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Technology Feature

Online Doesn't Mean Antisocial
By Janna Malamud Smith

The Internet is a member of our family. According to my monthly bill, each of us spent about 5.4 hours a week online, which makes us pretty much average American Net users. I can't speak for the rest of my family, but I relish my online time. A new study tells me that I should feel bad about that. Bourbon, red meat, whole milk and the Internet, too?

    According to the study, by Norman Nie, a political scientist at Stanford University, the Web makes us even lonelier and more isolated than we already are. "The more hours people use the Internet, the less time they spend with real human beings," Professor Nie said. There is a danger, he claimed, of worsening social isolation and creating a deadened and atomized world without human emotion.

    Could that be possible? Or are we perhaps confusing the bandage with the wound? For starters, it seems that Professor Nie is assuming that hours with real human beings are an unqualified good thing. Call me a curmudgeon, but I often find them to be something of a mixed bag.

    Did I miss fighting the shopping mall crowds this Christmas to buy one of my sons a hat he had really wanted? Not at all. Spending 15 minutes online as opposed to two hours (minimum) searching for parking, then trudging from store to store to have indifferent teenage clerks shrug their shoulders and mutter, "No problem," is not a human contact I crave.

    The days when a trip to the milliner's meant a nice exchange with a friendly proprietor you've known for years are long gone in my neighborhood. On the other hand, thanks to Net shopping I was able to buy my husband a beautiful bow tie made by hand by a woman in Maine.

    Online in the last couple of weeks, I've kept in touch with busy friends, some of whom live halfway around the world, and tracked temperatures in Seville, Spain, which we are visiting next month. I've easily located and purchased out-of-print books from small secondhand dealers and looked up some useful exercises for a knee I had hurt.

    Each of these little solitary outings made me shamefully happy. In fact, learning that it was 65 degrees in Seville when it was 10 above zero and icy in Massachusetts was the single most mood-elevating discovery I made in the first two weeks of February.

    Driving to work this week, I listened to callers on a radio talk show discuss a novel about transsexuals. Several callers who identified themselves as transsexuals talked about how much comfort and communion they'd felt from visiting certain Web sites just for them. You can't tell me that this is worse than spending endless hours interacting with the real people around them who may think they are nuts. While "atomizing" culture can be a problem, it can also allow more diverse stories to emerge and so reduce the silent suffering of the tellers.

    When I came home tonight, my 14-year-old son was ecstatic because he had finally gotten access to the chat room his school friends visit. Rather than sitting in front of the television to unwind after his homework was done, he happily chatted with his buddies. Yes, it would be better if all his friends lived on the same block so they could all hang out together in person. But connecting online may be the best alternative.

    People already spend a lot of time alone, even when they are with their families. I've heard many parents with multiple televisions in their homes talk about how everyone scatters after supper to watch a separate program.

    According to the Stanford report, of the people in the study who are online five or more hours a week (about 20 percent of those surveyed), 59 percent are spending less time watching television. Is that making life worse? Online, some of the conversations are two-way.

    I grant that there are concerns. My husband, who teaches at a boarding school, told me about an interesting faculty discussion about the pros and cons of wiring each dormitory room for Internet access. Would it help the students, or pull them away from their studies and their friends?

    I recently told my 14-year-old that he couldn't put his computer in his bedroom and had to keep it in the family room. I didn't explain that I had made that decision because I wanted to keep an eye on what he was downloading, nag him when he has spent too much time online and pat his head occasionally, but I think he guessed. Yes, we all need to monitor this powerful tool.

    When people gain more money and more choices, it seems they often choose to move farther apart. Out of the one-room tenement, out of the bed shared with siblings, off the subway.

    Why? Part of the answer is that privacy and solitude are very attractive and often emotionally salubrious states. People enjoy being unobserved and left in peace — some of the time. And I think "some of the time" is the vital point that's being lost. Privacy and solitude, even anonymity, feel wonderful when they are chosen. When they're imposed, they tend to feel awful. Then they mutate into isolation, loneliness, depression and anomie, and Prozac sales skyrocket.

    But the problem isn't the Internet. The suburbs and the long automobile commutes to our workplaces have fragmented our lives and perhaps left us too far apart. And, yes, some people are too isolated and lonely. (Though I hold that in the past, many people were made equally miserable by too much forced contact.)

    So I suggest that we turn some attention to helping people find pleasurable ways to get back together. And helping them make time to do it. Even Ralph Waldo Emerson recommended "Society and Solitude."

    To prosper emotionally, people need to feel wanted, needed and valued. Our failure to offer this prospect to many citizens long precedes the World Wide Web. And making sensational and premature proclamations about the Internet's harm simply distracts us from addressing those social conditions that drive us apart. Let's not go for the virtual damage when the real thing is before us.

Janna Malamud Smith, a clinical social worker, is the author of Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life. A version of this column appeared first in the New York Times Online.
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