Internet use and interaction with family, friends, and neighbours

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Internet use and community participation
Internet use and political participation
The Internet and volunteering

The pervasiveness of computers and the Internet raises questions about the possible effects of increased 'screen-time' on personal interaction with friends, family and neighbours. Some survey data suggest a significant difference in the amount of time that Internet users spend in direct in-person contact with their family and friends. For instance, the 2005 Statistics Canada General Social Survey(GSS) on time use reveals that Internet users generally spend more time alone than non-users.  Moreover, the amount of time spent alone increases with Internet use.  For instance, moderate Internet users (5 minutes to one hour per day) spent almost half an hour (26.4 minutes) more time alone than non-users, whereas persons who spent more than one hour online per day were alone nearly two hours (119 minutes) more than non-users - once respondents of similar backgrounds in terms of their age, sex, number of children, education and other factors were compared in a multivariate model1 (Table 1).

Table 1  Average time spent per day, in-person contact with others, Internet users and non-users, Canada, 2005

Table 1 
Average time spent per day, in-person contact with others, Internet users and non-users, Canada, 2005

The reduced in-person contact of the Internet's heavier users was not restricted to certain types of people: those who spent more than one hour online for personal reasons during the day spent approximately one hour less with family members living in the household,2 as well as one hour less with relatives and friends living outside the household. This included, on average, about 29 minutes less with their spouse, 28 minutes less with their children, and 31 minutes less with friends outside the home. Chart 1 summarizes the overall differences between Internet users and non-users in terms of their total time in personal contact with household members and non-members per day, again controlling for several socio-demographic factors (see notes beneath Chart 1 for the full list).

Chart 1  Average time spent per day, in-person contact with household members and non-members, Canada, 20051

Chart 1 
Average time spent per day, in-person contact with household members and non-members, Canada, 2005

The timing of Internet use also mattered, as weekend use was associated with even greater declines in time spent on in-person contact with friends and other people outside the household than use of the Internet on weekdays (Veenhof 2006a). This finding is not unexpected, as most people do not work on weekends and have more discretionary time then.

Data from the same survey also show that Internet users spent less time than non-users engaged in traditional social activities, such as socializing with others, having meals together with household members, and playing with children (Table 2). Declines in time spent with household members on various activities, including having meals, are trends that have been occurring over time (Turcotte 2007, Amato et al. 2008) and are not just restricted to Internet users. Nonetheless, 2005 data show that Internet users spent even less time than non-users engaging in these activities with household members. However, Internet users did not differ significantly from non-users in terms of the amount of time they spent conversing in-person with other household members. Moreover, they spent more time talking on the phone than non-users of the Internet. Results from an earlier Statistics Canada and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development survey, the 2003 International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey, also revealed that regular computer users used mobile phones more frequently than casual users (Veenhof 2006b). Phone use is often a social activity in its own right.

Table 2 Average time spent per day on traditional social activities, Internet users and non-users, Canada, 2005

Table 2 
Average time spent per day on traditional social activities, Internet users and non-users, Canada, 2005

Turning to relationships with neighbours, the 2005 (GSS) reveals that those who spent more than one hour on the Internet during the day were less likely to say that they knew "most" or "many" of their neighbours (39.9%) compared with Internet non-users (45.8%) (Veenhof 2006a). The Internet's heaviest users tend to be young persons, and many of them have lived in their neighbourhoods for shorter periods of time than non-users. As time spent in a neighbourhood is often related to the number of acquaintances as well as communication patterns (Ball-Rokeach, Kim and Matei 2001), it is important to compare Internet users with non-users who have lived in their neighbourhoods for similar time periods. The gap in the proportion of persons who said they knew most or many of their neighbours shrinks and is no longer statistically significant when the results are compared among Internet users and non-users who lived in their neighbourhood for at least 10 years.3

Although Internet users spent less time in direct in-person contact with others, they spent a considerable amount of their time on the Internet engaging in activities involving social interaction in other forms. Chart 2 uses the 2005 GSS time use data to reveal the extent to which Internet users devoted their time online to certain activities involving interaction with others, such as email and online chatting. The latter was particularly popular among teens, as Internet users aged 15 to 18 spent an average of 39 minutes a day engaged in this activity. By comparison, the average time spent chatting online among all Internet users was only about 9 minutes per day.

