In two short decades our modes of communication have expanded exponentially, leaving sociologists – as well as many of us – to ponder: Are we so immersed in a virtual world that we’re losing our ability to make connections in the real one?
Fear not, technophiles, recent research by Keith Hampton, an associate professor in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers and a sociologist, indicates that new technology – mobile phones, the Internet and social networking sites – are not socially isolating as previously thought.
In fact, his 2011 study, “Core Networks, Social Isolation and New Media” – which earned the 2012 Outstanding Paper Award from the International Communication Association – argues the opposite: Our online connections tend to foster lasting and more diverse social connections rather than hinder them – connections that extend both on and off the Internet.
Hampton’s research, which has received widespread media attention, was a response to a 2006 paper,“Social Isolation in America” by University of Arizona and Duke University sociologists. Those researchers found that social isolation had spiked since the mid-’80s and surmised that cell phones and the Internet were likely culprits, tearing us away from our neighborhood ties and local organizations.
Hampton found this conclusion curious, since the 2006 study did not include data about the subjects’ use of these new technologies.
“The telegraph, electricity, the bicycle and certainly the telephone and television all have been accompanied by similar arguments that this will lead to a loss of intimacy, morals, you name it,” said Hampton, who joined Rutgers at the beginning of the spring semester. “Aristotle wrote that his teacher Socrates feared that the written word would lead to a loss of emotional intimacy. Of course, we only know about this because he wrote it down.”
Hampton collaborated with Pew Research on two random surveys of more than 2,000 American adults - Internet and non-Internet users –including questions about blogging, instant messaging, texting, photo sharing, mobile phone use, and social network sites.
“We went though every new technology we could possibly explore that could be argued to have a negative relationship with the size and diversity of core networks,” said Hampton, then assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. “Large surveys like the GSS tend to be very reliable, and we did it twice, two years apart (in 2008 and 2010) just to make sure our findings were not an artifact.”
While the average size of a person’s core network – those with whom you discuss important news and events – and the diversity of that network – kin versus non-kin - has indeed shrunk in the last 25 years, it’s no fault of Facebook, Twitter, cell phones or other new channels of communication.
“People’s use of the mobile phone and the Internet is associated with larger and more diverse core discussion networks,” Hampton’s 2009 Pew report “Social Isolation and New Technology” reads. “And, when we examine people’s full personal network – their strong and weak ties – Internet use in general and use of social networking services such as Facebook in particular are associated with more diverse social networks.”
That’s hardly news to Hannah Redmond.
With her 670 Facebook friends, 316 Twitter followers, 460 LinkedIn connections and smart phone always in hand, the part-time MBA student and former Rutgers public relations specialist credits new technology with expanding – not contracting – her network.
“Twitter has been insanely beneficial for me both personally and professionally. It’s more than what you ate for lunch,” said Redmond, 26, who now works for a marketing firm in New York. “After commenting on articles, I look and see the same people commenting on that analysis. I’ve gotten messages because of comments I’ve made. I’ve gotten recruited because of comments I’ve made. These relationships absolutely come off line, so I’m definitely increasing my contacts.”
Connecting on these new platforms helps to coax fellow Rutgers MBA student Nicole Ricchione out of her shell. “Especially as someone who is an introvert and prefers the written word instead of being in front of a large group,” said Ricchione, 26, of Hoboken. “It gives me a way to be able to collect my thoughts and discuss things through a medium that I’m more comfortable with.”
Hampton found a striking negative correlation between new technology and social isolation: Those who are not using the Intenet are the most vulnerable to isolation.
“People who are not using Facebook and not even on the Internet are truly the most disadvantage. These people are the least trusting and have the least amount of social support,” he said, adding that 20 percent of Americans live without Internet access - a statistic that hasn’t changed in a decade. “It also turns out they are the poorest, least educated, and least politically involved.”
While Facebook users have “no more or less real ‘friends’ than anyone else,” Hampton’s study found that “heavy Facebook users do have more close friends” than nonFacebook users.
“It could be that using Facebook leads to more close friends,” he said. “Or it could be those people that have more close friends find it easier to maintain those relationships by using Facebook.” “It is clear that many of these new technologies allow people to maintain relationships that once would have gone dormant, such as former co-workers, and far-flung high school or college friends. Never before have social ties been this pervasive and this persistent,” he said “It will be interesting to see what kind of impact those relationships have over time.”
But that’s for another study.