Cover Story

Leslie, a graduate student in psychology at a Midwestern university, couldn't find anyone she was interested in dating. Then she placed a personal ad on a Web site for singles. Not long after, she received an e-mail that changed her life. Although she and her correspondent had completely different backgrounds--he didn't have a college degree, for instance--they quickly discovered they shared interests and values.

Today they're in love. "If you looked at how different our backgrounds were, nobody would ever have matched us up," says Leslie. "Even though we lived in the same town, we never would have met except through the Internet."

As Leslie's story illustrates, e-mail and other Internet technologies are changing friendship and romance, both online and in the real world. But while Leslie's story has a happy ending, others do not. Some confront disappointment when they come face to face with online correspondents; others use cyber-affairs to avoid working through problems with their real-life partners.

No one knows for sure what the long-term effects of forming and developing Internet relationships will be. Does using this technology ultimately enhance interpersonal connection or lead to greater social isolation? And is online sexuality pathological or healthy?

With the number of Americans online growing every day, these questions have become urgent.

"As we integrate Internet use into our culture, we've got to maximize its potential benefits and mitigate any possible adverse consequences," says Russ Newman, PhD, JD, executive director for professional practice at APA. "If we just proceed blindly down the Internet road, we could find ourselves in 10 or 20 years having radically changed the way people relate to each other and realizing we're stuck with those changes. As experts in behavior and relationships, psychologists have an important role to play in making sure that doesn't happen."

Isolation or connection?

Psychologists are already hard at work studying the Internet's effects. So far, their findings have been mixed.

The first study to specifically examine the Internet's impact on emotional well-being was the widely publicized 1998 study by Robert Kraut, PhD, Sara Kiesler, PhD, and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University's Human Computer Interaction Institute. Their "HomeNet" project focused on 169 individuals in 93 Pittsburgh families recruited from schools and community groups as they began using the Internet. Logging programs recorded Internet use by individual family members, who assessed their own well-being and social involvement at the project's beginning, one year later and two years later.

To the researchers' surprise, they discovered that greater use of the Internet resulted in small but statistically significant increases in depression and loneliness and decreases in social engagement. Internet users, the researchers hypothesized in their American Psychologist report (No. 53, p. 1017­1031), were replacing the intimate, supportive relationships of real life with shallower relationships online.

The findings set off a firestorm. Critics pointed to the study's lack of random selection and a control group, which the researchers say they couldn't afford. Others noted the participants had a high degree of social connectedness to begin with and simply moved closer to the mean. Not so, say the researchers. Such an explanation, they say, doesn't address the fact that individuals with high use experienced greater declines and that those who were depressed or lonely didn't start using the Internet more.

A recent study conducted on behalf of the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society seems to corroborate the "HomeNet" findings, although the project focused on the Internet's societal rather than psychological impact.

In the study, a company called InterSurvey provided Internet access and equipment that allows users to go online via their televisions to a nationally representative sample of 2,689 households containing both Internet users and nonusers. An Internet-based survey revealed that 55 percent of the 4,113 adults in these households used the Internet. Of these, about a third spent more than five hours a week online.

About a quarter of these regular Internet users reported that their time online had reduced the amount of time they spent interacting with family and friends in person and on the phone. Eight percent said they spent less time attending social events.

Like the Carnegie Mellon study, these preliminary results have attracted controversy. Some critics point to research that conflicts with these negative findings. Others note that Internet users may simply find online relationships more rewarding than those available in their offline lives. Even one of the study's authors admits that Internet use had some positive benefits, with the most enthusiastic Internet users also reporting less time watching television and caught in traffic.

"There's a big gap in the research," says Linda A. Jackson, PhD, a psychology professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Although the Carnegie Mellon study is the only one that has systematically tracked Internet use via computer-logging, she says, several surveys and ethnographic studies have suggested that Internet use actually enhances people's well-being and social contacts.

To help answer the question, Jackson is now trying to replicate the HomeNet study. With funding from the National Science Foundation, she is engaged in a pilot study that will use computer-logging to track the psychosocial effects of 18 months of Internet use on 45 African-American families and 45 white families.

Other researchers already have evidence that counters what they call the "apocalyptic" claims the HomeNet study and similar research have aroused.

Research scientist Katelyn Y.A. McKenna, PhD, and professor John A. Bargh, PhD, of New York University's psychology department compare the Internet's bad press to the fear of new technology that once prompted people to resist telephones in the belief that people could eavesdrop on their homes even with the phone on the hook.

McKenna and Bargh have conducted research that provides a very different picture of the Internet's impact on relationships. In a manuscript submitted for publication, they describe a recent study that found people were indeed using the Internet to form close relationships. Using data from 568 surveys from participants in randomly selected news groups, they discovered that the Internet provided a safe way for socially anxious and lonely people to form and maintain relationships. Of critical importance was their ability to express what they considered their real selves online (see related article, page 16).