Chart 2  Average time spent per day by Internet users on email, chatting and other Internet communication, Canada, 2005

Chart 2
Average time spent per day by Internet users on email, chatting and other Internet communication, Canada, 2005

Email, as well as instant messaging, can be important tools for keeping in touch with both family and friends. Data from Statistics Canada's GSS on social engagement show that in 2003, nearly two-thirds (65.4%) of Canadian Internet and email users aged 15 and up used the Internet to communicate with friends in the previous month, and a sizeable proportion (54.2%) of these Canadians also used the Internet to communicate with relatives (Table 3).

Table 3  Percentage of Internet/Email1 users who used the Internet in the previous month to communicate with family and friends, Canada, 2003

Table 3 
Percentage of Internet/Email users who used the Internet in the previous month to communicate with family and friends, Canada, 2003

Based on the same data source, women were significantly more likely than men to use the Internet to communicate with both friends and family. The difference between the sexes was more pronounced in terms of communicating with relatives than with friends.

Age also played a role. While young Canadians were most likely to use the Internet or email to communicate with friends, older users (in particular senior citizens) were most likely to use the Internet to communicate with relatives. In fact, the percentage of Internet/email users 65 and older using the Internet for this purpose (65.0%) was significantly higher than the proportion of Internet users in all other age groups (Table 3). Many older Canadians have large and dispersed extended families and, for some, email can be an efficient means of keeping in touch (see also 'Internet use by older Canadians').

Other factors were also significantly associated with use of the Internet to communicate with friends and family. University-educated and urban Canadians were more likely to use the Internet for these purposes. Recent immigrants, defined as those who came to Canada in 1995 or later) not only used the Internet more than other Canadians to communicate with family, but were also slightly more likely than other Canadians to use the Internet to communicate with friends (for more, see 'Internet use among new Canadians').4

To provide more nuanced information, we turn to a detailed study of email practices among residents of the East York area of Toronto (for more information on the East York study conducted by NetLab at the University of Toronto, please refer to the accompanying 'Note to Readers'). The study's combination of survey and interview evidence shows that email is often used to maintain regular in-person contact with socially-close ties, such as close friends and relatives not living inside the household. For example, 72% of email-using respondents made plans with close ties via email, and 68% used email to make plans with weaker ties.5

The East York data suggest that rather than replacing in-person contact, email and instant messaging are often used to supplement and enhance existing relationships. Those who sent more than ten emails a week to friends and family did not restrict themselves to email when they made plans. They used all media to make plans more often than those who emailed less than ten messages or those who did not email friends and family at all. They used the Internet to maintain ties in between get-togethers and to arrange future in-person encounters. Unlike in-person and telephone contact, email contact is independent of distance (Mok, Carrasco and Wellman 2008). As such, email has become a type of social activity rather than an escape from it. Furthermore, evidence from prior NetLab studies has shown that individuals who are frequent users of email have larger extended networks (e.g. Boase et al. 2006). This suggests that email has a particularly useful place in maintaining ties where other media might not be as efficient or as convenient. For instance, email is often used to share information and pictures rather than merely as a means to chat socially. Such sharing has been a successful way for people to maintain a sense of community with those far away. As well, its asynchronous nature can serve well across time zones or in situations where live chatting is not to someone's taste. That said, NetLab's East York interviews suggest that of all Internet media, only instant messaging substitutes for in-person socializing (Carrasco and Miller 2006). This makes sense given that instant message conversations can span hours.

