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"The Internet's Effect on Relationships:
Detrimental or Beneficial?"


Internet Paradox: A Social Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Well-Being?

Civic Networks: Social Benefits of On-Line Communities

CMC Magazine: Cyberspace Couples Finding Romance Online Then Meeting for the First Time in Real Life

During the latter half of the 1990's, the Internet has been thrust into the limelight because of its ability to allow information transmission to anywhere where there's a computer and a phone line. The Internet, now a household buzzword for a network of computers providing theoretically worldwide access to information, has taken root in the cultures and habits of those who use it, and past speculation of the Internet's influence as a virtual reality has become, well, a reality. However, the popularity and instant appeal of the Internet has caused concern that individuals will become addicted to the Internet (henceforth referred to as "the 'Net"), withdraw from family relationships, experience increases in loneliness, and overall just find it impossible to reach deeper levels of intimacy in relationships. Psychologists are increasing the intensity of their studies regarding the Internet, finding this to be the case, while others disagree completely. But is this truly the answer? Are alarmists looking at the whole picture? Perhaps the 'Net is only another medium, not to be singled out, only another way that people can either benefit from it or be hurt by it, depending completely upon how they choose to is it, just as they do with any hobby, career, or lifestyle. This research paper will explore both sides of the issue with the chief goal of explaining each side in summary as opposed to arguing for one side over another.

The 'Net indeed plays a convincing role as a surrogate reality for those who become addicted to it. Not only can its users use electronic mail (e-mail), a method of instantly contacting anyone across the world who has an e-mail address, but users can also play interactive multiplayer games from text-based to graphical with other users, browse the World Wide Web to get information on anything they wish, download software and articles ranging from the bizarre to the educational -- essentially, Internet users can get anything they desire.

It is conceded any online methods of finding information can be used purely for constructive and healthy ends, socially, for people may find many large circles of others who identify with them and strengthen their own confidence in people. A journal entitled Universal Access to E-mail: Feasibility and Societal Implications mentions that the Internet, e-mail in particular, allows networks to "support interpersonal relationships and facilitate the social integration of otherwise marginalized groups" and "facilitate citizen participation in the political process" by "[contacting] government representatives". The "Civic Networks" study states very clearly, "Concerns that boundary-spanning networks might facilitate a breakdown of community affiliation, or disinterest in local affairs, appear unfounded."

However, as a study entitled "Internet Paradox: A Social Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Well-Being?" stated, "These applications [e-mail, IRC chat, etc.] disproportionately reduce the costs of communication with geographically distant acquaintances and strangers; as a result, a smaller proportion of people's total social contacts might be with family and close friends." Also, "Other applications on the Internet, particularly the World Wide Web, provide asocial entertainment that could compete with social contact as a way for people to spend their time." What it is saying in the latter quote specifically is that the World Wide Web (henceforth "the Web") is primarily one-way communication - the author of a web site is the one talking, and the user only does the listening unless he takes the effort to write that author. In this way, the Web is more like television, and users can end up finding lifeless documents equivalent to human communication, since the pure bulk of information on the Web provides dynamic conversational input that other people find in talking to actual humans.

Comparing the two studies, it is obvious that there is wild debate about whether the 'Net is harmful or not.

Internet addiction has been a hot topic. The replacement of humans by computers as interactive beings is the main concern for individuals' health. What feeds 'Net addiction is the fact that the 'Net removes all of the social and physical barriers to satisfying desires. For example, pornography is readily available online, and for younger children and people with low esteem, what had previously kept them from buying pornographic videos and magazines, or watching pornographic movies, was embarrassment. However, while online, anyone, any age, can download as much pornography as they wish without fear of being identified by other people. Whether this is healthy or not is a heated debate, for the most part irrelevant to the topic of this research paper. Nevertheless, the point is made that the 'Net loosens the restrictive nature of society, a nature which has traditionally protected societal morality and manners. By making any information available in the comfort of one's own room, any pleasure or indulgence is perfectly acceptable and comfortable, regardless of the taboo it has outside of that room.

Complementing the alluring addictive aspect of the 'Net is the decline of communication amongst social circles in general as democratic oversimplification gradually nullifies the credibility and usefulness of religion and faith, and the growing suspicion towards other humans as violent crimes and cases of mistrust in close relationships such as friend-to-friend and lover-to-lover increase. The "Internet Paradox" article described the societal decay as such:

"In an influential article, Putnam (1995) documented a broad decline in civic engagement and social participation in the United States over the past 35 years. Citizens vote less, go to church less, discuss government with their neighbors less, are members of fewer voluntary organizations, have fewer dinner parties, and generally get together less for civic and social purposes. Putnam argued that this social disengagement is having major consequences for the social fabric and for individual lives. At the societal level, social disengagement is associated with more corrupt, less efficient government and more crime. When citizens are involved in civic life, their schools run better, their politicians are more responsive, and their streets are safer. At the individual level, social disengagement is associated with poor quality of life and diminished physical and psychological health. When people have more social contact, they are happier and healthier, both physically and mentally (e.g., S. Cohen & Wills, 1985 ; Gove & Geerken, 1977 )."

What is being said is that the effect the Internet has on people, which is to say negative, mirrors the gradual changes occurring in American society over the last three and a half decades. American citizens are becoming more consumed with their own well-being and are losing their civic identities and interest, and the physical manifestation of such a loss is the rise in crime, corruption, and decline of confidence in the country's democratic superiority, as it pertains to politics, civil law, and the representation of the people. People are far more reclusive than they used to be, and the fact that social contact is necessary for human beings, collective organisms, shows that we as a societal whole have a sickness.

