The Internet, as it is turning out, is pretty family-friendly.
Security and privacy issues still worry a lot of Americans, as do issues of pornography and other offensive content.
But accumulating evidence about what is becoming the most pervasive technology change of the past century shows the Net maintains or even extends family togetherness, and helps create and strengthen friendships, and doesn't harm children's performance in school.
The Net's full social impact probably will not be known for decades. But early fears that it would atomize families by creating technologic cocoons are slowly subsiding.
Americans, in fact, are pretty bullish about life online, says Jeffrey Cole of the UCLA Center for Communications Policy, author of a broad new study released today on the impact of the Internet on American society. "You see this growing optimism that the Internet is really, by and large, a positive force," says Mr. Cole.
That finding is consistent with research by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, whose director, Lee Rainie, says, "The judgment of users is that it increases communication and improves social connections."
Social scientists are eager to track the Net's impact because it is regarded by most as a significant new social force on par with or greater than the advent of the printing press and the television. Further, there is a sense that had as much attention been paid to the consequences of television from the beginning, its role in society today would be better understood - and possibly different.
One thing is clear: The Internet is washing through society at a rate that dwarfs the spread of any previous technology.
For instance, it took nearly 50 years for electricity to show up in one-third of American homes; nearly 40 for the telephone to appear in that many households, and 17 years for television to do the same. It took the Net just 7 years to spread as far.
Concerns remain that the Internet is not equally accessible to all. This "digital divide" is in some respects worsening, according to new findings from the Department of Commerce. "Minority groups have made impressive gains with Internet access, but there is still a considerable gap" between them and whites, noted Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta earlier this month.
Gender gap narrows
The gap, however, is narrowing when it comes to income and gender. Women now make up half the online population.
But while the demographics of Internet use are important, increasingly social scientists are looking at how the Net is used, to evaluate its influence on values and behavior.
The UCLA report finds that Americans who go online do so without carving into family time. The vast majority of Net users say that since connecting at home, members of the household spend the same, or more, time together.
In fact, it appears that when folks go online, the activity that most falls by the wayside is watching television. Users and nonusers talk on the phone, read books and newspapers at about equal rates. But those online watch about five fewer hours of TV per week, according to the UCLA survey.
As one barometer of how prevalent the Internet now is in the household routine, the Net has even become a common feature in parents' repertoire of punishments for children. Bad behavior? No Net time.
Common household behavior is changing in other ways, too.
Mr. Rainie of Pew says that children are increasingly gatekeepers to the Net for their parents, a reversal of the way parents have traditionally been the conduits of knowledge in the family. "The young are teaching the old to use this technology," he says.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Internet is also becoming a group activity in homes. Family members and friends regularly spend time together online, according to UCLA, whether in pursuit of information, entertainment, or just communicating.
While the Net is a powerful commercial tool, it has truly revolutionized communication. Over the past several decades, historians have noted that the art of letter writing has dwindled with most Americans writing no more than two letters per year. Now, however, use of e-mail has exploded, generating more communication between families and friends, and helping establish relationships that did not exist previously.
These new relationships often extend beyond individuals.
"We know the Internet facilitates the creating of communities, the types of communities that we have not seen previously," says Rainie. These range from hobbyists staying in touch online to support networks that offer advice and camaraderie.
Who's watching us?
The most prevalent concern that Americans have about the Internet is whether their privacy is being compromised. Americans have always jealously guarded their privacy, says Cole. But through the years, the focal point of concern has been the government. Now, privacy concerns are increasingly directed at corporations and marketers, who are seen as eager to use the Net to find out more about Americans than individuals want known.
While this concern may act as a brake on some commercial activities over the Internet, it does not seem to deter the rush online.
In the United States alone, there are 2,000 new Internet users per hour. An Internet population of 19 million in 1997 has mushroomed to well over 100 million today.
And two-thirds of users and nearly half of nonusers believe that the Net is making the world a better place, an indicator that its growth is far from over.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society