These are not just virtual relationships, the researchers emphasize. Fifty-four percent of respondents later met their Internet friends face to face. Sixty-three percent had talked on the phone. And these relationships lasted. A two-year follow-up study revealed that 57 percent of the relationships formed online had not only continued but actually increased in intimacy.

Romantic relationships fared particularly well, says McKenna. Seventy percent of the romantic relationships formed online still existed at the two-year follow-up. Some participants had even married. These results are in marked contrast to the fate of couples who meet in a more traditional manner, says McKenna, pointing to a study that found that more than half of romantic relationships dissolve after two years.

"Online relationships begin on the basis of similar interests and values," says McKenna. "They allow people to bypass physical appearance and other 'gating' mechanisms that might prevent them from even giving the other person the time of day in real life."

Arguing that the Carnegie Mellon team's results held true only for the teen-agers in the group, McKenna and Bargh emphasize the importance of not making blanket statements.

"For some people, the Internet can be a great medium for making connections, widening their social circles and enriching their lives," says McKenna, citing single working mothers and the elderly as examples. "For others, it may be problematic."

For communications expert Judee K. Burgoon, PhD, conflicting findings like these underline the fact that the Internet's effect on relationships isn't inherently good or bad.

"You can't give a simple answer to that question," says Burgoon, a professor of communication and family studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "It all depends on how people are using the technology."

Take e-mail, she says. The lack of facial and verbal cues, for instance, can create greater intimacy or lead to misunderstandings. E-mail can facilitate relationships by allowing people to take the time to say what they mean and to communicate without the intrusion of day-to-day tensions and grievances. It can also encourage people to idealize their correspondent and lose sight of the real person behind the e-mail address. Of course, says Burgoon, the people you meet online may not even be who you think they are. In one online game, a computer program posing as "Julia" attracted the intense and persistent attentions of several male participants.

"We're only beginning to study the Internet," says Burgoon. "As the technology changes, we'll come to different conclusions than we had even two years ago."

Obsession or exploration?

That's certainly true when it comes to discussions of online sexuality, says Alvin Cooper, PhD, clinical director of the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Cooper used to believe the hype about the dangers of online sexuality. Once he started investigating, however, he found a much more nuanced picture of how the Internet actually affects the 20 percent of users who now go online for sexual purposes. While the Internet can destroy lives, he says, it also provides a powerful tool for enhancing users' sexual relationships.

As Cooper describes in Professional Psychology (Vol. 30, No. 2, p. 154­164), he developed an extensive questionnaire and put an announcement on an online news site to recruit participants who had used the Internet for sexual pursuits at least once. The 9,177 people who responded revealed that the vast majority used pornography, sexual chat rooms and other online sexual activities the same way they used Baywatch--as casual recreation. Only the 8 percent of users who spent more than 11 hours a week on online sexuality reported that these activities caused psychological distress and interfered with other parts of their lives.

The Internet may also pose risks to relationships that wouldn't otherwise have had problems except for what Cooper calls the "triple A" of the Internet: access, affordability and anonymity. A husband having a fight with his wife, for instance, probably won't take the trouble to punish his wife by going out to a bar to pick up a woman. Going into the other room, logging on and acting out sexual scenarios with virtual partners, however, is much easier.

But the "triple A" has plenty of positive effects, Cooper emphasizes. Users can go online to safely explore their fantasies or try new sexual experiences. Sexually disenfranchised groups, such as gays, lesbians and transgendered individuals, can create virtual communities. People with health problems, sexual dysfunction or histories of rape or abuse can find support from others. And many in what Cooper calls our "sexually illiterate" society can benefit from the sex information available online.

"After all, if you want to learn how to bake a cake, you can ask your mother or a neighbor," he says. "If you want to learn about oral sex, who are you going to ask?"

The future

The Internet has already revolutionized sexual relationships, says Cooper, citing cyber-affairs and virtual sex as examples. In just a few years, he predicts, people will use specialized equipment to have real sex over the Internet. Instead of simply masturbating as they type, he says, people will be able to send and receive actual sexual sensations.

Jim Blascovich, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is one of the people who may help make such scenarios possible. In the Research Center for Virtual Environments and Behavior he co-founded at the university, he and his colleagues have created an immersive virtual environment that allows people to "be" in the same room no matter where they're located in the real world. Now he's trying to represent people's images three dimensionally.

The technology will have tremendous implications for online relationships, says Blascovich. Instead of talking by phone, for instance, people could come together in a virtual room and be able to see each other's nonverbal reactions.

"I can only speculate at this point, but this technology will have a major impact," says Blascovich, adding that this capability is only a few years away. "Whatever you can do on the Internet, for good or for bad, will be magnified a thousandfold by immersive virtual environments."

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.