Survey raises issue of isolated Web users

Boot up, log on, and tune out. That’s the mantra of a small but rapidly growing number of Internet users, according to a controversial national survey released last week.

People who spend 10 or more hours per week on the Internet substantially cut down the amount of time they devote to talking with friends and family, both in person and by telephone, say two Stanford University political scientists.

“The more hours people use the Internet, the less time they spend with real human beings,” contends Norman H. Nie, who directed the survey with his colleague Lutz Erbring. “The Internet could be the ultimate isolating technology that reduces our participation in communities even more than television did.”

Only 15 percent of people surveyed qualified as heavy Internet users, roaming the Web at least 10 hours per week. However, the proportion of heavy users is steadily growing, Nie asserts.

About 55 percent of the population now has access to the Internet, the survey finds. Regular Internet users, who log on for at least 5 hours per week, accounted for 36 percent of people surveyed.

Other findings include:

  • One-quarter of regular Internet users say that Web activities had reduced their time talking with friends and family, as well as time spent attending events outside the home.
  • One-quarter of the regular Internet users who are employed say that the Web had increased the amount of time they worked at home, without diminishing their office work.
  • Sixty percent of regular Internet users say that they had reduced their television viewing, and one-third allot less time to reading newspapers.
  • The lowest rates of Internet use occur among the least educated and oldest people, although those with Internet access use the Web much as others do.
  • The most common Internet activities are sending and receiving electronic mail and searching for information. About one-quarter of Internet users say that they have made an online purchase. Only 10 percent participate in online stock trading, banking, or auctions.

The survey consisted of a representative national sample of 4,113 adults in 2,689 households. It was conducted by the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society and InterSurvey, a company cofounded by Nie and partly funded by Stanford. Survey data are available at

The researchers provided free Web TVs to people who agreed to answer the surveys, which they received and returned through the devices supplied.

Nie’s emphasis on social isolation recalls an earlier study in which depression and loneliness rose among new Internet users (SN: 9/12/98, p. 168). Other data, however, suggest that membership in online groups benefits some people (SN: 10/17/98, p. 245:

Social isolation may have escalated in the small proportion of heavy Internet users surveyed, but that doesn’t mean that future heavy users will respond in the same way, comments sociologist Lee Sproull of New York University.

Those currently employing the Internet for more than 10 hours per week are—as the new survey finds—highly educated and relatively affluent, and they often use the Web at home to do projects for their work, Sproull holds.

Nie and Erbring didn’t examine whether employers have exploited the Web to extract more labor from their employees, she says. Hours spent working at home may promote isolation more than inherent qualities of Internet use, she asserts.

Changes in computer technology over the next decade will affect social interaction in ways that no one can foretell, Sproull says.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.