NEW YORK -- Contrary to suspicions that the Internet creates antisocial hermits, a study released Wednesday reports that friends and relatives actually communicate more frequently because of the Internet.
Much of the e-mail exchanges are in the form of jokes, news tidbits or family announcements. The study found most e-mail users are reluctant to use the Internet for advice from family or for discussing worrisome or upsetting topics with friends and relatives.
Nonetheless, research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project seems to dismiss the notion that the Internet encourages social isolation.
The Pew study of 3,533 adults found 72 percent of Internet users visited a relative or a friend a day earlier, compared with 61 percent for nonusers. Internet users also were more likely to have phoned friends and relatives.
In February, a study by professors at Stanford University and the Free University of Berlin found that too much time on the Internet makes some people reclusive and less likely to interact with people face to face.
Steven Jones, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said the Pew findings help bring balance to the debate on the Internet's social impact. He said the new study confirms his own research that Americans are learning to treat the Internet as a communications tool that is as fundamental as the telephone.
"It's penetrated into everyday life," Jones said. "It's used for what we might characterize as everyday conversation."
Fifty-five percent of Internet users say e-mail has improved communications with family, while 66 percent believe contact with friends has increased because of e-mail.
Women are more likely than men to credit the Internet for improving ties. Among women, 60 percent reported better contact with family and 71 percent with friends.
Although contact increases, it does not necessarily bring relatives emotionally closer. Only 40 percent found e-mail bringing them closer to family, and only 25 percent said they learned more about their family since using e-mail. The numbers are higher for friends.
Lee Rainie, the Pew project's director, said families and friends are close to begin with, so it made sense that the Internet would not always make them closer. The important finding, he said, was the increase in contact.
The survey also found online use among women reaching par with that of men. Women now make up 50 percent of the online population, although men go online more frequently.
Additionally, women were more likely to seek health and religious information, research new jobs or play games online. Men were more likely to get news, sports and financial information, as well as shop and trade stocks online.
The random survey was based on telephone interviews conducted March 1-31 by Princeton Survey Research Associates. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points for the full survey and 3 percentage points for questions asked only of the 1,690 respondents who were Internet users.
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