Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2004. 55:573–90
Copyright c ? 2004 by Annual Reviews. All rights reserved
First published online as a Review in Advance on July 11, 2003
THE INTERNET AND SOCIAL LIFE
JohnA. BarghandKatelynY. A. McKenna
New York University, New York, New York 10003; email: firstname.lastname@example.org,
communication, groups, relationships, depression, loneliness
It combines innovative features of its predecessors, such as bridging great distances
and reaching a mass audience. However, the Internet has novel features as well, most
critically the relative anonymity afforded to users and the provision of group venues in
which to meet others with similar interests and values. We place the Internet in its his-
well-being, the formation and maintenance of personal relationships, group member-
ships and social identity, the workplace, and community involvement. The evidence
interact in important ways with the unique qualities of the Internet communication
The Internet is the latest in a series of technological breakthroughs in
INTRODUCTION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 573
THE INTERNET IN HISTORICAL CONTEXT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 575
EFFECTS ON INTERPERSONAL INTERACTION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 577
In the Workplace . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 578
Personal (Close) Relationships . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 580
Group Membership and Social Support . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 582
Community Involvement . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 584
THE MODERATING ROLE OF TRUST . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 585
CONCLUSIONS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 586
It is interactive: Like the telephone and the telegraph (and unlike radio or tele-
vision), people can overcome great distances to communicate with others almost
instantaneously. It is a mass medium: Like radio and television (and unlike the
telephone or telegraph), content and advertising can reach millions of people at
the same time. It has been vilified as a powerful new tool for the devil, awash in
BARGH ? MCKENNA
pornography, causing users to be addicted to hours each day of “surfing”—hours
during which they are away from their family and friends, resulting in depres-
sion and loneliness for the individual user, and further weakening neighborhood
and community ties. It has been hailed by two U.S. presidents as the ultimate
weapon in the battle against totalitarianism and tyranny, and credited by Federal
Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan with creating a “new economy.” It was
denounced by the head of the Miss France committee as “an uncontrolled medium
where rumormongers, pedophiles, prostitutes, and criminals could go about their
business with impunity” after it facilitated the worldwide spread of rumors that
the reigning Miss France was, in fact, a man (Reuters 2001). “I’m terrified by this
type of media,” she said.
“It,” of course, is the Internet. Although some welcome it as a panacea while
others fear it as a curse, all would agree that it is quite capable of transforming
society. Hard-nosed and dispassionate observers have recently concluded that the
Internet and its related technologies
“...will change almost every aspect of our lives—private, social, cultural,
society: communication between people. Earlier technologies, from printing
over the coming decades are likely to be much more extensive, and to happen
much faster, than any in the past, because the technologies driving them are
continuing to develop at a breakneck pace. More importantly, they look as if
together they will be as pervasive and ubiquitous as electricity.” (Manasian
2003, p. 4)
The Internet is fast becoming a natural, background part of everyday life. In
2002, more than 600 million people worldwide had access to it (Manasian 2003).
Children now grow up with the Internet; they and future generations will take it
for granted just as they now do television and the telephone (Turow & Kavanaugh
2003). In California, 13-year-olds use their home computer as essentially another
family, especially when distance makes in-person and telephone communication
difficult (Hampton & Wellman 2001). And people routinely turn to the Internet to
quickly find needed information, such as about health conditions and remedies, as
well as weather forecasts, sports scores, and stock prices.
This is not to say that Internet technology has now penetrated the entire planet
to a similar extent. For example, in 2001 only 1 in 250 people in Africa was an
ica and Europe. But the trend is clearly for ever-greater availability: The coming
wireless technology (see Geer 2000, p. 11) will enable people in developing coun-
tries, who lag behind the rest of the world in hardwired infrastructure, to leapfrog
technological stages and so come on-line much sooner than they would other-
wise have been able to—much as eastern Europe in the 1990s, lacking extensive
INTERNET AND SOCIAL LIFE
hardwire telephone infrastructure, leapfrogged directly to cell phones (Markoff
2002, Economist 2003a).
The main reason people use the Internet is to communicate with other people
over e-mail—and the principal reason why people send e-mail messages to others
is to maintain interpersonal relationships (Hampton & Wellman 2001, Howard
et al. 2001, McKenna & Bargh 2000, Stafford et al. 1999). As Kang (2000,
p. 1150) put it, “the ‘killer application’ of the internet turns out to be other human
beings.” But this was not so obvious to the early investors in the Internet—in
the 1990s telecom companies invested (and lost) billions of dollars in interactive
television and in delivering movies and video over the Internet. (Interestingly, the
original supposed “killer app” of the telephone also was to broadcast content such
as music, news, and stock prices—and its use in this manner persisted in Europe
up to World War II.)
No one today disputes that the Internet is likely to have a significant impact on
social life; but there remains substantial disagreement as to the nature and value
of this impact. Several scholars have contended that Internet communication is an
impoverished and sterile form of social exchange compared to traditional face-to-
face interactions, and will therefore produce negative outcomes (loneliness and
depression) for its users as well as weaken neighborhood and community ties.
Media reporting of the effects of Internet use over the years has consistently em-
phasized this negative view (see McKenna & Bargh 2000) to the point that, as a
result, a substantial minority of (mainly older) adults refuses to use the Internet
at all (Hafner 2003). Others believe that the Internet affords a new and different
avenue of social interaction that enables groups and relationships to form that oth-
erwise would not be able to, thereby increasing and enhancing social connectivity.
In this review, we examine the evidence bearing on these questions, both from
contemporary research as well as the historical record.
THE INTERNET IN HISTORICAL CONTEXT
on everyday life, and to help separate reality from hyperbole in that regard, it is
instructive to review how people initially reacted to and then made use of those
earlier technological breakthroughs.
First, each new technological advance in communications of the past 200
years—the telegraph, telephone, radio, motion pictures, television, and most re-
cently the Internet—was met with concerns about its potential to weaken commu-
nity ties (Katz et al. 2001, p. 406). The telegraph, by eliminating physical distance
as an obstacle to communication between individuals, had a profound effect on
life in the nineteenth century (Standage 1998). The world of 1830 was still very
much the local one it had always been: No message could travel faster than a
human being could travel (that is, by hand, horse, or ship). All this changed in
two decades because of Samuel Morse’s telegraph. Suddenly, a message from
INTERNET AND SOCIAL LIFE
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