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This article describes how big the arenas of Internet-facilitated cohesion and connectedness have become in recent years.

Isolationist, Participationist, Networked


"More people say heavy internet use is disrupting their lives" reported the Washington Post in November 2006 (Payne 2006), referring to a few reports that have raised concerns about "excessive Internet use" and even "Internet addiction". In the news item, the journalist argued that "there is still no consensus on how much time online constitutes too much or whether addiction is possible." An expert quoted in the report put it poignantly: "The Internet is an environment. You can't be addicted to the environment." Yet, other experts have argued that the Internet is transforming everyday life in the household, the community and at work.

The journalist's difficulty in reporting about the Internet as a disputed entity is similar to the challenges faced by the authors of this article. The Internet's complexity makes its impact on individuals – and society – hard to assess, and any assessment is likely to be controversial. For all its complexity, though, the Internet is evolving and already embedded in most Canadians' lives. It has entered the majority of homes and offices, and deeply affected the ways in which we communicate and exchange information.

When shifts in technologies and technology use occur, utopian and dystopian views of their impact on individuals and society often abound, reflecting their disruptiveness and people's concerns. The Internet's rapid and profound entry into our lives quite understandably makes people wonder how we have been affected by it.  However, questions of the type: "Has the Internet been good or bad"? "Have our societies been weakened or strengthened through it"? are simplistic. Given its complex uses, the Internet – both as a bundle of technologies1 and as an environment – has had effects both beneficial and deleterious, but above all transformative.
This article organizes, analyzes and presents some of the existing Canadian evidence. In doing so, we consider the interplay between the Internet and social cohesion. Without embarking on a long exploration of the origins and various meanings of "social cohesion,"2 we proceed on the basis of the concept's core normative impulse: namely, that a healthy society is a socially cohesive society that requires the willingness of individuals to engage jointly in activities that help to enhance social capital and to develop communities of trust and reciprocity.

Isolationist, Participationist, Networked

Isolationist view
Participationist view
Groups or Networks

A critical issue is whether civic participation has shifted to new types of behaviour among younger age cohorts, such as less formal, more online activities. Traditional measures of civic participation, such as voting or watching the news, may not capture these new forms of community participation and public engagement. In an increasingly connected, digitized society, younger persons may be more apt to define communities based on interest rather than geography. The Internet may facilitate, and in some instances even be the technological requirement, for such interest-based communities to arise.

Our analysis of the available data for Canada is grouped around a basic set of questions:

  • Are Canadians becoming more isolated, that is, more reclusive and less integrated in their communities as they use the Internet?

  • Or, are they becoming more participatory, more integrated in their communities and more involved in social activities?

  • In addition, are these communities continuing to resemble traditional communities or are they becoming transformed into ramified communities structured more as social networks than as cohesive groups?

Isolationist view

Evidence supporting the isolationist view would show that users of the Internet spend more time alone, and that they interact less with family, friends and their community. The underlying premise is time displacement: time spent using the Internet supplants time spent establishing and nourishing "real world" relationships (Shaw and Gant 2002). In areas as diverse as in-person socializing, volunteering, youth engagement, museum visits, festival attendance and community participation, one would expect to see Internet users to be less involved than non-users or occasional users.

The isolationist view has had a number of data points to date. Putnam's Bowling Alone provided an array of data to argue that Americans' civic and social involvement had declined from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s (Putnam 2000). He attributed this to a variety of causes, most notably the privatizing house-bound effects of television watching. Although Putnam wrote before the blossoming of the Internet, his writing sees email-based interaction to be inferior to in-person contact. Putnam's work has been controversial, and it has been criticized on both theoretical and methodological grounds (Fischer 2004, Kadushin 2002).

Kraut and associates (1998) made another major contribution to the isolationist view, especially as their findings were front page news in the New York Times (Harmon 1998). Studying a sample of newcomers to the Internet over time in Pittsburgh, they found a slight increase in the number of people who became depressed after six months of Internet use. However, most of these Internet newcomers never became depressed or alienated, and a follow-up study found that those with "better social resources"—including perceived social support, larger social networks, and being extroverted—often benefited from Internet use (Bessière et al. 2008, p. 58; see also Kraut et al. 2002). Findings from other studies also challenge the notion of a link between Internet use and depression, showing that Internet communication with known persons can decrease loneliness and increase social support (Larose, Eastin and Gregg 2001, Hamburger and Ben-Artzi 2000).

A more recent study used data from the U.S. General Social Survey to show that the number of people available to "discuss important matters with" had declined from an average of 2.94 in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004 (McPherson, Smith-Lovin and Brashears 2006). Like the aforementioned Kraut et al. study, this also made major news headlines. For example, one Washington Post columnist ignored the fact that the research had focused only on narrowly-defined very close ties to announce the advent of "American isolationism" (Mallaby 2006).

Participationist view

By contrast to the isolationist view, evidence supporting the participationist view would show that users of the Internet are at least as social and spend as much time with family, friends and in their community as those who do not use the Internet. The underlying assumption is that Internet use is synergistic with other forms of interaction, helping to maintain and to arrange contacts in between physical interactions. In fact, one might see an increase in the social interactions of users if online activities are considered to be as valid as their in-person counterparts. Volunteering, youth engagement, museum visits, artistic creation and consumption exist in the virtual world and may be far more accessible than in real life. Immigrants might find that technology eases their transition into a new society by allowing them to stay in touch with their countries of origin while building networks in Canada, especially when they live in remote communities. Youth might find greater opportunities online to become socially engaged.

