In the first concentrated study of the social and psychological effects of Internet use at home, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have found that people who spend even a few hours a week online experience higher levels of depression and loneliness than they would have if they used the computer network less frequently.
Those participants who were lonelier and more depressed at the
start of the two-year study, as determined by a standard
questionnaire administered to all the subjects, were not more
likely to use the Internet. Instead, Internet use itself appeared
to cause a decline in psychological well-being, the researchers
"We were shocked by the findings, because they are counterintuitive to what we know about how socially the Internet is being used," said Robert Kraut, a social psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon's Human Computer Interaction Institute.
The Internet has been praised as superior to television and other "passive" media because it allows users to choose the kind of information they want to receive, and often, to respond actively to it in the form of e-mail exchanges with other users, chat rooms or electronic bulletin board postings.
The subjects exhibited wide variations in all three measured effects, and while the net effects were not large, they were statistically significant in demonstrating deterioration of social and psychological life, Kraut said.
Study Says 70 Million American Adults Use the Internet
Even so, several social scientists familiar with the study vouched for its credibility and predicted that the findings would probably touch off a national debate over how public policy on the Internet should evolve and how the technology itself might be shaped to yield more beneficial effects.
"They did an extremely careful scientific study, and it's not a result that's easily ignored," said Tora Bikson, a senior scientist at Rand, the research institution. Based in part on previous studies that focused on how local communities like Santa Monica, Calif., used computer networks to enhance civic participation, Rand has recommended that the federal government provide e-mail access to all Americans.
Christine Riley, a psychologist at Intel Corp., the giant chip manufacturer that was among the sponsors of the study, said she was surprised by the results but did not consider the research definitive.
"For us, the point is there was really no information on this before," Ms. Riley said. "But it's important to remember this is not about the technology, per se; it's about how it is used. It really points to the need for considering social factors in terms of how you design applications and services for technology."
The Carnegie Mellon team -- which included Sara Kiesler, a social psychologist who helped pioneer the study of human interaction over computer networks; Tridas Mukophadhyay, a professor at the graduate business school who has examined computer mediated communication in the workplace; and William Scherlis, a research scientist in computer science -- stressed that the negative effects of Internet use that they found were not inevitable.
"More intense development and deployment of services that support pre-existing communities and strong relationships should be encouraged," the researchers write in their forthcoming article. "Government efforts to wire the nation's schools, for example, should consider online homework sessions for students rather than just online reference works."
Putnam added, "The question is how can you push computer mediated communication in a direction that would make it more community friendly."