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The Informed Brain in a Digital World
Interdisciplinary Research Team Challenges

The Informed Brain in a Digital World Interdisciplinary Research Team Challenge 4:
Identify the ways in which the Internet positively and negatively impacts social behavior.

Challenge Summary

The Internet is profoundly affecting how people form relationships, organize, collaborate, help one another, consume and produce information, and make collective decisions. Though forming social networks is not new, what is new is that electronic networks can help people to maintain networks, but also to expand the reach of their networks. The Internet enables new forms of organizing at an unprecedented scale, from creating distributed social groups to mobilizing political action. Online collaborative peer production has created Wikipedia, an encyclopedia that experts have judged to be no different in quality from the traditional print version (Giles, 2005). Citizens have become news correspondents and editorialists, using platforms such as microblogs, blogs, and social-networking sites to report and comment on current events, in many cases faster than traditional news media. When crises occur, people no longer need to depend on formal official responders for aid; people are using an array of Internet applications to locate lost victims, send resources, and broadcast situational awareness about the crisis. Last, through crowdsourcing, people combine small contributions to achieve large effects such as solving complex scientific problems. 

The Internet allows people to be social beings for nearly all their waking hours. The ubiquity of the Internet and social media raises numerous questions about its effects on social behavior across many spheres of daily living.  For instance, many young people now bring laptops to classes and iPhones to the dinner table, where they are able to stay connected to their social worlds, through email or social networking.  Unknown is how this has affected their ability to attend to the demands of their current situations, such as paying attention to lectures, engaging in conversation with friends and family, and more worrisome, driving. How easily can people disconnect from the Internet?  Devices such as mobile Wi-Fi hotspots allow for constant Internet connections, which also leads users to expect near instantaneous responses from others who they assume will be connected.  It is unknown how such expectations shape social dynamics and how they may interfere with self-regulatory ability (such as being able to delay gratification).

While the Internet clearly has the potential to enable social collaboration on an unprecedented scale, there are also concerns about how its increasingly central role in social interactions may fundamentally change human society.  For example, the Internet provides individuals with the ability to interact very widely with other individuals that agree with them on political issues, which may intensify political polarization and reduce the ability to compromise.  We also do not know whether the mental and physical health benefits of social interaction extend to the virtual world. How will concerns about privacy, identity, and deception on the Internet affect how people interact? New research approaches are needed to better understand how human social function is being impacted by increasing immersion in a virtual social world, particularly on the development of social function in children.

Key Questions
How has technology changed social relationships? What aspects of social networking are good and which are bad?

Does the availability of online social networking increase or decrease the openness to new ideas? Does online social interaction encourage “assortative friendship” in which individuals interact only with others who agree with them on fundamental issues?

Does the Internet bring people together or pull them apart? Does the blogosphere lead to greater partisanship and narrow thinking or does it unite the global community and expose people and societies to new ideas?  What implications does this have for political systems within nations and for relations between nations? Is the current political climate more partisan and polarized because of the Internet?

How does connectivity affect the creative process, and how we learn, communicate, process information, and behave with each other face-to-face? Is there a difference between digital natives and immigrants?

Have social networks, such as Facebook, changed the meaning of what it means to be "friends?"  Early theories suggested that on-line communications would displace and reduce connections to friends and family (see related story in http://chronicle.com/article/Faux-Friendship/49308/). Alternatively, some recent theories have suggested that on-line communications stimulate and enhance the closeness of relationships, perhaps by leading people to disclose more personal information on-line.

How do electronic social networks influence health behaviors, both positive and negative? Social support is an important component of many health interventions and social networks may be implicated in health issues (e.g., obesity). 

How, if at all, does continual connectivity affect skills in offline social interaction? While many studies have addressed online behavior, especially in young people (e.g. Turkle, 2011), few studies have carefully examined the relationship of Internet use and social skills in real life.   

Suggested Reading
Benkler Y. The wealth of networks: How social production transforms markets and freedom. Yale University Press: New Haven, CT, 2006.  (Complimentary online copy available, accessed March 28, 2012: http://www.congo-education.net/wealth-of-networks/.)

Ellison NB, Steinfield C, and Lampe C. The benefits of Facebook friends: Social capital and college students’ use of online social network sites.  Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 2007;12:1143–1168. (Accessed online March 28, 2012: http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol12/issue4/ellison.html.)

Giles J. Internet encyclopedias go head to head. Nature 15 December 2005;438:900-901. (Accessed online March 28, 2012: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438900a.html.)

Turkle S.  Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. Basic Books: New York, 2011.