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Is the Internet beginning to destroy our social fabric, or is it the means to a global community?

Some news flashed across the Internet this week that tentatively supports the former idea. "The more hours people use the Internet, the less time they spend with real human beings," said Stanford Professor Norman Nie of his recent study of the social consequences of Internet use.

This surely makes for some great headlines, and the media seized the opportunity. Why? Well, first, it goes against everyone who says the Net is an enabler of the global village. Second, it’s simply sensational! With so much still in doubt about the effects of the Internet on people’s daily lives, tidbits that suggest a trend towards self-destruction just seem a lot more interesting than the "One World" advertisements promoted by Internet companies.

But should we really be worried that the Net is causing social demise? Should we be sucked in by the hype? I don’t think so. Instead, let’s be skeptical and see what these high profile results are really saying.

Start with the "key finding" of the recent Stanford study. The implied causation says this: If people spend a lot of time on the Internet, they will then spend less time with humans. Presumably this means that the Internet is causing people to be anti-social. But this is a cross-sectional study, so one could interpret the results in another (and the opposite) way: People who don’t want to spend time with humans spend more time on the Internet.

Is this possible? Could people really not want to spend time with humans, or, more precisely, spend time with their families? Sure. Why do we have such a high divorce rate or talk of alienated kids? This doesn’t have to start with exposure to the Internet. Maybe people who, for purely non-Net reasons, don’t want to spend time with their families (or anybody) find the Internet a great place to go. Or maybe people are so stressed by their daily jobs and find the Internet a great way to relax, rather than spending time interacting with more people.

The implication here is very different – the Internet is not causing social demise. Rather, social demise attributed to the family, work, or overall stress levels is causing higher Internet usage.

This, of course, is simply speculation. But it’s a view that’s also supported by the data. Without careful controls and experimental procedures this (and other) alternative views of the world can’t be ruled out. But of course, this viewpoint isn’t as interesting as the one carried by the media.

There are other reasons to question the validity of recent study. I am not the first to point out several methodological concerns. For example, the study is reported as broadly representative of all American households. To get around the obvious problem that about half the population doesn’t even have a computer, the researchers gave away Internet devices and connectivity to get people to participate in the study.

Think about it. You were just given an Internet connection and asked whether you spend time with it. Of course you do, you have to answer the survey questions using it! What’s more, since you were given the Internet device, using it means you must be spending less time with your family (there’s only 24 hours in a day). Voila…the key study finding supported.

Now I’m not interested in debunking a particular study. Careful research is admittedly very hard to do, and there is much to be learned about the role of the Internet in society. My opinion is that if we’re not critical thinkers we might think the Internet is something its not.

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image of Allen Weiss

Allen is founder, CEO, and Positioning Practice Lead at MarketingProfs. Over the years he has worked with companies such as Texas Instruments, Informix, Vanafi, and EMI Music Distribution to help them position their products defensively in a competitive environment. He is also the founder of Insight4Peace and the Director of Mindful USC.