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Frequent Internet users may spend less time with others, a study says. Americans who spend a great deal of time on the Internet should be cautious of a lot more than just potential computer viruses and hackers, according to a study released this week by researchers at Stanford University. The study, a sample of 4,113 adults in 2,689 households, concludes that the increased usage of the Internet -- especially among those who spend five or more hours online each week -- has drawn Americans away from some personal interactions. Specifically, the researchers maintain that frequent Internet users spend less time with their families, shopping in stores and even watching television with other people. Conducted by Professors Norman Nie and Lutz Erbring of the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society, the findings further warn that the growing influence of the Internet may signify a trend away from social interaction. "What this means is that we're moving forward in a different manner," said Erbring, a professor at the Free University of Berlin. "Using the Internet like this is part of a larger trend that includes greater individuality in all facets of life. Life in general now seems to be less of a socially-engaging, person-to-person activity." The researchers also said the decrease in social interaction may be explained simply by the amount of time people spend surfing the 'Net by themselves. "The more hours people use the Internet, the less time they spend with real human beings," Nie said. They are quick to point out, however, that while the Internet may draw attention away from one-on-one interactions, it still provides a meaningful forum for communication. "People aren't communicating less," Erbring said. "Maybe they're even communicating more. But sending an e-mail message isn't the same thing as meeting or even talking on the telephone." Response to the study -- one of the first large-scale attempts to explain the societal effects of the Internet -- has been largely mixed, with academics and Internet users alike voicing differing opinions on the effects of the comparatively new technology. "Some of the findings seemed to be fairly hard to predict," said Robin Leidner, the Penn Undergraduate Sociology department chairman. "They noted that people on the Internet, for example, tend to spend less time talking on the phone. Well, that may be true but, in many cases, being on the Internet actually ties up phone lines. "I think it will be some time before we are really able to see what the societal implications of the Internet really are," she added. Students at Penn reacted to the findings with some apprehension, viewing the new medium as a growing part of popular culture. "I'd say in general [that the findings are] probably right, but in a college setting it's probably the opposite," Engineering sophomore Alice Lux said. "At college, people spend time on the Internet and in [computer] labs doing things with other people, and it becomes a very social situation." "I think being on the computer is just part of our culture now," College freshman Marcelo Miretti said. Researchers maintain that the primary influence of the Internet affects not the quantity of societal communication but, instead, the quality. "It's a change in quality," Erbring said. "You can't hug somebody over the 'Net or drink a beer with them. It means not the end of society but, rather, a change in the way people deal with each other."

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