The Internet and
A Meta-analysis and Critique
of Studies, 1995–2003
Internet adoption in homes has grown rapidly since the early 1990s. By 2003, 63% of Americans had used the Internet (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2003). The Internet has been hailed as a revolutionary social technology, in part because its predominant use has been informal communication (Kraut, Mukhopadhyay, Szczypula, Kiesler, & Scherlis, 1999). Even as new services, such as downloading music and movies, become available and easier to accomplish, communication remains the public’s principle use of the Internet (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2002; U.S. Department of Commerce, 2002).
One important implication of the Internet’s migration to homes and its predominant use for communication is that it could change people’s social interaction with their closest ties. Social interaction with family and friends is one of life’s most pleasant experiences (Robinson & Godbey, 1999). It helps fulfill people’s need to belong and often leads to feelings of closeness (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), to perceptions of social support (Gottlieb & Green, 1984; Peirce, Frone, Russell, Cooper, & Mudar, 2000), and to increases in the likelihood of receiving social support (Cohen & Wills, 1985; Wellman & Wortley, 1990). Social interaction is also associated with people’s commitment to groups, neighborhoods, and organizations (Mirowsky & Ross, 1989; Schachter, 1951), with their sense of meaning in life (Thoits, 1983) and with their adherence to social norms (Srole, 1956).
Some researchers have argued that the Internet improves people’s ability to form new close relationships, especially if they are otherwise isolated (McKenna & Bargh, 2000). Early studies indicated that the Internet facilitated the development of group ties (Sproull & Kiesler, 1991), information exchange in organizations (Kraut & Attewell, 1997), and the creation of new groups and organizations (Sproull & Faraj, 1995). Overall, do such changes add up to an increase or reduction in people’s social interaction with the most important people in their lives—their family and friends? In this chapter, we examine what is now known about the effects of using the Internet on peoples’ social interaction with these close ties.
In 1995, Katz and Aspden conducted the first national survey of the public’s use of the Internet. They reported that Internet users had more total contact with family members than did nonusers, and that they made more new friends, including those they