The Pew Internet and American Life Project recently released their “Social Isolation and New Technology” which investigates the relationship between social isolation and the use of mobile phones, the internet, and online social networking. The report is complex, as the it attempts to account for varying degrees of social isolation, different types of technology use, and unresolved questions about causation. The following are some of the key findings of the survey (as found in the report conclusion):
- The “size and diversity” of Americans’ social networks has declined (although the prevalence of severe social isolation has not increased): “Compared to the relatively recent past, most Americans now have fewer people with whom they discuss important matters, and the diversity of people with whom they discuss these issues has declined.”
- The changes that Americans are experiencing in their social networks are harmful: “Smaller and less diverse core networks diminish personal well-being by limiting access to social support. There are simply fewer people we can rely on in a time of need – whether it is a shoulder to cry on, to borrow a cup of sugar, or to help during a crisis. Small and narrow core networks also impede trust and social tolerance; they limit exposure to the diverse opinions, issues, and ideas of others.”
- Use of social networking tools is not correlated with the trend towards “smaller and less diverse core networks.” The headline-worthy news from the survey is: “[The] survey finds the opposite trend amongst internet and mobile phone users; they have larger and more diverse core networks.”
- The report doesn’t prove that engagement with certain technologies causes users to have larger and more varied social networks: “We do not know if use of new technologies contributes directly to larger and more diverse core networks, or if those who use technology in a certain way are likely to have better networks from the beginning.”
The survey — and the larger debate about the connection between internet use and social relationships — raises questions that may be relevant to congregational life, such as:
- What is the role of congregations in responding to the deterioration of social networks and the resultant challenges facing individuals?
- Are there ways that congregational leaders and religious professionals can use new media to help build more robust and diverse social networks within the congregation?
- Because of the relative size and diversity of new technology users’ networks, do congregations have a greater likelihood of reaching a diverse audience through social networking tools, rather than relying solely on word-of-mouth and other traditional outreach methods? (This question relates not only to the composition of online networks, but also to the patterns of how content is shared among social media users within networks).
- What are the unique challenges of promoting a congregation or faith movement through social media? The Pew report also found that “Users of social networking websites are 40% more likely to visit a bar, but 36% less likely to visit a religious institution.” Egad! Is this because of the demographics of social networking users, because religious institutions aren’t using social networks as successfully as possible, or due to some other factor?