Does the Internet Make Us Lonely?

An IEEE Fellow has a surprising answer

30 April 2012

For years I’ve heard warnings that younger generations will grow up lacking social skills because of the amount of time they spend texting, posting on Facebook, and basically staring at some sort of screen rather than interacting with a person.

Study after study has analyzed how our increased Internet usage is negatively affecting us. One that CNN reported on in 2009 painted a grim picture, linking excessive Internet use with social phobia, depression, and other psychological problems. Another study by Stanford University researchers in 2005 warned that those who use the Internet frequently spend about an hour less each day interacting with their families. Those same researchers were among the first who years earlier hypothesized a link between Internet use and social isolation.

Such studies have made it sound like the Internet will eventually turn us all into bumbling, awkward, and socially inept creatures, unable to handle in-person interactions.

But now, IEEE Fellow Gerhard Fettweis says that couldn’t be further from the truth. “Even if we, today and in the future, use mobile communications systems and the Internet to shop, exchange knowledge, find new friends, and chat, the virtual world can never replace the real world and the basic human desire for direct, physical experience, and face-to-face interaction,” says Fettweis, a chair professor of mobile communications systems at the Technical University of Dresden, in Germany, in a 12 April news release promoting the IEEE Technology Time Machine Symposium. The conference, to be held from 23 to 25 May, also in Dresden, will address what technology might look like in the future and how it will affect us.

“Our world in 50 years will, of course be deeply influenced by interconnected networks of communicating technologies, but we will use them efficiently to synchronize personal freedom and professional responsibilities so seamlessly that we will have more spare time to spend with friends and family,” Fettweis adds.

I think we are already seeing the benefits of such increased connectivity. Thanks to advances in communications technology, a new emphasis on green practices, as well as a change in attitude by managers toward employees working remotely, a growing number of workers are telecommuting. A recent survey conducted by research company Ipsos found that a sixth of employees around the world now telecommute. And less time commuting to an office means more time connecting face-to face where Fettweis says it matters most—at home with family and friends.

Do you think the Internet leads to loneliness, or does it help us connect, as Fettweis argues? Will future generations grow up lacking interpersonal skills?


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