For the past several decades, technologies such as television, video games, and most recently, the internet have been blamed for our increasing social isolation. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that, counter to popular belief, neither the internet, online social networking, nor mobile phone usage (i.e. texting) are to blame. The study does seem to support the idea that Americans have become (slightly) more socially isolated where, since 1985, the average network of close confidants has gotten smaller by about one third (which apparently equals one person). However, the study goes on to show that, if anything, the internet provides us with larger social networks of people with whom we can discuss issues that are important to us, and, counter to our assumptions, we are still likely to see our close friends and confidants in person on a regular basis (on average, 210 days out of the year). Also text messaging, despite popular belief, has not replaced talking on the phone, at least if you're talking on a cell phone (texting is tied with landline phone calls as the third most popular way to contact friends... with meeting in person being number one, and talking on mobile phones as number 2). Even writing cards and letters (you know using an actual mailbox, envelopes, and stamps) is a more popular way of staying in touch than emailing, IM-ing, or online social networking. So why does the internet and its social networking sites get such a bad rap? Well, people who are on social networking sites do seem to have used these sites to maintain their real world groups of friends and confidants (and, perhaps sadly, not have to set up new networks based on where they move to). For example, social networking website users are 30% less likely to know at least some of their neighbors, and 26% less likely to use their neighbors as a source of companionship, than those who do not use networking sites. The internet, on the other hand, is guilty by association only, since internet users as a whole are not less likely to know or befriend their neighbors than those who do not use the internet. Of course, before we jump to the conclusion that social networking sites are "bad", it is important to note that: when the online social networking sites are neighborhood sites "participants tend to have very high levels of local engagement", forming tight relationships with their neighbors. Finally, the question that started this post: Does the internet lead to users withdrawing from the outside world? Again, it seems that our assumptions betray us as internet users are 42% more likely to visit a public park or plaza than non-internet users, suggesting that internet users are not more likely to withdraw into their homes and spend all of their time in front of their computers. (And yes, that was after controlling for population density, in case you were thinking that people in rural communities might be less likely to have internet and less likely to go to a public park rather than their front yards)
Here's a link to the study again (here for the full report), it also has some interesting things to say about the make up of our social networks (in terms of diversity and other factors), our usage of mobile phones, as well as some analyses of bloggers versus internet users who do not blog, and much more.