Intimate strangers and estranged intimates: An investigation of the impact of instant messaging and short message service on the size and strength of social networks in Kuwait

Bashaiar Al-Sanaa

Abstract

Information and communication technologies (ICT) have revolutionized how people experience spatial proximity, reality, and connectivity. These technologies provide inexpensive access to anything and anyone in the world. They also replicate face-to-face interaction in cyber-space and allow for participation in numerous modes of social exchange. People use Information and communication technologies to write web logs (blogs), send electronic mail (email), socialize through networking sites (such as Facebook and MySpace), text each other through mobile phone Short Message Service (SMS) and chat via online instant messaging (IM). With all these applications, a debate has ignited that actual physical communication is decreasing in favor of online connectivity, thus leading to more but weaker social ties. Previous research within the field of communication technologies has produced incongruent and contrasting results regarding the effects of ICT on human behavior and social connectivity. Additionally, only a humble body of research avails systematic representative studies tracking the sociological impact of media technologies. Such systematic research is non-existent in developing countries. Given the rarity of research in this realm and the incessant change in technology, this study aimed to examine the effects of two types of ICT, text and instant messaging, on the strength and size of three circles of social networks (family, friends and acquaintances) in Kuwait. The study also explored the potential impact of demographic characteristics on these circles. This examination was theoretically framed by uses and gratifications. Using a self-administered a questionnaire, the study surveyed a nationally representative sample of 406 IM and/or SMS users, reflecting Kuwaiti adults between the ages of 18 to 65 years. The survey was distributed to respondents in government offices, private companies, educational institutions and malls in the State of Kuwait. Statistical analyses performed to analyze data included t-tests, analysis of variance (ANOVA), Chi Square, Scheffe test, Pearson correlation, crosstabs, frequencies and percentage distributions. The study formulated five research questions and tested 12 hypotheses, only one of which was rejected. Except for the size of the family circle for social ties which was found to be insignificantly correlated to instant message usage; both the strength and size of social networks in all three examined circles were found to be significantly negatively and positively correlated, respectively, to technology usage, whether instant or text messaging. Furthermore, certain demographic factors, such as gender and marital status, played a modest role with regards to social ties. The findings of this research effort are validated by previous academic studies and different research institutions. As reflected by the results, new communication technologies have both numerous advantages and inadvertent disadvantages. Hence, given their sheer weight as a social force, ICT should be further examined as technologies continue to advance and change social connectivity.