Until a few years ago, in choosing to forgo purchasing a cell phone or mobile computing device, it used to be popular to say something like, "I don't want to lose contact with the real world." Indeed, just sitting in the public square, we observe many who may appear lost in a technology cradled in their hands.
Or it may not be quite that simple. Pew Internet has released the results of its recent study, Social Isolation and New Technology, which finesses the question of whether/how phenomena such as the Internet and mobile devices adversely impact one's face-to-face social life.
A few of the particulars:
Americans are not as isolated as has been previously reported. We find that the extent of social isolation has hardly changed since 1985, contrary to concerns that the prevalence of severe isolation has tripled since then. Only 6% of the adult population has no one with whom they can discuss important matters or who they consider to be “especially significant” in their life.
We confirm that Americans’ discussion networks have shrunk by about a third since 1985 and have become less diverse because they contain fewer non-family members. However, contrary to the considerable concern that people’s use of the internet and cell phones could be tied to the trend towards smaller networks, 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. (Discussion networks are a key measure of people’s most important social ties.)
Internet use does not pull people away from public places. Rather, it is associated with engagement in places such as parks, cafes, and restaurants, the kinds of locales where research shows that people are likely to encounter a wider array of people and diverse points of view. Indeed, internet access has become a common component of people’s experiences within many public spaces. For instance, of those Americans who have been in a library within the past month, 38% logged on to the internet while they were there, 18% have done so in a café or coffee shop.
Radio journal "Future Tense" probed the question earlier this week.