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Thursday, 11 May, 2000, 12:44 GMT 13:44 UK
Net users are not nerds
Surfers stay in touch
You are never alone on the internet
By BBC News Online internet correspondent Mark Ward

Internet users are not sad and lonely social misfits but actually visit and contact relatives and friends more frequently than those who live their lives offline.

People disclose four times as much information by email than they do face to face

Adam Joinson
Open University psychologist
Research carried out by Pew Internet and the American Life Project found that 72% of internet users questioned had visited a relative or friend in the last day. Only 61% of those without an online account had done the same. Over 3,500 adults were contacted for the survey.

The results contradict other surveys which have found that using the internet encourages social isolation.

But Dr Adam Joinson, a psychologist at the Open University, told BBC News Online that the results of the study backed up research he was carrying out into the social effects of internet use.

Lonely or lively

In February a survey conducted by Stanford University psychologists found that regular surfers neglect friends and family to spend time online. The study showed that the more hours people use the Internet, the less time they spend in contact with real human beings.

But the results of the Pew Internet survey imply the opposite. It found that the more ways people have to communicate with friends and families, the more often they do so. The survey found that internet users do not just e-mail friends more, they also tend to phone or visit them more regularly.

Lee Rainie, the Pew project's director, said e-mail did not bring families and friends closer together because they already knew each other well. He said the important finding was the increase in contact that net use promoted.

Mail messages

Psychologist Adam Joinson said that rather than breaking friendships the internet seems to promote them. Many people use the internet to re-establish contact with friends they have lost touch with, he said.

Previous studies tended to take a dim view of those who spend a long time in front of a computer: "We have a tendency to see using computers as slightly negative or slightly dysfunctional. What is often missed it is what people are using the computers to do."

People who use e-mail or chat rooms regularly not only communicate more but the quality of that communication tends to be better too, said Dr Joinson.

He believes the communication that takes place via the web is more intimate and trusting than it would be face to face: "People tend to disclose four times as much information by email than they do face to face. It is a very strong foundation for friendships and relationships."

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