(Washington) People who use modern information and communication technologies have larger and more diverse social networks, according to new national survey findings that for the first time explore how people use the internet and mobile phones to interact with key family and friends.

These new finding challenge fears that use of new technologies has contributed to a long-term increase in social isolation in the United States.

The new findings from the Pew Internet & American Life Project show that, on average, the size of people’s discussion networks – those with whom people discuss important matters– is 12% larger amongst mobile phone users, 9% larger for those who share photos online, and 9% bigger for those who use instant messaging. The diversity of people’s core networks – their closest and most significant confidants – tends to be 25% larger for mobile phone users, 15% larger for basic internet users, and even larger for frequent internet users, those who use instant messaging, and those who share digital photos online.

The survey was conducted by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, led by Keith N. Hampton, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Communication and the Pew Internet Project.

The survey also probed larger issues related to the extent of social isolation in America: At one level, the results challenge previous work. The Pew Internet survey found that Americans are not as isolated as has been previously reported and social isolation has hardly changed since 1985. Only 6% 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.

At another level, the findings confirm that Americans’ discussion networks have shrunk by about a third since 1985 and have become less diverse because they contain fewer non-family members. However, contrary to the widespread speculation that the new technology is tied to shrinking social networks and declining network diversity, the Pew Internet study finds that ownership of a mobile phone and participation in a variety of internet activities are associated with larger and more diverse core discussion networks.

“There is a tendency by critics to blame technology first when social change occurs,” argued Prof. Keith Hampton, the lead author of the Pew Internet report, Social Isolation and New Technology. “This is the first research that actually explores the connection between technology use and social isolation and we find the opposite. It turns out that those who use the internet and mobile phones have notable social advantages. People use the technology to stay in touch and share information in ways that keep them socially active and connected to their communities.”

Here are some of the other key findings in the Pew Internet report:

  • Some have worried that internet use limits people’s participation in their local communities, but the Pew Internet report finds that most internet activities have little or a positive relationship to local activity. For instance, internet users are as likely as anyone else to visit with their neighbors in person. Cell phone users, those who use the internet frequently at work, and bloggers are more likely to belong to a local voluntary association, such as a youth group or a charitable organization.  However, we find some evidence that use of social networking services (e.g., Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn) substitutes for some neighborhood involvement.
  • Challenging the assumption that internet use encourages social contact across vast distances, this study shows that many internet technologies are used as much for local contact as they are for distant communication.
  • Internet use does not pull people away from public places. Rather, use is associated with frequent visits to places such as parks, cafes, and restaurants, the kinds of locales where research shows that people are likely to encounter a wider array of people and diverse points of view. Indeed, internet access has become a common component of people’s experiences within many public spaces. For instance, of those Americans who have been in a library within the past month, 38% logged on to the internet while they were there, 18% have done so in a café or coffee shop.
  • People’s mobile phone use outpaces their use of landline phones as a primary method of staying in touch with their closest family and friends, but face-to-face contact still trumps all other methods. 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; landline phone contact on 125 days; text-messaging contact on the mobile phone 125 days; email contact 72 days; instant messaging contact 55 days; contact via social networking websites 39 days; and contact via letters or cards on 8 days.
  • Social media activities are associated with several beneficial social activities, including having discussion networks that are more likely to contain people from different backgrounds. For instance, frequent internet users, and those who maintain a blog are much more likely to confide in someone who is of another race. Those who share photos online are more likely to report that they discuss important matters with someone who is a member of another political party. 
  • While participation in traditional social settings, like neighborhoods, voluntary organizations, and public spaces, remain the strongest predictors for the overall diversity of people’s social networks, internet use, and specifically use of social networking services like Facebook, are also associated with knowing more people from a wider variety of backgrounds.

“All the evidence points in one direction,” said Prof. Hampton. “People’s social worlds are enhanced by new communication technologies. It is a mistake to believe that internet use and mobile phones plunge people into a spiral of isolation.”