We have heard on many occasions various arguments that Internet and the culture of new media and exchanges it has created are responsible for dumbing-down of society, reduced imagination, increased propensity to violence, contracting attention spans and a host of other evils.
My personal view on this – not scientifically proven, mind you – is that Internet is yet another medium for developing, visualizing and delivering information. I do not see it as intrinsically transformative of the way we interact with the world around us, but as a tool for amplifying the speed of our interactions. Hence, any dumbing-down – if it takes place at all – is, to me, not the outcome of the Internet Age, but of something in our human nature, in our ways of relating to the world.
At last, there is some evidence appearing – academic, not market research-led (again, not that there is any intrinsic reason to mistrust the latter or to trust the former) – that Internet might not be all that bad for us as ‘Social Beings’.
A recent study "Surfing Alone? The Internet and Social Capital: Evidence from an Unforeseeable Technological Mistake" by Stefan Bauernschuster, Oliver Falck and Ludger Woessmann, published by CESIfo (Working Paper 3469, May 2011) uses some wide-cover German data to attempt to answer whether the Internet undermines social capital or facilitates inter-personal and civic engagement in the real world.
The study “exploits a quasi-experiment in East Germany created by a mistaken technology choice of the state-owned telecommunication provider in the 1990s that still hinders broadband Internet access for many households.” In other words, the study uses East German data as control group for reduced exposure to Internet to see if such limitation yielded profound difference in social interactions compared against the groups with full access to broadband Internet.
The study finds “no evidence that the Internet reduces social capital. For some measures including children’s social activities, [the study] even find[s] significant positive effects.”
Per authors’ conclusions, “in virtually all specifications and for virtually all social capital indicators, both the value-added models and the instrumental-variable (IV) models yield positive point estimates on having broadband Internet access at home. …results indicate significant positive effects of broadband Internet access on the frequency of visiting theaters, the opera, and exhibitions and, …on the frequency of meeting friends. Exploring a relatively small sample of children aged 7 to 16 living in the sampled households, we further find evidence that having a broadband Internet subscription at home increases the number of children’s out-of-school social activities, such as doing sports or ballet, taking music or painting lessons, or joining a youth club. Broadband Internet access also does not crowd out children’s extra-curricular school activities, which include such areas as sports, music, arts, and drama.”
Crucially, “several tests of validity and robustness support a causal interpretation of our results”.