Statistics Canada's GSS on time use also asked respondents to identify the number of people with whom they feel very close, outside the home. Results revealed that Internet users, for the most part, did not differ significantly from non-users in terms of the number of close ties they had outside the home (Table 4). Similarly, the NetLab study in East York found only modest, insignificant differences in network size and composition between internet users and non-users: users had slightly fewer family ties and more friend ties. What is noteworthy is that the East York study examined weaker ties as well as strong, very close ties, and again found no statistically significant differences between users and non-users (Wellman and Hogan et al. 2006).

Table 4  Number of close relationships outside the home, Internet users and non-users, Canada, 2005

Table 4 
Number of close relationships outside the home, Internet users and non-users, Canada, 2005

Finally, the Statistics Canada time use survey shows that while Internet users (especially the heaviest users) spent less time in direct physical contact with others, they were as likely as non-users to desire spending more time with family and friends. When asked about how they would spend more time if they could, spending time with family and friends was the most common activity mentioned by Internet users and non-users alike (Veenhof 2006a). Given the Internet's popularity for communicating with family and friends and some evidence that Internet users also have elevated telephone use (Wellman et al. 2003, Wellman and Hogan et al. 2006, Veenhof 2006a), it is clear that Internet users have much social interaction even if their in-person contact is somewhat lower.

Internet use and community participation

Statistics Canada's 2005 General Social Survey (GSS) on time use found that 38.5% of those who used the Internet for more than one hour a day described their sense of belonging to their community as "somewhat" or "very" weak, compared to 35.2% of those who used the Internet for one hour or less, and 31.6% of non-users (Veenhof 2006a).6 Nonetheless, other survey data reveal that age is correlated with a sense of community belonging, with younger Canadians more likely to have a somewhat or very weak sense of belonging to their local community (Schellenberg 2004). When the 2005 GSS data are re-examined by selecting only young persons aged 15 to 25, the gap in perceptions of community belonging among the Internet's heavier users and non-users shrinks and is no longer statistically significant.7

Similar to sentiments of neighbourhood belonging, feelings of community belonging tend to be most prevalent among individuals who have lived in their area for long periods of time (Schellenberg 2004). Since more Internet non-users in the 2005 GSS had lived in their city or community for ten years or more compared with Internet users, it may only be natural that Internet users were less likely to describe a strong sense of belonging to their immediate physical communities. In fact, differences in perceptions of community belonging among persons using the Internet for more than one hour per day and non-users were no longer statistically significant once the comparison was restricted to persons who had lived in their communities for ten years or more.

Other survey sources reveal in fact that many Internet users are taking advantage of their Internet connections to become more actively involved in their communities. Results from Statistics Canada's Canadian Internet Use Survey (CIUS) show that 44.2% of Canadians who used the Internet from home went online to research community events in 2007. Such activity was particularly common among university-educated and urban Canadian home Internet users. Table 5 also reveals some differences in the use of the Internet to research community events among age groups.

Table 5  Percentage of home Internet users who used the Internet to research community events, Canada, 2007

Table 5
Percentage of home Internet users who used the Internet to research community events, Canada, 2007

Interviews with individuals in NetLab's East York study also reveal that the Internet was the single most used source for obtaining information about cultural and community events (Wellman and Hogan et al. 2006, Kayahara and Wellman 2007). Almost every East York respondent who had an Internet connection reported how useful it was for information, even more so than for social interaction.

Not only do Internet users find out about community events online but some use the Internet to carry out their activities as a member of a community organization, whether by communicating with other organization members, promoting organizational events, or engaging in other related activities. Survey data from Statistics Canada's GSS on social engagement show that as far back as 2003, nearly one-quarter (23%) of Canadians who were involved in at least one group or organization conducted at least part of their involvement through the Internet (Schellenberg 2004). Interviews from NetLab's East York study corroborate this, with numerous individuals reporting the relevance of email in maintaining community participation between meetings and events (Wellman and Hogan et al. 2006).

