Sad, Lonely World of Internet Users - Not!

Researchers Find Sad, Lonely World in Cyberspace" - New York Times.

"Net Growth Fuels Depression" -

"Study Finds Net Use Is Depressing" - MSNBC.

I'm going to start this column with a moral: Always treat everything you read, hear, or see in the media about the Internet with a grain of salt. Here's why.

A recent study at Carnegie Mellon University claimed that feelings of loneliness in their subjects increased with Internet usage, even when used for communication purposes. Family communication also suffered, the more time spent online. And Internet use affected long-term relationships, because they were replaced by online friendships that tended to be based on weaker ties.

Well, that's sort of what researchers found. The study looked at 169 people in 73 households in Pittsburgh over a period of two years. All the participants were new to the Net, and at least one family member belonged to a local community organization. While the overall findings showed the above results, there were some differences based on age, race, and sex. For instance, teenagers who tended to spend more time on line were lonelier than adults spending the same time online, and the changes that come with adolescence might be part of the reason teenagers feel this way.

The research also showed that extroverts with numerous social contacts prior to the study used the Internet less than others. And while the findings were significant, it was important to remember that the sample was "small and not statistically representative of any particular geographic region or population," critics say. "Its demographics are skewed, underrepresenting people in their 20s and in their retirement years. These latter groups are among the heaviest Internet users."

And, in the words of lead researcher Robert Kraut, the study did not investigate "whether using the Internet provides job-relevant skills for people, gives them useful information for work or school, allows them to organize their home lives or purchases more efficiently, changes their self-esteem, or had any number of compensating benefits." He adds, "It is possible that, all things considered, the Internet is actually good for people."

But you wouldn't know that based on the headlines listed above from three major media organizations' Web sites. The overall impression is one of "doom and gloom." I use the words "doom and gloom" because they were the ones used to me in a recent e-mail by a story researcher at a major TV network. He had read my column about virtual ads and wanted to know if I could point him to a Luddite or a "doom-and-gloom guy" who could act as counterpoint to the more positive statements from the company that created the technology. Or maybe I was that person? Truth be told, it's just this kind of approach toward covering technology that creates so many misunderstandings and misgivings about its use.

Sara Scherlis, one of the other researchers involved in the Carnegie Mellon study, gets the last word: "Beware of monolithic characterizations of the Internet as socially 'good' or 'bad.' The Internet is a complex and multifaceted social phenomenon, and it is evolving rapidly. Any debate and subsequent policy setting must recognize this complexity."

* Tom Regan is the associate editor of The Christian Science Monitor's electronic edition. You can e-mail him at:

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