Study monitors impact of Internet on society

The Associated Press
Friday October 27, 2000

LOS ANGELES — The Internet has revolutionized the way Americans talk, study, work, play and spend money. 

But could the first casualty in this revolution be our humanity? 

Not according to those responding to “Surveying the Digital Future,” a study released Wednesday by the University of California, Los Angeles. 

Nearly two-thirds of all Americans have ventured online, and most users surveyed deny the Internet creates social isolation, said Professor Jeffrey Cole, the study’s lead researcher and director of the UCLA Center for Communication Policy. 

Internet technology has been a popular communication tool for only the past five years, however, and Cole speculates the Web will have profound long-term effects that most users can’t yet detect. 

“The Internet changes everything from our values to communication patterns and consumer behavior,” Cole said. 

Spending long hours surfing the Web “can even change how many neighbors we recognize by their faces,” he added. 

The study tracked the online habits of 2,096 respondents – both Internet users and nonusers – who mirror the nation’s ethnic, economic and geographic makeup. Researchers said it had a margin of error of 2 percentage points. 

The researchers hope to use its figures to begin investigating the specific effects of Internet innovation on human behavior. 

Do the benefits of online research in schools outweigh the risk that children may happen upon risque material? (About 70 percent of adults believe children’s grades stay the same despite Internet activity.) 

Can Internet commerce cripple traditional retail stores or create healthy competition? (About 65 percent of Internet purchasers say they buy less from traditional shops.) 

Will people ignore relatives and friends in favor of chat-room acquaintances? (Three-quarters of respondents say they are not ignored.) 

Ironically, lack of privacy is the greatest concern of those surveyed. 

About two-thirds of Internet users agree that people who go online put their privacy at risk, the study showed. 

“What we’ve found is that almost no one is afraid of the government monitoring us,” Cole said. “They’re afraid corporations are watching what they do.” 

The most consistent source of profit on the Internet, Cole said, is pornography. But he acknowledged it was too difficult to get survey participants to answer truthfully to draw any conclusions on its impact. 

The survey also leaves other questions unanswered. 

Does Internet access make workers more productive or does it tempt them to slack off? What do people sacrifice to spend time online: hobbies, television, exercise, sleep? 

Cole said he hopes to continue the study over the next 10 to 20 years in an effort to address more issues relating to the technology. 

Right now, Internet users say that e-mail, Web sites and chat rooms have a “modestly positive impact” on their abilities to make new friends and communicate more with family, according to the survey. 

Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, said the report supports his own findings that the Internet is a tool that unites more people than it isolates. 

“There is some evidence that people make and sustain long distance friendships online,” Rainie said. “They get health care information that they couldn’t get before. A goodly number say it helps them manage finances better.”