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Loneliness and the Web

Thomas Matthews
Posted: February 3, 2000

Loneliness and the Web
By Thomas Matthews, New York bureau chief

How are you feeling?

Yes, I mean you--the person hooked up to a computer, reading these words. Are you happy or sad? More to the point, are you happier than you were, say, before you began surfing the Web? Or might you possibly be feeling a bit more lonely and depressed?

I don't mean to pry. But I was jolted by a story that appeared in The New York Times on Sunday, Aug. 30. Called "Sad, Lonely World Discovered in Cyberspace," it reported the results of a recent study on the psychological effects of Internet use. Bottom line: They're bad.

"People who spend even a few hours a week on-line experience higher levels of depression and loneliness than if they used the computer network less frequently," wrote Times reporter Amy Harmon. "Internet use itself appeared to cause a decline in psychological well-being."

The study, called "HomeNet," was carried out by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. They examined the behavior and feelings of 169 people in the Pittsburgh area over a period ranging from one to two years. Subjects, who tracked their Internet usage during this period, were given psychological tests at the beginning and end of the study. (The study is scheduled to be published in The American Psychologist.)

The researchers found that for the average subject, one hour per week on the Internet resulted in an increase of 1 percent on a scale measuring depression, nearly 0.5 percent on a scale measuring loneliness, and the loss of 2.7 members of the subject's social circle, which numbered an average of 66 people.

So, I ask you: How are you feeling?

Now, these results were surprising to the researchers who set up the study. And to companies such as Intel, Hewlett Packard and Apple, which were among its sponsors. They all expected that the interactive nature of the Internet--the e-mail, chat rooms, bulletin boards, etc.--would increase psychological well-being, at least compared with more obviously passive media such as television. But, in the end, you still wind up alone in a room staring at a video screen. And that general situation may have more overall impact than whether you're manipulating a mouse or a remote control.

"Our hypothesis is there are more cases where you're building shallow relationships, leading to an overall decline in feeling of connection to other people." That's the summary, quoted in the Times, of Robert Kraut, one of the study's researchers, who is a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon's Human-Computer Interaction Institute.

It makes sense to me. The only way I can understand the casual vituperation and trigger-happy hostility unfortunately rampant on the Web is by believing that these aggressive posters really don't conceive of their targets as living, breathing people with feelings that might get hurt by their abuse. That despite the frequency of their interaction, these are "shallow relationships" that don't really count for much, so if they are ruptured, it's no big deal. And once you lose the "feelings of connection" to your Internet correspondents, well, naturally these feelings might begin to slacken with the people you actually encounter in your day-to-day activities.

But maybe there's a remedy. And maybe the Wine Spectator Internet community has already found it. It lies in the inherently gregarious nature of wine-drinking.

You can sit alone in front of your computer and e-mail people about wine. You can use your computer to buy and sell wine, to organize your cellar and to compute the value of your wine collection. But you can't uncork a bottle and pour your computer a glass. You can't clink glasses with a computer or wind up sharing a whole bottle of something delicious and get a little tipsy. A happily inebriated computer won't start laughing at your silly jokes or work up the courage to share a serious secret. You can't really do those things with an on-line friend, either. You need to be close enough to touch those glasses. You need to be face to face.

That is wine's greatest virtue, if you ask me. Sure, I love the way it speaks of its origins, the complexity of its flavors, the history a great bottle brings to the table. But most of all, I value what happens when I share it. Drinking wine with other people heightens the "feeling of connection" I have with them, and sharing bottles over time builds deeper relationships as we come to know each others' tastes and ways of thinking.

The Internet may indeed be a force for anomie and social disintegration in our society; more research is needed before we can be certain of its effects. And even on Wine Spectator's Web site, the acrimony level is high enough to keep me, for one, uncomfortable much of the time. But there seems to be a self-correcting force: Call it the power of the grape. Our Web site users actually apologize for hurt feelings and frequently get together to share wine, food and fellowship. This is the kind of community-building that can make the Internet a positive element in modern life.

So my advice is to keep surfing the Web. Keep track of its impact on your social life and your psychological well-being. And keep uncorking those bottles with your friends and your family. Just in case.

This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from New York bureau chief Thomas Matthews. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.

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