The Internet and Social Isolation: Does Correlation Indicate Causation?

Updated on July 17, 2018
JenniferWilber profile image

Jennifer Wilber works as an ESL instructor, substitute teacher, and freelance writer. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.

What is the connection between internet use and social isolation? Do socially isolated people simply gravitate to the internet, or does internet use actually cause people to become more socially isolated?
What is the connection between internet use and social isolation? Do socially isolated people simply gravitate to the internet, or does internet use actually cause people to become more socially isolated? | Source

Introduction

Many people claim that the internet is creating an epidemic of social isolation in our modern society, especially amongst adolescents and teenagers, but is the internet actually the cause of isolation, or are the people who are more prone to social isolation also more likely to be frequent users of the internet?

Does frequent internet use necessarily cause social isolation?
Does frequent internet use necessarily cause social isolation? | Source

Internet Use and Social Isolation

According to Dixon (2005), people who use the internet frequently spend less time doing other activities, such as interacting with their family. Dixon (2005) claims that internet use negatively affects time spent socializing, as well as other activities, such as watching television and sleeping, and that time spent online must be time that is taken away from other activities. But do people really forgo activities such as social interaction in favor of spending time on the internet, or do people who are already more socially isolated and who engage in social interaction infrequently tend to use the internet more frequently than people who are usually more social?

A study performed by Sanders, Field, Diego, and Kaplan (2000) found that lower internet use amongst adolescents is related to better relationships with parents and friends, and that higher internet use is related to weaker social ties. It was impossible to determine from the results of the study, however, if higher internet use was the cause of weaker social ties, or if adolescents with weaker social ties were more likely to be more drawn to the internet.

Some argue that constant connection to the internet makes people less connected in real life.
Some argue that constant connection to the internet makes people less connected in real life. | Source

HomeNetToo Study

Findings by Jackson, von Eye, and Blocca (n.d.) concluded that internet use had no social impact on children. Their study, the HomeNetToo project, examined the results of internet use on the number of close friends that children had, and the amount of time spent with their families. The number of close friends that the children in the study had remained unchanged and was uninfluenced by internet use. Though the amount of time that the children allocated to certain activities changed throughout the course of the study, it was uninfluenced by internet use.

There were some problems present with the study by Jackson et al. (n.d.). The main problem was that all of the children in the study were from low-income families. These children did not use the internet for communication purposes very often, as the people that they were connected with were also likely to be poor and lack internet access. The HomeNetToo study subjects also logged in for only about 30 minutes a day on average.

Smart phones, internet connected tablets, and other devices make it easy to disconnect from the real world and indulge in one's online life.
Smart phones, internet connected tablets, and other devices make it easy to disconnect from the real world and indulge in one's online life. | Source

The Internet Paradox Study

According to Gackenbach (2007), internet users aged 8-18 who were classified as “heavy internet users” reported spending more time with friends and family, and more time on other activities. Early studies also showed that frequent internet use among college students lead to increased depression, social isolation, and adjustment difficulties, but these findings were later disconfirmed. Gackenbach (2007) goes on to say that factors such as preexisting social isolation and an introverted personality type predict a propensity toward excessive internet use, rather than the other way around.

In a study called the “Internet Paradox Study,” the researchers initially found that internet use increases loneliness, which is paradoxical considering other studies which point to positive social and personal impacts of internet use, according to Gackenbach (2007). Depending upon personality type, the internet can have positive effects on communication, social involvement, and general psychological wellbeing. Gackenbach (2007) claims that extroverts increase social contacts by being online, whereas introverts become more socially isolated. Though the internet is often cited as a useful tool for introverts to practice social interaction, this research suggests otherwise. The internet can either help or hinder social interaction, depending upon other factors.

Perhaps people who already feel lonely are more inclined to use the internet to make connections.
Perhaps people who already feel lonely are more inclined to use the internet to make connections. | Source

Conclusion

The internet doesn’t necessarily cause social isolation. People who are already well-connected generally use the internet to stay and become more connected, whereas internet use among those who are already socially isolated is likely to reinforce social isolation. Though social isolation is related to internet use, it is not an underlying cause.

Sources

Dixon, K. M. (2005, February 23). Researchers link use of Internet, social isolation. In Stanford

News [Article]. Retrieved October 6, 2009, from Stanford University website:

http://news-service.stanford.edu/news/2005/february23/internet-022305.html

Sanders, C. E., Field, T. M., Diego, M., & Kaplan, M. (2000, Summer). The relationship of Internet use to depression and social isolation among adolescents. Adolescence. Retrieved from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2248/is_138_35/ai_66171001/

Jackson, L. A., von Eye, A., & Blocca, F. (n.d.). Children and Internet use: Social, psychological

and academic consequences for low-income children. In Psychological Science Agenda [Article]. Retrieved October 6, 2009, from American Psychological Association website: http://www.apa.org/science/psa/sb-jackson.html

Gackenbach, J. (2007). Cyber shrinks: Expanding the paradigm. In Psychology and the Internet:

Intrapersonal, interpersonal, and transpersonal implication (2nd ed., pp. 245-273) Amsterdam: Academic Press.

Gackenbach, J. (2007). Self online: Personality, gender, race, and SES implications. In Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, interpersonal, and transpersonal implication (2nd ed., pp. 55-73) Amsterdam: Academic Press.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Jennifer Wilber

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      • JenniferWilber profile imageAUTHOR

        Jennifer Wilber 

        5 months ago from Cleveland, Ohio

        Using internet-connected devices while ignoring the people you are actually with is terrible, but the internet is a good tool for connecting people who don't have in-person connections with people who live far away.

      • B. Leekley profile image

        Brian Leekley 

        5 months ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        When my wife, sitting in front of me in a restaurant, is ignoring me as she exchanges texts and instant messages on her smart phone, I feel isolated.

        There is a time for do alone activities—reading, writing, online research, listening to music—and a time for social activities. I've always preferred to spend a lot more time on the former than on the latter, with the exception of when I had to go to school, and there I daydreamed.

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