Thursday, August 03, 2006

Canadian internet users -- friendless loners? Only if you believe the Globe and Mail.

This article describes a recent survey of Canadians, tracking correlations between internet use and other practices. The headline is:
Heavy Internet users fall down on social, household tasks
One would expect, then, that the article would demonstrate that a "heavy" internet user is, consequent of their internet use, spending less time on social and household tasks. One would be wrong. A heavy user is defined as someone who spends more than an hour a day using the internet (or so it seems -- it's not entirely clear from the article). Fair enough -- it's a technical term and those conducting the study are entitled to their own defintions. However, it also seems that half of all Canadians qualify as "heavy users".
The average Internet user spends nearly 1½ hours surfing the Web each day, the study concluded.
I wonder what justifies calling the conduct of most Canadians "heavy use" (rather than, say, "average").

The article describes, however, a significant confounding factor that likely swayed the social/household participation numbers, namely age:

Younger people tend to use the Internet more than older Canadians. On average, frequent surfers were two years younger than moderate users (those who spend between five minutes and an hour on the Internet each day) and nearly eight years younger than non-users. Barry Wellman, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto, said those large age gaps account for some of the study's results. He said because heavy users are younger -- many without spouses or children -- it is natural for them to interact less with other people in the household.
Moreover, the claim that heavy users are engaging less socially is also not clearly supported (emphases all added):
Heavy users spend about 30 minutes less each day socializing with friends than those who rarely logged on but more time talking on the phone, said the study, which included daily diaries of 20,000 Canadians aged 15 and older. ... "We did find certainly that they are spending less time in social face-to-face contact with other people, but what we did find is that they're interacting in other ways," said Mr. [Ben] Veenhof, [study author] who said he would consider himself a heavy Internet user. "We do know they were using e-mail and chat rooms to interact with others. So we might say they're interacting in different ways."
And, to make matters worse:
Dr. Wellman also said there is research to suggest Internet users actually socialize more than non-users. "Earlier studies have shown that they have at least as much face to face contact both in the neighbourhood and outside," he said. "People are using the Internet to socialize, therefore (Statistics Canada's) conclusion that the Internet is hurting socializing is only partially right. Because what it's really doing is shifting the means of socializing."
So, in other words, the headline promised us less social/household involvement due to internet use. The article demonstrates that age may have played a role (younger people having fewer social/household entanglements); that there may have been social interactions (e.g., phone, email, chatrooms) that the study wasn't tracking; and that other studies show internet users may be socializing in conventional ways even more frequently than non-users. In other words, everything promised by the headline was a lie.

When can we have that moratorium on newspapers writing about studies they clearly didn't understand?

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