Internet Hazardous to One's Social Health?

The old adage that too much of a good thing can be bad for you may hold for Internet users, according to a new study. The research, published in the latest issue of The American Psychologist, suggests that spending time on the Internet can increase depression, shrink social interaction, and hamper family communication.

Since the Internet became popular around 5 years ago, observers have both credited it with helping isolated people communicate and blamed it for cutting into time for real-world relationships. In the first study to look at these possible effects, Robert Kraut and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh installed computers with free Internet connections for 169 people in 73 previously unwired households. The researchers used software to track each person's hours online. Over the next year, they asked each participant how many people he or she socialized with and how much time individual family members spent communicating with one another. They also used standard psychological tests to measure each person's feelings of depression and loneliness.

Kraut's group found that even when people spent only one to four hours a week on the Internet, they communicated less with their families, socialized with a smaller number of friends, and scored higher on depression tests. This suggests that even if people use the Internet to communicate, they may be sacrificing close personal relationships, the researchers say.

Still, both the study authors and outsiders caution that the study's conclusions aren't ironclad. For one thing, it's possible that the negative effects of Internet use are simply due to the fact that subjects spent less time socializing, says co-author Sara Kiesler. As well, Maressa Hecht Orzack, director of Computer Addiction Services at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, adds that it's hard to tell how much the study says about the general population because it looked at a relatively small group of people who weren't randomly chosen.