For many people, membership in virtual communities can be just as important as real-world social ties, according to a new study.
An estimated 43 percent of Americans who belong to online communities say they feel just as strongly about their virtual worlds as their real-world counterparts, according to the USC Annenberg Digital Future Project, which released Wednesday its sixth annual report examining the Web's impact on society.
The findings seem to be in accordance with the ease of meeting new friends online. According to people polled by researchers at the Center for the Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School, they met an average of 1.6 new friends per year in real-world settings after originally meeting online. Those surveyed also made an average of 4.65 friends who remained virtual pals only.
In addition, more than 40 percent of Internet users said that the Web helps them stay in touch with more friends and family.
Jeffrey Cole, director of the USC Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future, said the findings are a testament to the Web's growing importance for social purposes.
"More than a decade after the portals of the (Web) opened to the public, we are now witnessing the true emergence of the Internet as the powerful personal and social phenomenon we knew it would become," Cole said in a statement.
To be sure, the study highlighted a boom in social activities online. For example, since 2003, the number of U.S. bloggers has doubled to 7.4 percent of all Internet users; the number of people who post photos has also doubled, to 23.6 percent of all Internet users.
The majority of members of online communities said they log on at least once a day and often interact with friends or acquaintances when there. According to the study, at least 20 percent of Internet users said that their online community inspires them to act in some way in the offline world at least once a year. And nearly two-thirds of people who belong to social-cause communities said they were new to such activism.
For parents, the Internet is a mixed blessing. A small but growing group of parents say their kids spend too much time on the Internet, according to the study. (Americans ages 12 and older spent an average of 8.9 hours a week online in 2006, up from 7.9 hours a year ago, it found.)
But at least 70 percent say that their kids spend the right amount of time online, down marginally from years past. Despite kids' opinion that access to the Web helps their schoolwork, three quarters of parents report that their kids' grades haven't changed since acquiring the Net.
Findings of the Digital Future Project are based on annual interviews with roughly 2,000 individuals and households across the United States, which the center has been tracking for six years.