So there you are, sitting alone in the late-night hours of your home where the silence may be deafening if you’re living alone or your spouse has long since gone to bed.
It’s been awhile since you’ve heard from anyone via e-mail or phone call, and the thought occurs to you: Does anyone still know I exist?
- Turn on the radio, the thing that’s been collecting dust ever since the computer came to live with you, and call in to a late-night talk show. At least that guy/woman may listen to you, and you can have at least the appearance of interacting with another human being.
- Log on to your computer and head to Facebook (everyone has at least a few friends active, even though most of the chatter is people talking about themselves), or head to a chatroom. Maybe even give the new and daring Chatroulette a try. Randomness dictates you will find chat partners there.
- You can go wake up your spouse, if you have one, or your kid, if you have one, and demand they engage you in conversation over hot chocolate. Good luck with that.
As an absolute last resort, you can call the person who absolutely has to talk with you, and that would be your mother. When a woman gives birth to a new kid, there’s a contract that comes attached like a toe tag to the baby: You must love this person at all times, and listen when it calls you out of loneliness at 3 a.m.
And that shows … what?
But what does it prove that your mom loves you? Is that a big surprise?
So most of us choose Option No. 2 these days because of its ease and because there is a ready supply of people out there like us doing the same thing, even at 3 a.m. All time zones are not created equal, especially when you toss in the hundreds of millions who live beyond American borders. And, you fantasize, there’s always that lonely girl or guy over in Uzbekistan who may be Webbing tonight.
The question is this: How many of us are taking that practice and moving it into daytime hours and prime-time evening hours as well?
How many of us are opting out of interacting with real flesh-and-blood people – who can sometimes be prickly and tough to interact with – and choosing instead to take ourselves into the world of the virtual unknown?
An isolating experience?
Conventional wisdom suggests that the Internet is, in fact, causing such isolation and withdrawal. There are also some studies that have suggested this, but then they have been contradicted by other studies.
Isn’t research great?
For example, a CNN.com health report from a decade ago noted, “A growing body of research suggests that excessive Internet use carries some of the same risks as gambling: It can lead to social isolation, depression and failure at work or school.”
The article, by Barbara Jamison of WebMD, continues, “Some people – particularly those who were isolated to begin with – have forged healthy friendships by meeting kindred souls online. But using the Internet too much can hurt face-to-face relationships. And psychologists say an increasing number of people are using the Internet so obsessively that they are ruining their marriages and careers.”
A kind of addiction
The data comes from a 1999 survey of 1,700 Internet users which was presented at a meeting of the American Psychological Association. Six percent of those surveyed met the criteria for addiction, Jamison said. “They felt a building tension before the act, a rush of relief afterwards, and distorting of mood and bingeing.”
The heavy use of the Web has even spawned a cottage industry within psychology: the Internet addiction specialist, a therapist who often prescribes antidepressant medication and putting your computer out on the curb for the trash haulers to pick up.
More recently, however, a 2009 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported somewhat the opposite of the 1999 survey, although it included mobile phone use as well as Internet use. The study was carried out by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication.
“People who use modern information and communication technologies have larger and more diverse social networks, according to new national survey findings,” the Pew press release states. “These new findings challenge fears that use of new technologies has contributed to a long-term increase in social isolation in the United States.”
Among this study’s findings:
- On average, the size of people’s discussion networks is 12 percent larger among mobile phone users, 9 percent larger for those who share photos online, and 9 percent bigger for those who use instant messaging.
- The diversity of people’s core networks – their closest and most significant confidants – tends to be 25 percent larger for mobile phone users, 15 percent larger for basic Internet users, and even larger for frequent Internet users, those who use instant messaging, and those who share digital photos online.
- Americans are not as isolated as has been previously reported and social isolation has hardly changed since 1985. Only 6 percent 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.
Two different studies, a decade apart, reporting two different sets of results. Don’t be surprised if the study done in 2019 reverses the data from the 2009 survey.
Ultimately, each of us has to decide for ourselves how much to immerse ourselves in virtual relationships on the Web as opposed to real ones in-person. Communication being what it is, we have fewer chances to detect all-important nonverbal cues from chatrooms and cell phones than from sitting down and chatting with a friend face to face.
It’s called interpersonal communication, and it can’t be done on Facebook.