How has the Internet affected the U.S. economy? Well for starters, note its advocates, it has sparked a huge stock-market boom that has lifted household wealth, changed the way business operates, inspired the creation of scores of billion-dollar enterprises, and helped foster a revenue surge that converted a deep government deficit into an impressive surplus.
What has received less attention is the growing social impact of the Net. That's why Stanford University's Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society recently inaugurated an annual nationwide survey of some 4,000 adults in 2,700 households. "As more and more people log on," says political scientist Norman Nie, director of the study, "the Internet promises to have profound effects on the way Americans live."
The institute's initial survey found that well over half of the adult population has access to the Internet at home or in the office. More important, the longer one has been using the Web, the more hours and activities one tends to log. Already, some 36% of users--1 out of 5 U.S. adults--spend 5 hours or more online each week, and nearly half of these spend more than 10 hours.
While almost everyone uses the Net for e-mail, a majority also engage in such activities as Web surfing, seeking general information, reading, and obtaining travel and product info. A growing minority--36%--use it for purchases.
A key question is how regular Internet users (at least five hours a week) are reallocating their time. Perhaps predictably, some 60% say they've cut down on television watching, and a third read newspapers less--possibly because they are getting news via the Web. But a quarter also say they're spending less time shopping in stores.
Surprisingly, however, just 4% of regular Internet users say they are working less at the office since gaining Net access. Indeed, 25% indicate that they've actually boosted their work hours at home without cutting into their office schedules. "It's questionable whether government productivity measures are picking up the increased hours people are putting in at home," says Nie.
Meanwhile, the Net is clearly affecting people's social environment. Some 25% of regular Web users indicate that they now are spending less time attending social events and talking on the phone to friends and family, and 13% report reduced face-to-face social and familial interactions.
This decline in real human contact is the most worrisome trend the survey uncovered. While e-mail does give people a way to stay in touch, "it's not the same thing as listening to someone's voice or giving them a hug," Nie says. As new generations log on and Web use grows more intense, he fears that the Internet could turn out to be "a powerful isolating technology that undermines our community participation."