RESPONSE TO THE STANFORD STUDY

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
February 16, 2000

Yet again, researchers are releasing studies without regard to tempering their findings and putting things into a broader perspective. The latest research purportedly reports on the Internet's impact in society, and was done by a political scientist (not a social scientist) who has, along with Stanford, a financial stake in the company which conducted the survey. We'll talk more about that later. The study's results have been disseminated in the news media, but also exist here and here.

Poor Research?

Typically, when significant research is conducted in any field, it is published in what is called a peer-reviewed, professional journal. There are thousands of such journals in existence today, and the process to become published in any one of them can take anywhere from a few weeks to a year or more. These journals act as gatekeepers to disseminating high-quality studies and research, as opposed to the lower quality research where little can be discerned from the findings.

This research was not published in any journal, nor did it apparently undergo any type of even cursory external peer review. Furthermore, the study itself apparently exists only as a news release. Attempts to get copies of the actual study itself were unsuccessful. (I was told they weren't aware of any such document.) This does not bode well, since it indicates the researchers took shortcuts to release their findings, bypassing traditional ways of disseminating results and calling into question their motives. One of the legitimate reasons for publishing is that other researchers have access to the data and analyses done by the

Sampling Problems

"InterSurvey is in the process of giving Internet devices and connectivity to several hundred thousand households in exchange for their participation in surveys and marketing studies of all types. To date, InterSurvey has built a 35,000-person panel of participants and has supplied them all with free Web TV. Using this set-top box allows people to access the Internet through their television set, and enables the researchers to quickly survey those who would not otherwise have Internet access. The company also pays for every participating household to be connected to the Internet."

This was the same problem we saw with the Carnegie Mellon study. These aren't "normal" users then, because they are getting free Internet access (less than 10% of Internet users in general have such free access) and they are all apparently using WebTV (less than 5% of Internet users use WebTV). So there are those two problems about what kind of bias that is introduced based upon these facts.

Furthermore, you cannot use WebTV and watch TV at the same time as you can with an ordinary computer. So again, it's not at all surprising that TV time is reduced.

Ulterior Motives?

"The research methodology employed for this study produces a large, representative sample of all American households, not just current computer or Internet users. Nie and Erbring used InterSurvey, a company Nie co-founded, to conduct the survey on the net. (Nie, a political scientist with expertise in surveys, is co-founder and chairman of the company's board. Stanford is an investor in the company, and the university's business school has an agreement to conduct occasional research through InterSurvey.)"

What better way to get press coverage of your new company than to release a survey showing "scary" results about Internet use? (Okay, I admit, that's the cynic in me coming out.) Nonetheless, one has to wonder why would you contaminate the study's results with possible financial motives?

Data Problems

Length of use correlates with amount of use.

Is this surprising to anybody? The more you learn how large the Internet is, the more time you spend exploring it and finding things of interest to you, and helpful in your life. If people really are making new friendships and relationships online, then wouldn't they naturally want to spend more time with those people?

The more time people spend using the Internet ... the more they lose contact with their social environment.

On page 9 of this document, it shows that most people's time spent with friends and family actually remains unchanged. With family, about as many people reported their time with family increased as many as it did decreased. With friends, twice as many people's time decreased, but a still-significant number of people's time increased. Since the researchers have been thrifty with the data they've released, it's impossible to tell what this particular data means. This is not at all clear from the researcher's comments and press releases.

Let me also make an obvious point here, one that researchers in this area continue to miss -- The Internet is another social environment. Other research makes clear that the kinds of social relationships people form online are just as real and as meaningful as "real life" relationships. Why some people prefer these to their real-life relationships is a question you could ask of anyone -- Why do you like hanging out with your friends more than dealing with your kids or chores around the house? Why do you stay at work late every night, than go home and face a failing marriage? I think the answers are obvious and have little or nothing to do with the Internet, per se.

One last note on this point, since it's drawing the most media attention (I notice how selectively the media report these findings, and the researchers themselves emphasize the negative over the positive findings). We have no idea the actual amount of increased or decreased time spent in any of these activities, since the survey questions were vaguely worded. It could mean I spend 20 minutes less with my family due to the Internet, or 20 hours less. We have no idea.

The more time people spend using the Internet ... the more they turn their back on the traditional media.

"Clearly the media are competing with the Internet for time, especially in the case of television where even with as little as two hours/week on the Net, a quarter of Internet users report decreases in TV viewing - you can't surf the web and watch TV at the same time."

Well, this finding is not surprising, because they gave everyone in the survey a WebTV computer, which uses the television screen as its display. It is true that you cannot surf WebTV and watch television at the same time. It is also true that most Internet users don't use WebTV and aren't given free Internet access. So this finding is useless.

The other obvious note here: What wouldn't surprise the researchers regarding what people are spending less time doing? Time is finite -- we only have 24 hours in a day. If you introduce a new technology, a new game, a new way of interacting with others into people's lives, it's got to take away from something. Look at how much television took away from the radio, radio took away from spending time talking to your family and reading, and the industrial revolution took us away from the fields. None of this should be surprising to anyone! Something's got to give.

Positive Findings

Few will note the positive findings of the study:

"On the other hand, Erbring said, "those who use the Internet most also report spending fewer hours caught in traffic, fewer hours in shopping malls and, especially, less time watching television."

Hmm, all good things I would think... Reduced stress, hassles, and less mindless programming. Could you imagine the alternative headline in a different world, "Internet reduces stress, is more convenient, and can be a cure for TV!"

 

References

Parks, M.R., & Roberts, Lynne D. (1998). "Making MOOsic": The development of personal relationships on line and a comparison to their off-line counterparts. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 15,517-537.

Parks, M.R., & Floyd, K. (1996). Making friends in cyberspace. Journal of Communication, 46(1), 80-97. Also published on line in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 9 Oct 2013
    Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.

 

 

I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.
-- Pablo Picasso