Hermit Nation: Does Tech Boost Social Isolation?

hermit1We’re all familiar with the stereotype of the tech cave dweller, perusing a list of arcane Linux commands on a lonely Saturday night, no friends in sight. In the age of ubiquitous — and social — technology, though, can we conclude that the Internet, smartphones and new technologies isolate us and encourage cocooning, or the opposite?

The Pew Internet & American Life Project sought answers to such questions through phone interviews with 2,512 adults in the U.S., and there are surprises in the survey results. I  do wonder, though, how the results might skew differently if people under 18 had been included. Here are just some of the findings, with more results below the fold:


“We find that the extent of social isolation has hardly changed since 1985, contrary to concerns that the prevalence of severe isolation has tripled since then,” Pew researchers report. The survey, released yesterday, also found that the overall diversity of the average person’s social network — including close family and friends as well as acquaintances — is greater through usage of social networks such as Facebook: “For instance, frequent Internet users and those who maintain a blog are much more likely to confide in someone who is of another race.”

Internet use does not pull people away from places such as parks, cafes and restaurants, Pew researchers conclude: “Internet access has become a common component of people’s experiences within many public spaces.” Also, in opposition to the conclusion that Internet usage primarily bridges gaps between people who are geographically far from each other, the survey found that there is little difference between local social usage of technology and distant communication. The following graphic based on the survey results shows that people who belong to a neighborhood online forum are much likely than the average person to have diverse interactions with neighbors:


Does mobile phone usage outpace face-to-face contact as a primary way for people to stay in touch with their closest family and friends? No, according to the survey results: “On average in a typical year, people have in-person contact with their core network ties on about 210 days; they have mobile phone contact on 195 days of the year.” The following graphic breaks out days of contact per year via various communication mediums, according to how far away others are:


Younger people are overwhelmingly more likely to belong to social networks than older people are, the Pew survey also finds, and it’s worth noting that all the people surveyed were over 18. Results could be different for teenagers and children. There are many more findings and graphics from the survey, found here.  For the most part, although your smartphone still doesn’t make you the life of the party, the results argue against the long-standing presumption that technology usage is social poison.