While results from Statistics Canada's 2005 GSS on time use show that the Internet's heaviest users spent less time attending sports, movies, and other events in their community (see Veenhof 2006a), these Internet users also expressed more enjoyment in participating in clubs and social organizations than non-users of the Internet. The 2003 International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey also found that both moderate and heavy home computer users were more likely than less intensive computer users to be involved with cultural, education or hobby groups during the previous year (Veenhof 2006b).8

In addition to their immediate physical communities, Internet users are also contributing to online communities. Results from Statistics Canada's 2007 CIUS show that one-fifth (20.3%) of home Internet users aged 16 and over contributed content by blogging, posting images, or participating in online discussion groups or message boards, for example. These activities were particularly popular among young persons, as the survey found that over one-half of those contributing such content were under the age of 30 (Statistics Canada 2008).

Internet use and political participation

Signs that fewer people are turning up at the polls in many established democracies (Niemi and Weisberg 2001, Putnam 2000, Lijphart 1997) suggest that contemporary North Americans are not as politically engaged as their predecessors. In reality, the nature of political participation is changing. Traditional measures of civic participation, such as voter turnout rates, may no longer adequately capture the extent to which people are politically involved. Many years ago, analysts observed a shift in civic participation away from traditional forms of political engagement, such as voting, to more unconventional activities, such as boycotts, petitions, and demonstrations (Niemi and Weisberg 2001, Inglehart 1990). The times may be changing, for while it is too early to make definitive statements, some reports show more involvement by young, computer-literate Americans in political campaigns (Heilemann 2007).

People use multiple information and communication media to gather information about political issues and to voice their opinions and concerns about these issues. The type of media consumed is important, especially as it affects political participation (Keown 2007, Jennings and Zeitner 2003, Putnam 2000, Shah, McLeod and Yoon 2001, Howard 2006, Xenos and Moy 2007). Before the advent of the Internet, people were generally limited in terms of access to news by what was available in their local media markets and network news. People expressed themselves by writing to politicians and local officials, and sending letters to newspapers or other media outlets with no guarantee that an individual's letter would be shared with other members of the public. Further, in Canada, the number of media sources consumed tends to vary regionally, suggesting that the variety of media used may be directly related to the size of the media marketplace, among other factors (Keown 2007).

The arrival of the Internet has changed this dynamic. News choices are no longer restricted to what is available in local markets. According to the Toronto Star, newspaper readership has skyrocketed, once online versions are taken into account (Olive 2007). Data from Statistics Canada's CIUS show that the majority of Canadian home Internet users (63.7%) went online in 2007 to read about news or sports. Many online news sites also offer other advantages over traditional newspapers: information can be delivered more quickly, sites often incorporate video and links to other information relevant to the story, and some sites are genuinely interactive (Olive 2007). As well, Internet users can express their opinions on political and social issues that are important to them, and share them with an audience without having to go through traditional filters such as a newspaper editor. This can be achieved using email, a blog, an Internet message board, or the 'comments' feature of a news site, for example. Although Internet websites and message boards often have editors or moderators, the Internet also provides many places for unmoderated expression, and the general trend is that the ability of Internet users to voice their opinions is expanded. Their opinions are more diversified and more widely disseminated than traditional word-of-mouth.

Indeed, the 2003 GSS on social engagement found that few Canadians (17%)—Internet users or otherwise—who followed the news several times a week relied on only one media source. When only one source was used, it was often television (Keown 2007). Both Canadian and U.S. data show that lower rates of political participation are associated with using television as the only source of news (Keown 2007, Jennings and Zeitner 2003, Putnam 2000, Shah, McLeod and Yoon 2001).

While certain political activities, such as contacting newspapers or politicians, and attending public meetings, are most common among middle-aged and older adults, it is younger Canadians who are most apt to search for information on political issues. According to the GSS on social engagement, in 2003 approximately one-third (33.2%) of Canadians aged 15 to 29 searched for information on political issues (online or offline) while only one-quarter of those aged 30 to 49 (25.3%) and 50 to 64 (24.5%) did so (Schellenberg 2004).

