The New York Times featured another study furthering the notion that Internet use is socially isolating and takes people away from other activities. I’m perfectly willing to grant them the fact that if you’re doing more of one activity, you’ll obviously be doing less of another (kind of an obvious observation guys), but these gloom and doom researchers don’t look at the positive social impact of the Internet. The fact that activities have changed doesn’t mean that people are becoming socially isolated. There are dozens of psychological tests that can measure social well-being, but the researchers base their measurements on traditional ways of socializing. They don’t seem to see many of the activities people do online as socializing, but they did acknowledge that their data does not necessarily mean that social relationships are weakened by the Internet:

According to the study, an hour of time spent using the Internet reduces face-to-face contact with friends, co-workers and family by 23.5 minutes, lowers the amount of time spent watching television by 10 minutes and shortens sleep by 8.5 minutes.

The researchers acknowledged that the study data did not answer questions about whether Internet use itself strengthened or weakened social relations with one’s friends and family.

“It’s a bit of a two-edged sword,” Mr. Nie said. “You can’t get a hug or a kiss or a smile over the Internet.” Many people are still more inclined to use the telephone for contact with family, he said.

But this was my favorite observation about online behavior:

Of the time devoted to communication, just a sixth was spent staying in touch with family members, significantly less than the time spent on work-related communications and contact with friends.

When 40 hours a week of our lives are spent at work, doesn’t it stand to reason that the majority of our communications will be work-related? It’s not as if before the Internet we were frequently on the phone with our mothers during work hours! What they also neglect to mention there is that 30% of online communication was with friends, only slightly less than work-related communication.

Many technological innovations have changed the way we socialize with friends, family and neighbors. The ability to travel by plane made it easier for family members to live far away from one another, but phones connected those people by voice. Television reduced neighborhood socializing by bringing families indoors, but many families watched television together (at least initially). The Internet brought individuals to the computer for longer periods of time, but connected them to like-minded people around the globe. People who felt alien in their families and communities now had online communities where they fit in. Young gay teens now had forums where they could get support instead of feeling isolated in their home towns. Fans of Dixieland Jazz from Russia could now discuss their passions with other fans from around the world. People who didn’t think they could meet the love of their life at a bar were now able to meet like-minded people on the Internet (with many successful love stories). The way people socialize is changing, and old activity-based measures of social well-being just aren’t going to paint a valid picture anymore. You really need to look at what people are doing online. Are they browsing eBay or are they IM-ing friends they made around the country? Are they looking at porn or are they on discussion boards?

In my opinion, the only accurate conclusion these studies come to is that the Internet is changing the daily activities of many people. But I don’t know that we needed a study to tell us that.