Several studies by Wellman and associates have found that Internet users have as much in-person and phone contact as non-users. Moreover, heavy Internet users have as much contact as light users. Although two of these studies used a non-standard sample of visitors to the National Geographic website (Wellman et al. 2003), a third was a random sample of Americans (Boase et al. 2006), and a fourth was a random sample of residents of the Catalonia region of Spain (Castells et al. 2003).

National surveys in the United States have shown that Internet use intertwines with in-person and phone contact to increase the total amount of connectivity among friends and families. One study even found that Americans have increased their number of friends between 2002 and 2007, and that Internet users have more friendships (Wang and Wellman 2008). According to this World Internet Project study, by 2007, heavy Internet users had 15.0 friends, moderate users 16.5, but non-users only 11.7. Moreover, Internet users had 5.2 "virtual friends" who were only contacted online plus 1.5 "migratory friends" who had originally met online but were now also in-person contacts. The study also found that Internet users have more in-person contact with friends than do non-users and at least as much civic involvement. Another national study found that many Americans use the Internet extensively, with about one-third reporting spending three or more hours on it daily, and about two-thirds reporting spending one or two hours on it (Katz and Rice 2008). However, these studies have not examined time use in detail as do the U.S. and Canadian General Social Surveys.

Robinson and Martin (2008) have used U.S. General Social Survey time use data to analyze Internet use. They conclude that there is "little evidence of decreased visits with friends among those with highest email contacts vs. nonusers—nor with relatives, neighbors or at bars" (p. 18). However, with respect to overall Internet use (that is, email plus other uses), their conclusions are more in accord with time-displacement isolationism: "Among those using the Internet 10 or more hours weekly, visits with relatives were 13 occasions (per year) lower, with neighbors 9 visits lower (than among respondents who were non-users), and visits at bars were 3 lower" (p. 18). On the other hand, contacts with friends did not decrease.

A recent Canadian study by Veenhof (2006a), using the 2005 Canadian General Social Survey on time use reported that Internet users had less in-person contact than non-users, but that Internet users were interacting more intensely in other ways. For example, they spent on average nearly half of their time online using email or chatting. Moreover, they also spent more time than non-users conversing with others over the phone (Veenhof 2006a). Another study, using 1998 and 2000 Canadian General Social Survey data, found that Internet users spent less time in social contact with household members, but more time with other persons outside the household. The study also found that Internet users were likely to cut back on other pursuits, such as television and sleep time, to a greater extent than they cut back on time dedicated to friends and family (Williams 2001). This article further analyzes the Canadian time use data and links it with findings from other Statistics Canada surveys.

In short, a variety of studies support the participationist view that Internet use does not negatively affect other forms of social involvement and may increase it. The evidence is consistent for email use, although the Robinson and Martin study raises some questions for overall Internet use. Like the isolationist studies reviewed above, many of these studies are based on American data and, except in a few cases, do not use detailed measures of time use.

Groups or Networks?

The third question is whether people continue to be integrated into rather solid groups of neighbours, kin and friends, or whether their communities have been transformed into more sparsely-knit, complex social networks. In such networked situations, people manoeuvre between—and link with—multiple, partial, specialized communities. The argument is that cars, planes, phones and the Internet all mean that people are less confined to their neighbourhoods for their social activities, that dual careers have supported complex networks that are increasingly friendship-based, and that the personal communication systems of mobile phones and the Internet are fostering person-to-person activities.

The main thrust of this research has been by Fischer (1982) in California, and Wellman and associates in East York, Toronto (Wellman 1979, Wellman, Carrington and Hall 1988, Wellman and Wortley 1990), with theorizing by Wellman (2001), Wellman and Hogan (2004), Castells (2000) and Boase (2008). These studies show that relationships are specialized—for instance, those who give emotional support rarely give financial support—spatially-dispersed, and combine a densely-knit core (often with immediate kin) with sparsely-knit clusters of ties with friends, neighbours and co-workers. It is noteworthy that this transformation towards a networked society began before the proliferation of the Internet.

Our conclusions will centre on the transformative impact and potential of the Internet. On the basis of the available evidence, preliminary as it may be, we believe that we should expect neither a dysfunctional society of loners, nor a blissful society of networked communities. What we are facing is a society that will be differently cohesive from the one we know. Where our traditional notions of cohesive communities might have envisioned neighbours that get together on an issue in a community centre, we now might see them network and organize in the online environment but with fewer physical gatherings. Where our ideal of a family with strong cross-generational ties might have been one where we see grandparents and grandchildren in each others' physical company, we now see grandparents using email to stay in touch with far-away grandchildren. And where we were accustomed to seeing the links of immigrants with their countries of origin grow ever weaker as their rootedness in Canada became ever stronger, we now see first-generation and second-generation Canadians using technology to keep their links firmly connected in their country of origin as well as in Canada.

These shifts raise a key question: Are the paradigms within which we currently understand and evaluate social cohesion able to capture the technological turn? In other words, we will be misled to conclude that our society is becoming less cohesive if our indicators of social cohesion only look at how busy our community centres are, how lively our neighbourhoods are, and how much in-person time grandparents and grandchildren spend together. Or, if the home ties of immigrants are weakening as a sign that they are becoming rooted in Canada, and so on. This may or may not be the case. Research can shed light on how the Internet, and the ways in which it is used, foster or discourage social cohesion.


  1. While it is conventional to refer to the Internet in singular form, it represents a bundle of media, and is discussed in this paper as a general platform for social and relational communication.

  2. For a discussion of social capital and social cohesion, see Policy Research Initiative (2003), Social Capital Workshop, June 2003: Concepts, Measurement and Policy Implications.