Last week, Wiley-Blackwell held an online conference, entitled: Wellbeing: A Cure-all for the Social Sciences? I was an invited respondent for a paper that might be of interest to Cyborgology readers called, “Internet Technology and Social Capital: How the Internet Affects Seniors’ Social Capital and Wellbeing.” Below, I have reproduced my summary and comments:
Shima Sum, Mark. R. Mathews, Mohsen Pourghasem, Ian Hughes
The paper tackles three socially important and interrelated questions:
- What is the relationship between social capital and wellbeing among older people?
- What is the relationship between Internet use and social capital in older people?
- What is the direct and indirect relationship between Internet use an wellbeing among older people?
Survey data was gathered from a sample of Australian seniors on frequency of Internet use, type of Internet use, social capital, and well-being indicators.
Most broadly, the study finds that use of the Internet for a greater breadth of purposes was positively associated with general social capital, though there was diminishing return on this effect. However, when focusing on subcategories of Internet usage, social capital, a more nuanced set of relationships emerge. The paper finds that two specific sub-categories of social capital, feelings of trust and value of life, are predictors of personal well-being. It also finds that two specific sub-categories of social capital, work and family connections, are predictors of national well-being. Of the various dimensions of social capital, participation in community was predicted by using the Internet to communicate with unknown people; feeling of trust and neighborhood connection were predicted by using the Internet for communication; family connections were predicted by history of Internet use; value of life was predicted by using the Internet for communication and by frequency of Internet use; and work connections were predicted by a lower degree of using the Internet for entertainment. Regarding the direct relationship between Internet use and well-being, usage of the Internet to find new people and for entertainment purposes were each negatively associated with personal wellbeing, while frequency of Internet use was negatively associated with national well-being. The authors theorize that use of the Internet for entertainment makes people less proactive and displaces more social behaviors. Such activity is also believed to displace attention to the local with attention to the global.
As Huang (2010) recently demonstrated, the relationship between well-being and Internet use has been widely studied, yet findings are conflicting and require further nuance. This paper makes a major contribution to literature, first and foremost, because of its sophisticated typology of both various subcategories of Internet use and various subcategories of social capital. This demonstrates that the literature has development substantially from the early, agenda-setting “Internet Paradox: A Social Technology that Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Well-Being?” study, which examined well-being in relation to Internet adoption (Kraut et al., 1998). We learn from the authors of the present paper that the question, “How is Internet use related to well-being?”, is misleading, since there are myriad ways to use the Internet, and these various uses effect well-being differentially. It would be interesting to see if these findings can be replicated in future research for other indicators of well-being (e.g., depression, self-esteem, etc.), since well-being is also multidimensional.
The authors find that use of the Internet for entertainment and to meet new people has a negative association with personal well-being. They theorize that this might be a product of the displacement of certain well-being promoting behaviors by behaviors that are less-effective at promoting well-being. It would be interesting to consider whether causality could be operating in the opposite direction, especially considering that displacement theory has been contested (e.g., Wellman, 2001). The fact that, in the present sample, the least common use of the Internet is meeting new people implies that, insofar people are socializing on the Internet, they are augmenting their existing social ties. Additionally, while it is possible that entertainment uses are displacing more social behaviors, it is also possible that people who have less social capital – perhaps, because they are less mobile or have outlived their much of their social networks – are predisposed to spend more time pursuing entertainment (both online and offline).
This paper certainly helps to focus the discussion on (various types of) Internet use and well-being. I look forward to the discussion it precipitates.
Huang, C., 2010. Internet Use and Psychological Well-being: A Meta-Analysis. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 10(2).
Kraut, R., Patterson, M. et al., 1998. Internet Paradox: A Social Technology that Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Well-Being? American psychologist, 53, 1017-1031.
Wellman, B. et al., 2001. Does the Internet Increase, Decrease, or Supplement
Social Capital. American Behavioral Scientist, 45(3), 436-455.