More recent data from the social cohesion module of the 2005 CIUS confirm that much of this information searching is done online. In 2005, one-half (51.4%) of Canadians who used the Internet from home said they went online to read newspapers or magazines about a particular social or political issue, with young Canadians most active in this regard (Table 6).

Table 6  Percentage of home Internet users who used the Internet to read or exchange information about social or political issues, Canada, 2005

Table 6
Percentage of home Internet users who used the Internet to read or exchange information about social or political issues, Canada, 2005

Not only are Canadians going online to search for information related to social and political issues from mainstream sources, they are also using the Internet to find out what other Canadians think and to correspond with others. Nearly one-third (29.2%) of Canadian home Internet users read other Canadians' comments and posts concerning political and social issues in 2005, and 13.8% said they used the Internet to correspond with Canadians about specific political or social issues. Thus, the Internet provides not only an alternative to mainstream media as an information source, but also a place for politically-motivated individuals to contact each other and share their views. Once again, young adults tended to be most active in terms of reading what other Canadians think about particular issues.

Table 6 also shows that male home Internet users were more likely than female users to read online newspapers about particular issues, to read other Canadians' comments and to correspond with other Canadians about these issues. Education and location also mattered. A significantly higher proportion (63.1%) of those with a university degree used the Internet to read online newspapers or magazines about particular social or political issues in 2005, compared to individuals with any other level of educational attainment. Those with a university degree or some post-secondary schooling were also significantly more likely than those in other groups to have read other Canadians' comments or corresponded with other Canadians about social or political issues online.

The political involvement of computer users is not confined to online activity. Perhaps not surprisingly, data from the 2003 International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS) show that regular home computer users were also more likely to be involved in political organizations than those who used computers less frequently or not at all: 5.5% of Canadians who spent at least 30 hours a month on their home computers were a member of a political organization in 2003, compared to only 3.7% of those who used their PCs for less than 10 hours a month (Veenhof 2006b).

While many Canadians use the Internet for information about political or social issues, most have not abandoned traditional sources of information. Although some Internet users report spending less time with other media (notably television) since starting to use the Internet (Kraut et al. 2005, Dryburgh 2001, Williams 2001), Internet users remain active consumers of other media. Findings from Statistics Canada's GSS on time use (2005) show that Internet users did not differ significantly from non-users in terms of the time they spent using traditional media, and in fact spent more time reading books than non-users of the Internet (Veenhof 2006a, Veenhof and Lecavalier 2006). These findings are quite similar to those of the 2003 IALSS, which found that heavy computer users in many countries spent more time than casual users watching television, and were more likely to be frequent readers (Veenhof 2006b). Other surveys of Internet users' media habits have also reported elevated engagement in traditional reading activities by Internet users (Cole and Robinson 2002, Pronovost 2002).

In sum, the evidence suggests that Internet users are not isolating themselves from other sources of information, but are using the Internet to gather and exchange additional information about political or social issues. Their use of the Internet complements—rather than replaces—traditional sources of information.

The Internet and volunteering

Volunteering is a common way in which people can engage with their communities. The incidence of volunteering in Canada is highest among young adults, although the time spent on volunteer activities is actually higher among older age groups (Hall et al. 2006). Some Canadians are using the Internet as an instrument in this regard, by researching volunteer opportunities, communicating with other volunteers and sometimes other members of the public. The Statistics Canada 2004 Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating found that 8% of volunteers used the Internet to seek out volunteer opportunities, and about 20% of volunteers used the Internet in some way during their volunteer activities (Hall et al. 2006). Contrary to perceptions of youth disengagement, it is young Canadians who most actively used the Internet to search for volunteer opportunities (Chart 3).9

Chart 3  Percentage of volunteers who used the Internet to search for volunteer opportunities and to do volunteer activities, by age group, Canada, 2004

Chart 3 
Percentage of volunteers who used the Internet to search for volunteer opportunities and to do volunteer activities, by age group, Canada, 2004

However, there were smaller (and in some cases insignificant) differences between age groups in the actual use of the Internet to carry out volunteer activities.

