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Has the Web really turned us into loners? A new study questions that conventional thinking

Maybe the Internet isn’t turning us into loners after all.

According to a study released Wednesday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, an increased use of the Web, mobile phones and other consumer technologies hasn’t made us more isolated. The findings in Pew’s survey of 2,500 people contradicts a 2006 study that stoked fears of how technology was leading to a cocooning of America.

The latest study concludes that some of our socializing has simply shifted online, rather than evaporating. And on the Web, we’re reaching out to people we may not have otherwise through social networking sites like Facebook.

“We find that ownership of a mobile phone and participation in a variety of Internet activities are associated with larger and more diverse core discussion networks,” Pew said in its report on the study, which was conducted by professors including Keith Hampton at the University of Pennsylvania.

Lest we think that online socializing has fully replaced old-fashioned face-to-face interaction, the study said that isn’t true either. People who use the Internet are as likely as anyone to visit with their neighbors in person. Bloggers and cell phone users who surf the Internet frequently at work are more likely to volunteer in their local communities, according to the study. And people who use the Web are 42 to 45 percent more likely to visit parks, plazas and coffee shops in their neighborhoods.

That all said, since 1985, the average size of a person’s core group of friends and family has been declining. However, it doesn’t appear to attributable to more hours spent surfing the Web, talking on cell phones or playing online video games, the report said.

The report reminds me of a July 2009 speech by technology anthropologist Stefana Broadbent. She argues the Internet has made some of our relationships more intimate. We may not have as many friends and family whom we socialize with everyday, but those relationship we do have are deeper, Broadbent argued.

By Cecilia Kang  |  November 5, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Consumers , Online Anthropology  
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