So what is going on is that some psychologists see a link between the disinterest in public participation in local and national affairs and the increase of instances of Internet addiction. But wouldn't that confirm that it is not the Internet which is the problem, but perhaps only a clear litmus test of what's actually happening to the society as a whole?

The evidence for Internet addiction is overwhelming - no one denies that it exists, really, but people argue about whether the Internet is adding that element of addiction, or if it's just satisfying the longing for interaction that we've lost over the years. The Internet removes all barriers that shy people never get past in reality, and therefore they are more comfortable online than offline. Some say this is addiction, others say it is using the most convenient and appropriate method for one's personality.

The main element of the argument against the Internet for communication is intimacy of relationships. Andrea Baker's research in "Cyberspace Couples Finding Romance Online Then Meeting for the First Time in Real Life" on couples that met online before meeting offline sheds some light onto this topic, showing data which shows that relationships online can be just as successful as offline ones. The problem with the research data was that it was acquired through voluntary participation, which involves a bias - couples with problems would likely not be as willing to participate. Baker listed what qualities of the people involved were attractive to their partners: "sense of humor, response time, interests, qualities described online, and having 'something in common'." The results were overwhelmingly good in favor of online relationships.

There seemed to be no lack of intimacy for these couples, and if anything, there was a marked distinction between the initial natures of the online relationships versus offline ones. The qualities listed by the participants were qualities which reflected the characters and personalities of those involved, and not looks or sexiness or anything physical. Intimacy relies partly on physical closeness, but even more so on the spiritual connection the two partners share. If anything, this shows online relationships can develop even more intimately than in relationships that begin offline.

"After an initial period of extremely 'nervous' or anxious anticipation, many couples became very 'comfortable' and had that feeling of 'coming home'." (Baker) This strengthens the argument that online bonds make relationships more secure, because the initial fear and fright of not knowing a person when first meeting them face-to-face has already been conquered online - once you see the person, you already know about the inside, and you feel extremely comfortable with that person in a very short amount of time.

While I know it is a major no-no to include myself, first of all for the purposes of a research paper, and second to include myself as a case study, I do consider my situation appropriate and relevant to the purpose of this paper, to summarize the debate over the Internet. My name is Ben Turner and I've been using online networks (Prodigy, The ImagiNation Network, Internet) for what amounts to about half of my twenty years alive. Most of whom I know and correspond with I've met through the Internet. In fact, I've even met my girlfriend on the Internet, and she lives in Sweden. We were acquaintances for well over a year, and when we got serious about getting together, we still only met in real life after three or four months of talking online. There was no physical aspect to this relationship until our first meeting mentioned above. We have been together for close to two years now, still living in separate countries, but our spiritual bond is very strong and we've managed to fall in love even more, without the benefit of physical intimacy at our fingertips. Obviously, our relationship started and continues to be based on how well our personalities match each other, and the depth of our love for each other represents an intimacy few offline couples even have. Meeting in real life first may have enabled us to skip over getting to know each other mentally and spiritually as well as we do. It is understood that this is merely an isolated example and bears little accuracy for the bulk of online relationships, but I feel it's important to note nonetheless.

While in theory, it seems as though spending one's time online, "communicating" with web pages and e-mails from strangers, would affect the ability for people to reach deeper levels of intimacy, this seems not to be the case unilaterally across the board. In fact, the features available on the Internet, e-mail and the Web and the ability to contact political representatives, rock stars, and other famous people, would seem to strengthen the argument for more healthy communication and interaction. Real-life society is more a display of the ostentatious and outgoing, not representative of the more introverted personality types, and the Internet is a haven for these people to finally express themselves.

Attempts to attach negative elements to the Internet seem to be a waste of time, applying validity to logically invalid hypotheses. The Internet has long been the place where the introverted and shy walk and thrive, and therefore that should be kept in mind in all experiments done for the Internet. Comparisons made to a more extroverted real world are not accurate. Studies looking into this would have more of an impact on the online community and what it means to belong to it.

More and more, the Internet seems to be a scapegoat for today's societal problems. What decay sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists have noticed in the last half century shows us that we are a society in dire need of some form of freedom, some way to express oneself without being cast out from one's niches and comfort zones. The Internet, which, without any argument, is a wonderful technological advance for business, also will play a crucial role in the community of the world in the future, but in its nascent state, it is still the subject of fear and misunderstanding for those who don't use it very intensely. It is blamed for today's problems, as television long has been, while everything it does is inherently good for human interaction. Admittedly, it can be abused and people can pull away from the real world, spending long hours alone while reading web pages and playing games and other solitary tasks. But why should this be a problem confined to the Internet? Any hobby or interest can be misused and abused, and anyone can become addicted to anything. What interests you also has the possibility of consuming you if you have a personality prone towards that vulnerability.

Right now, the Internet is too immature and young to be analyzed with any certainty. On top of that, psychologists are exploring the wrong areas and with the wrong motives and predictions of outcomes to really grasp what is happening to individuals who use the Internet. Its efficiency and flexibility aside, the Internet is the one tool that is guiding us where we want to go, which is communication on an international level, so that we may meet those rare people who identify with us, and so that we may gain perspective from those of other backgrounds. Granted, there must be balance when using the Internet, for it can be both good and bad, but this is not unlike other elements in society, and we must recognize that and begin to look at ourselves, not at networks of computers, for the source of our society's ills.


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