Social Isolation and Digital Technology: The Pew Study

photo: JasonTromm on flickr.com

Does the widespread use of digital technology contribute to social isolation in America? Many contemporary social critics think so, but a study published last week by the Pew Internet & American Life Project asserts that this is not the case.

Who’s right?

There are a lot of contradictory claims between the two sides. Here’s what they agree on:

  1. people are more socially isolated: The average number of people’s core discussion partners – i.e. the people with whom they discuss the most important matters in their lives – has decreased significantly in a generation, from 1985 to 2004. The drop is about 30%. A high number indicates that a person is more socially connected, while a low number indicates that a person is more socially isolated. Thus, people in general were significantly more socially isolated in 2004 than they were in 1985.
  2. neighborhoods are far less social: The primary source of this drop in core discussion partners is a severe drop in neighbor relations. People’s connectedness with family members is as strong as ever, perhaps even stronger.

Many social critics’ studies posit a causal link between technology use and this increased isolation, but the Pew report is the first to try to prove or disprove this. Of course, finding causality is quite difficult in social science.

The report finds that people who use these technologies are more likely to be socially connected than those who do not. (I wonder – did they find a healthy sample of people under 40 who don’t use the Internet or mobile phones?) The correlation with connectedness is even stronger for users of social networks, except that these users are much less likely to have neighbor relations.

The Pew researchers infer a causal link from these correlations to conclude that use of these technologies increases social connectedness, or at the very least, that they do not diminish it. I find this conclusion quite reckless. Since it’s very clear that the main benefit of mobile phones and social networking is social interaction, and that is also one of the main benefits of the Internet, it’s quite possible that people who are already the most social are more likely to use these technologies.

A better way to prove or disprove this would be to examine particular people’s use of technology and social connectedness over time – i.e. a longitudinal study – but this study didn’t do this.

So, we’re left with the facts that social isolation has increased greatly in the last 20 years and that a huge drop in neighbor relations is perhaps the leading reason for this trend. In addition, people spend a great deal more time consuming digital technology than they did decades ago. We can let the researchers quibble over whether technology has caused the social isolation problem.

In the meantime, our children are growing up in neighborhoods that are far less socially active than they were decades ago. Neighbor relations are absolutely crucial for children, I would argue, because only in their neighborhoods might parents be willing to afford their children some measure of autonomy. If we agree that we should place special value on neighborhood relations, as opposed to social relations in general, the results from all these studies are quite troubling.

Personally, I see current digital technologies as contributing to the death of our neighborhoods, but I also believe that it’s possible to harness the raw power of technology to achieve the opposite impact. I’m working on it on two fronts:

  1. outdoor-embedded media technology: I’ve installed a family room-like media center into my picnic table/bench/whiteboard in my front yard. (See this article.) I have a lot to learn about how to successfully integrate this into a neighborhood hangout space, but our results thus far are quite encouraging.
  2. mobile social games: I’m investigating the emerging world of games which use GPS (Global Positioning System) technology to engage players who are physically close to each other with the physical place that surrounds them. This technology makes you talk face-to-face, run, and explore the environment. Imagine that! I’m a tech entrepreneur and have been thinking about developing some games in this area. We’ll see…
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