“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
In 1995, decades before she began assisting with research on this column, Rena Rudavsky and her family were selected to participate in a novel psychology experiment: Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University would install a computer in their dining room and connect it to the internet. At the time, only 9 percent of Americans used the internet (in 2020, nearly 91 percent did). Rena, then a middle schooler, recalled sitting in front of the computer day after day, participating in chat rooms and surfing the internet. When she finished, another family member would take a turn.
Strangely, this experiment didn’t spark much discussion in her household. “We did little conversing in the dining room when the computer was on,” Rena told me in an email. Furthermore, “none of us shared our private internet experiences with others in our family.”
Rena’s experience was typical, as the researchers showed when they published the now famous “HomeNet” study in 1998. “Greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participants’ communication with family members in the household” and “declines in the size of their social circle,” the researchers wrote. More ominously, it led to “increases in [the participants’] depression and loneliness.” Rena says her experience bore out these findings.
HomeNet could be (and has been) interpreted as an indictment of the internet, or screens, or modern communications technology in general. In truth, it illustrates a much simpler truth about love and happiness: Technology that crowds out our real-life interaction with others will lower our well-being and thus must be managed with great care in our lives. In order to reap their full benefits, we should use digital tools in ways that enhance our relationships.
The coronavirus pandemic has created a fertile environment for research on social connection. Anytime the circumstances of social life suddenly change, researchers like me rush in with our clipboards in hand, …….