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Is the internet making us lonely?

Christian Jarrett
Cognitive Neuroscientist, British Psychological Society\'s Research Digest Blog.
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This post first appeared on the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest Blog

Internet use is growing at a phenomenal rate and much ink has been spilled by commentators forecasting the psychological consequences of all this extra web-time. A lot of that comment is mere conjecture whilst many of the studies in the area are cross-sectional, with small samples, producing conflicting results. The latest research contribution comes from Irena Stepanikova and her colleagues and involves a massive sample, some of whom were followed over time. The results suggest that more time on the internet is associated with increased loneliness and reduced life satisfaction. However, it’s a complicated picture because the researchers’ different outcome measures produced mixed results.

Over thirteen thousand people answered questions about their internet use, loneliness and life satisfaction in 2004 and in 2005. They’d been chosen at random from a list of US land-line numbers. The majority of the people quizzed in 2004 were different from those quizzed in 2005, but 754 people participated in both phases, thus providing some crucial longitudinal data.

An important detail is that the researchers used two measures of internet use. The first ‘time-diary’ method required participants to consider six specific hours spread out over the previous day and to estimate how they’d spent their time during those hours. The other ‘global recall’ measure was more open-ended and required participants to consider the whole previous twenty-four hours and detail as best they could how they’d used that time.

The cross-sectional data showed that participants who reported spending more time browsing the web also tended to report being lonelier and being less satisfied with life. This association was larger for the time-diary measure. The strength of the association was modest, but to put it in perspective, it was five times greater than the (inverse) link between loneliness and amount of time spent with friends and family. Turning to web-communication, the global recall measures showed that time spent instant messaging, in chat rooms and news groups (but not email) was associated with higher loneliness scores. For the time-diary measure, it was increased email use that was linked with more loneliness.

The longitudinal data showed that as a person’s web browsing increased from 2004 to 2005, their loneliness also tended to increase (based on the global recall measure only). Both measures showed that increased non-email forms of web communication, including chat rooms, also went hand in hand with increased loneliness. Finally, more web browsing over time was linked with reduced life satisfaction by the time-diary measure, whilst more non-email web communication over time was linked with reduced life satisfaction by the global recall measure.

Perhaps the most important message to come out of this research is that the results varied with the measure of internet use that was used – future researchers should note this. The other message is that more time browsing and communicating online appears to be linked with more loneliness, the two even increase together over time. However, it is important to appreciate that we don’t know the direction of causation. Increased loneliness may well encourage people to spend more time online, rather than web time causing loneliness. Or some other factor could be causing both to rise in tandem. It’s worth adding too that the web/loneliness link held even after controlling for time spent with friends and family. So if more web use were causing loneliness, it wasn’t doing it by reducing time spent socialising face-to-face.

‘We are hopeful that our study will stimulate future research … ,’ the researchers said, ‘but at this point any claims suggesting that as Internet use continues to grow in the future, more people will experience loneliness and low life-satisfaction would be premature.’

Stepanikova, I., Nie, N., & He, X. (2010). Time on the Internet at home, loneliness, and life satisfaction: Evidence from panel time-diary data Computers in Human Behavior, 26 (3), 329-338 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2009.11.002

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Christian Jarrett, a cognitive neuroscientist turned science writer, is editor and creator of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog. His latest book is Great Myths of the Brain.

Image: A woman uses her smartphone while waiting to cross a road. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson. 

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