Stuck in a web of mediocre relationships?

Neil Atwood 4 July 2006

It’s no secret that the internet has changed the way we relate to each other in some pretty radical ways.

In some instances, it’s in a very positive way. For example, it’s very easy for me to keep in touch with my two nieces currently living in London, while I’m in Australia. I do it by email, IM’ing and sometimes by phone – but via a VoIP connection. A friend on exchange in Norway who is hearing impaired also keeps in touch with her family through Instant Messaging – a method perfectly suited to her circumstances, and only available via the internet.

But there is also a downside to web-based communications. According to some research recently revealed, the internet is at least partly responsible for greater social isolation, and a reduction in social networks.

“The study, published in the June issue of American Sociological Review, compared data from 1985 and 2004 and found that the mean number of people with whom Americans felt they could discuss important matters had fallen by nearly a third, from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004.”

But surely this needs qualifying. Firstly, the key to understanding some of these changes is realising that the internet has changed the way we relate: The study said:

“New technology, while it allows people to connect over larger distances, might diminish the need for face-to-face visits with friends, family or neighbours,”.

Secondly, given the time scale that the study was concerned with (19 years), there are bound to be other factors that come into play that are not related to the internet and it’s impact on our lives.
The study indicated that:

“The number of people who said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters also more than doubled during the period to about 25 per cent.”

So, perhaps it’s not that people are not communicating with each other, but that the level of significance of that communication has changed.
That certainly makes some sense. We all know that email is communication mode that lends itself to brevity, and the same would apply to IM. But is this all just a symptom of a deeper problem?

Much bigger changes in society than just the internet have led to greater isolation. In the nineteen years that the study covers many things have changed: Changing work patterns which can make ‘quality’ socialising harder. Longer work hours, greater commitment to career development, and fewer formalised relationships like marriage can all lead to less significant relationships in our lives.

In my field of work, I’m certainly aware of the reduction of these important, supportive relationships in people’s lives. I come across many people who long for a deeper sense of community and attachment to others in their lives – even if those people are in good, functional partnerships like a marriage or similar.

So how should we respond to this study and similar data – especially as people who have invested heavily in the internet?

Probably the same way we should to anything that threatens quality relationships: Do what it takes to guard those relationships! So stop reading this, and go and have a drink and chat with someone important to you.