Socially Isolated… or Are We?

Posted on: 11/4/09 12:40 PM | by Jonathan McKee

The Pew Internet & American Life Project just came out with a fascinating new report today about Social Isolation and New Technology. The gist of the report seems to contend: Yes, technology does lead some people to become more socially isolated, but not as much as some have argued.

For example:

  • The average size of American’s core discussion networks has declined since 1985; the mean network size has dropped by about one-third or a loss of approximately one confidant.
  • Users of social networking services at 26% less likely to use their neighbors as a source of companionship.
  • Internet Users are 40% less likely to rely on neighbors for help in caring for themselves or a family member.

And I found this little fact interesting as well…

  • Internet users are 38% less likely to rely exclusively on their spouses/partners as discussion confidants. 

(I’ll let you decide if that’s good or bad.)   🙂

I was very curious about this report, because I’ve done a lot of research on the subject for two of my recent books.

1. In my book, THE NEW BREED, about recruiting and training this “new breed” of 21st Century volunteers, my dad and I shared several studies about the growing trend toward social isolation. We quoted some studies showing that people have lost at least one core confidant. Funny… this new report shares the exact same thing. Apparently some reports inflate this. 

2. In my book about adults connecting with kids that comes out next month (CONNECT), I spent a little bit of time discussing how kids isolate themselves socially, hiding in front of a “screen” of some kind, instead of “face-to-face” communication. I find this Pew Internet report fascinating, because it conveys that technology isn’t isolating people as much as we might think. This made me happy with a decision I made in writing my CONNECT book… I opted to not devote a lot of time to mere “virtual” communication (some people seemed to think we should “put all our cards in this basket.” I disagreed.) I basically concluded that students were isolating themselves more and more, and that face to face communication was becoming difficult for some kids at first. So I recommended becoming familiar with technology and even using it as a stepping stone, but not as a replacement for face-to-face communication. Here’s a snippet:

This increase in social isolation is creating a relational void in the lives of students today. We have an incredible opportunity to meet this need with something real, face-to-face relationships.

Even though teens might be more comfortable with us connecting with them through cell phones and computers, I see these digital mediums only as stepping-stones for youth workers to engage in face-to-face communication. This is not just because of the obvious value of face-to-face conversations, but also because of the increasing dangers emerging with technology. Legislation is changing regarding appropriate digital communication between adult mentors and students. (I’ll touch on this in greater detail in chapter 13 when I talk about the boundaries and precautions we should consider with relational ministry.)

As we make connecting one-on-one a priority in our ministry, we may often utilize technology as a tool to transition toward more face-to-face conversations. In relational ministry, technology should be used as a tool, not a crutch.

(We are offering a great deal on the pre-sale of this book right now on our website, where you can get it from us about a month before anyone else, along with a free ppt training we’re giving away).

I encourage you to check out this Pew Internet report. I fully agree with their results.