9/30/2004

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Contact: Roger Martin, KU Center for Research, (785) 864-7239

KU study finds the Internet does not lessen face-to-face contact by students

LAWRENCE -- Internet use among college students doesn't lessen their face-to-face contact, researchers at the University of Kansas report.

Contrary to stereotypes of Internet users locked away in their rooms, Nancy Baym, KU associate professor of communication studies and president of the Association of Internet Researchers, has found that the more students use the Internet to maintain relationships, the more likely they are to do the same in person and on the phone.

"People who like to communicate, communicate as many ways as they can," Baym said.

Baym teamed with Yan Bing Zhang, assistant professor of communication studies, and former graduate student Mei-Chen Lin, now at Kent State University, on two projects that support this and other findings reported in the June issue of the journal New Media & Society.

In the first study, 51 students kept a log of significant social interactions they initiated in a three- to five-day period. The researchers counted 851 interactions: 64 percent were face-to-face, 18 percent by phone and 16 percent by Internet.

"The diaries showed that people conducted their social lives through at least two, and often three, channels on any given day," Baym said.

Almost three out of four Internet interactions involved e-mail; chat and instant messaging finished a distant second and third. The students didn't mention news groups, role-playing games and other forms of Internet-based communication in their logs, Baym said.

In the second study, involving 496 college students, the researchers reaffirmed that message boards and newsgroups were not sources of meaningful social interaction and that online social interactions are "part and parcel of multimedia relationships rather than a measurably distinct realm," Baym said.

As for the stereotype of housebound Internet addicts, Baym said that, whenever a new technology emerges, both nightmares and utopian dreams about its use arise.

"People had the crazy idea after airplanes were invented that, once we all got up in air and looked down, we'd see we are all one people and war would be banned," Baym said. "A few decades later we were dropping bombs out of planes."

The students seem to buy some of the stereotypes about the Internet, but often contradict themselves when asked to explore the stereotype in a different way.

For example, in the second study, students were asked to compare their thoughts about communicating online, face-to-face and on the phone, and they generally described Internet communication as vastly inferior. Yet when asked about particular online interactions, the same students consistently reported that these were nearly as good as in-person contacts.

Another stereotype worth debunking, Baym said, is that all Internet activity is the same.

The Internet is "not a single entity that influences its users through sheer exposure," Baym said "Rather than studying 'the Internet,' we need to differentiate between multiple aspects of this complex and pervasive technology."

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