In Brief

A survey that previously painted the Internet as the great isolator now finds an opposite effect: These days, the Internet more often connects people than separates them, new results suggest.

Carnegie Mellon University's HomeNet field trial, which initially followed 93 households in their first 12 to 18 months online, caused a national stir three years ago with its findings of negative Internet effects. The study linked home Internet use with increased depression and loneliness and decreased social involvement. But when the study looked at the same Web surfers two to three years after their first use, it found that the earlier pattern had reversed markedly.

For one thing, effects on depression moderated, with high Internet use failing to link with more depression. But, perhaps most significantly, high Internet use appeared tied to reduced loneliness and other positive effects among users, including better mood and upbeat feelings about life in general.

Why the notable improvement? Because people have changed the way they use the Internet, and because the Internet itself has changed, says psychologist Robert Kraut, PhD, who led a research team that also includes Sara Kiesler, PhD, and Vicki Helgeson, PhD. Back in 1995, when the HomeNet study started, services such as e-mail had yet to catch on and instant messaging didn't even exist, he notes. Since then, use of such socially connecting services has skyrocketed.

What's more, says Kraut, people have learned to use the Internet in ways that are "personally rewarding"--tapping it for contact with friends and relatives, not just for information and entertainment.

"There's a change in the types of Internet services being offered and a change in who's online," says Kraut. "The Internet is a better place to be [now] than in the beginning, because now your friends and neighbors are online."

Also, says Kraut, the Internet does not appear to be a shaper of behavior, as some had previously charged, but rather a tool that is shaped by the user. In a second study of 446 Web users, Kraut and his team found that extroverts were more likely to use the Internet to connect with others than were introverts.

"This is a plastic technology that amplifies already existing differences between introverts and extroverts," says Kraut. "Stable personality traits cause people to take advantage of different aspects of the "Net."

The study, which appears in this spring's special Internet issue of the Journal of Social Issues (Vol. 58, No. 1), also found, somewhat surprisingly, that heavy Internet users reported higher levels of stress, despite the social payoffs. But Kraut offers an explanation: "The Internet is one more thing you have to stick in your life--another drain on your time and attention."

--B. MURRAY