumption here: decreasing social interaction is identical to increasing loneliness.

Perhaps loneliness has a different interpretation. But the data reported suggest that people who use the Internet more showed increased loneliness. It had already reported that teens use the Internet more than adults. Over the course of a year or two, many teens find that they have increased loneliness as gaps form between themselves and their peers or their parents (this is given passing consideration in the conclusions, and dismissed, for reasons I cannot comprehend). Without a control group of people who had no new, fascinating activity to absorb their time, but represented similar demographics, it is impossible to say if the conclusion is not really

Two years in the life of a teen can increase feelings of loneliness

or

Any teen involved in a new, self-absorbing activity will have feelings of increased loneliness

or

Any teen involved in a new, self-absorbing activity will have decreased social interaction.

There are several other observations. For example, the significant result is that social interactions decreased from 24 people in the past 30 days to 23 people in the past 30 days. This is said to be statistically significant. But where is it written that statistical significance is social significance?

If we believe these results, we may conclude that

Hanging out at the mall is better for teens than using the Internet.

What, exactly, is loneliness? Can you enumerate all the people you interacted with socially in the last month? We have a subjective evaluation of social interaction, which is based on a theory that people can remember their last 30 days accurately enough to know exactly how many people they interacted with. There is no suggestion that daily diaries were kept. Yet the differences are so minute (one person!) that simple statistical variance could produce figures as meaningful. No data was collected to validate the reliability of these numbers.

Finally, there is the consideration of depression. The study postulates the conclusion

Using the Internet increases depression.

Again, I emphasize, there is no control group. The report states "those with initial higher stress reported greater increases in depression." How is this correlated with Internet usage as the cause? Could it not be true that

Involvement in any new, self-absorbing activity which has opportunity for failure can increase depression

or

People who suffer from higher stress will experience more depression than similar people who have less stress in their lives. For that matter, without a control group of similar demographics, how do we know what caused the depression? I see no way we distinguish Internet usage from:

The depression of teens can increase over a one or two year period

or

In a sample of similar demographics, depression has generally increased over the last two years.

The conclusion is "Greater use of the Internet was associated with statistically significant declines in social involvement . . . and with increases in loneliness." While the decline of social involvement seems to be supported by the data, singling out the Internet as the sole possible cause is an unwarranted conclusion. Back in the 1960s, when I was a teen, nobody considered doing a study on the effects of model railroading, model airplanes, chess, electronics, ham radio, rebuilding cars, stamp collecting, fly tying, reading science fiction, playing the piano, photography or amateur astronomy on teens. Many of my peers were involved in exactly one of these activities, to the virtual exclusion of almost everything else. The Internet is merely the latest of a long list of fascinating, self-absorbing, singular activities that people engage in. And while it is a bit more pervasive, it has not been contrasted with similarly pervasive activities such as non-Internet computer usage or video games, nor with any of the aforementioned activities, or with groups that do not get involved with activities with similar characteristics. Therefore, singling out of the Internet as the cause of such problems is misleading and inappropriate. The only valid conclusion I see is that any activity that is performed in isolation can lead to declines in social involvement and with increases in what researchers call "loneliness."

My conclusion about the CMU report is that it is a well-done yet meaningless study until it is validated by similar studies in other areas, including having a control group for which there are no new, self-absorbing activities present. The conclusions pinpointing the Internet as the source of loneliness and depression have no meaning unless it can be shown that no other new, self-absorbing activities can lead to the same effect. And note that there is no corresponding balancing conclusion, such as teens who use the Internet know more about a larger range of topics than their peers.

Joseph M. Newcomer has a PhD in Computer Science from CMU, has been a CMU faculty member, and was one of the founding scientists of the Software Engineering Institute. For more than a decade he has been a self-employed consultant and software developer and is the co-author of two books on programming Microsoft Windows. A version of this article appeared in the op-ed section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Sunday, 27 September, 1998. The full text of this article can be found at http://www3.pgh.net/~newcomer/paradox.htm

COMMENTS

If this is really true that the internet can lead to the increase of depression and loneliness then we should really observe our time spent on internet. We should really take time to go out and breathe the fresh air and relax with nature. Let us not trap ourselves in our four wall house and sink ourselves to internet. Lets watch our health.

— em garret, Wed, 02 Nov 2011 13:23:11 UTC

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