A separate question is whether those who use the Internet devote as much time to volunteering as non-users. Data from Statistics Canada's 2005 GSS on time use show that moderate users of the Internet were most likely to volunteer, and spent more time volunteering, than persons who spent more than one hour online per day, as well as non-users. Chart 4 details the participation rates for volunteering among the different groups of Internet users and non-users, as well as the proportion of those individuals who reported that they volunteered for between 5 and 15 hours, or more than 15 hours, on a monthly basis. Note that the data in Chart 4 do not control for age or other characteristics.

Chart 4  Incidence of volunteering and hours volunteered, Internet users and non-users, Canada, 2005

Chart 4 
Incidence of volunteering and hours volunteered, Internet users and non-users, Canada, 2005

Additional analysis using the time diary information available from the 2005 GSS confirms that moderate users of the Internet were most likely to spend time volunteering, while controlling for a number of respondent characteristics. A multiple classification analysis (MCA) was performed to assess whether Internet users and non-users differed with respect to the amount of time they devoted to volunteer activities, while controlling for age, sex, number of children living in the household and education, as well as time spent at location of work and the day of week the time diary was completed. After controlling for these factors, results revealed that persons spending more than one hour online per day and non-users did not differ significantly in terms of the time they devoted to volunteer activities. However, moderate users of the Internet (those spending one hour or less online per day) were found to spend significantly more time on volunteer activities than non-users.


Notes

  1. The 2005 GSS on time use captured personal use of the Internet and does not include use for work-related purposes.  Among Internet users in the (GSS) sample, 57% used the Internet for five minutes to one hour during the day, while the remaining 43% reported using the Internet for more than one hour.  In order to reduce response burden, respondents were not asked to report episodes of activities that lasted less than five minutes in duration.  For a full list of control variables used to produce the adjusted figures, see the notes beneath Table 1. Estimates were produced using the multiple classification analysis (MCA) technique.

  2. Estimates of time spent with family members living in the household also control for number of persons living in the household.

  3. Among persons who have lived in their neighbourhoods for at least 10 years, 61.3% of Internet non-users said they knew "most" or "many" of their neighbours compared to 56.7% of persons who used the Internet for more than one hour per day. This difference is not statistically significant.

  4. Differences among recent immigrants and all other Canadians in use of the Internet to communicate with both relatives and with friends were statistically significant at the 95% level of confidence.

  5. Social network analysis often partitions one's contacts with other people into strong ties and weak ties. While there is no precise boundary, strong ties generally provide one or more of the following: intimate social support (measured as those with whom one "discusses important matters"), help in times of need, or regular and intentional social contact (that is to say, they actively seek each other out regularly, rather than 'bump into each other'). Weak ties are those individuals who are socially close to a person, but not close enough to fulfil those criteria (Boase et al. 2006).

  6. Only the difference between those who used the Internet for more than one hour and non-users was statistically significant (p < .05).

  7. While roughly the same proportion of non-users (36.7%) and moderate Internet users (36.4%) aged 15 to 25 described their sense of community belonging as "somewhat" or "very" weak, a slightly higher proportion (40.9%) of young persons who spent more than one hour online during the day felt this way. However, none of these differences were statistically significant.

  8. This study measured time spent on computers generally as opposed to the Internet. Moderate computer users were defined as individuals spending between 10 and 30 hours on their home computer in a typical month, and heavy users were defined as individuals spending 30 hours or more on their home computer in a typical month.

  9. Differences in use of the Internet to search for volunteer opportunities were statistically significant across all age groups appearing in Chart 3, at a 95% level of confidence.