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Does internet and cell phone use lead to social isolation? Pew report says no.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 5, 2009 - The prevailing narrative about new technology is that all the time spent looking at small screens leads to social isolation and fewer close personal connections. Not so, according to a new study sponsored by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Our use of cell phones and the internet is associated with larger and more diverse social networks, the report finds.

The Pew’s Personal Networks and Community Survey of 2,512 adults in the United States shows that “Americans are not as isolated as has been previously reported,” and that the extent of social isolation hasn’t changed much over the past 25 years.

The report finds that only 6 percent of adults say they have no one with whom they can discuss important matters in their lives. (A report several years ago found that number to be significantly higher). These core discussion networks have shrunk (by about one-third, or roughly one confidant) over the past few decades, and they contain fewer friends and a greater number of family members.

But the authors challenge the notion that the growing time spent online or on mobile phones is tied to the smaller-network trend. Rather, they say that ownership of a cell phone and being active online helps broaden people’s core networks.

The report also finds that internet or cell phone use doesn’t decrease the likelihood that a person will be tapped into his or her local community. “Internet use does not pull people away from public places. Rather, it is associated with engagement in places such as parts, cafes and restaurants,” the study says.

However, there is evidence that the use of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace substitute for some level of neighborhood involvement. Users of such social media sites are 30 percent less likely to know at least some neighbors, for instance. But these social network regulars are more likely to have more diverse discussion networks that include people of different races or political beliefs.

One takeaway is that relationships formed online don’t seem to detract from face-to-face relationships. In a typical year, people have in-person contact with individuals in their core network roughly 210 days, cell phone contact 195 days, text-messaging contact 125 days, e-mail contact 72 days and instant messaging contact 55 days.