Testing the Stimulation Versus the Displacement Hypothesis
Patti M. Valkenburg
The Amsterdam School of Communications Research (ASCoR)
University of Amsterdam
The aim of this study was to contrast the validity of two opposing explanatory hypotheses about the effect of online communication on adolescents’ well-being. The displacement hypothesis predicts that online communication reduces adolescents’ well-being because it displaces time spent with existing friends, thereby reducing the quality of these friendships. In contrast, the stimulation hypothesis states that online communication stimulates well-being via its positive effect on time spent with existing friends and the quality of these friendships. We conducted an online survey among 1,210 Dutch teenagers between 10 and 17 years of age. Using mediation analyses, we found support for the stimulation hypothesis but not for the displacement hypothesis. We also found a moderating effect of type of online communication on adolescents’ well-being: Instant messaging, which was mostly used to communicate with existing friends, positively predicted well-being via the mediating variables (a) time spent with existing friends and (b) the quality of these friendships. Chat in a public chatroom, which was relatively often used to talk with strangers, had no effect on adolescents’ well-being via the mediating variables.
Opportunities for adolescents to form and maintain relationships on the Internet have multiplied in the past few years. Not only has the use of Instant Messaging (IM) increased tremendously, but Internet-based chatrooms and social networking sites are also rapidly gaining prominence as venues for the formation and maintenance of personal relationships. In recent years, the function of the Internet has changed considerably for adolescents. Whereas in the 1990s they used the Internet primarily for entertainment (Valkenburg & Soeters, 2001), at present they predominantly use it for interpersonal communication (Gross, 2004; Lenhart, Madden, & Hitlin, 2005).
The rapid emergence of the Internet as a communication venue for adolescents has been accompanied by diametrically opposed views about its social consequences. Some authors believe that online communication hinders adolescents’ well-being because it displaces valuable time that could be spent with existing friends (e.g., Kraut et al., 1998; Nie, 2001; Nie, Hillygus, & Erbring, 2002). For example, Kraut et al. (1998) argue that “by using the Internet, people are substituting poorer quality social relationships for better relationships, that is, substituting weak ties for strong ones” (p. 1028). Adherents of this displacement hypothesis assume that the Internet motivates adolescents to form online contacts with strangers rather than to maintain friendships with their offline peers. Because online contacts are seen as superficial weak-tie relationships that lack feelings of affection and commitment, the Internet is believed to reduce the quality of adolescents’ existing friendships and, thereby, their well-being.
Conversely, other authors suggest that online communication may enhance the quality of adolescents’ existing friendships and, thus, their well-being. Adherents of this stimulation hypothesis argue that more recent online communication technologies, such as IM, encourage communication with existing friends (Bryant, Sanders-Jackson, & Smallwood, 2006). Much of the time adolescents spend alone with computers is actually used to keep up existing friendships (Gross, 2004; Subrahmanyam, Kraut, Greenfield, & Gross, 2000; Valkenburg & Peter, 2007). If adolescents use the Internet primarily to maintain contacts with their existing friends, the prerequisite for a displacement effect is not fulfilled. After all, if existing friendships are maintained through the Internet, it is implausible that the Internet reduces the quality of these friendships and, thereby, adolescents’ well-being (Valkenburg & Peter, 2007).
Several studies have investigated the effect of Internet use on the quality of existing relationships and well-being. Some of these studies used depression or loneliness measures as indicators of well-being; others employed measures of life-satisfaction or positive/negative affect. The studies have provided mixed results: Some have yielded results in agreement with the displacement hypothesis (Kraut et al., 1998; Morgan & Cotten, 2003, for surfing; Nie, 2001; Nie, Hillygus, & Erbring, 2002; Weiser, 2001). Others have produced results in support of the stimulation hypothesis. They demonstrated, for example, that Internet use is positively related to time spent with existing friends (Kraut et al., 2002), to the closeness of existing friendships (Valkenburg & Peter, 2007), and to well-being (Kraut et al., 2002, study 1; Morgan & Cotten, 2003, for email and chat; Shaw & Gant, 2002). Finally, several other studies produced no significant results (Gross, 2004; Kraut et al., 2002, study 2; Jackson, von Eye, Barbatsis, Biocca, Fitzgerald, & Zhao, 2004; LaRose, Ghuay, & Bovin, 2002; Mesch, 2001, 2003; Sanders, Field, Diego, & Kaplan, 2000; Waestlund, Norlander, & Archer, 2001).
At least one omission in earlier research may contribute to the inconsistent findings regarding the Internet-well-being relationship. Most research to date has been descriptive or exploratory in nature. The studies investigate direct linear relationships between Internet use and one or more dependent variables, such as social involvement, depression, or loneliness (Matei & Ball-Rokeach, 2001). Hardly any research has been based on a-priori explanatory hypotheses regarding how Internet use is related to well-being. More importantly, there is no research that contrasts opposing explanatory hypotheses in the same study. With some exceptions (LaRose et al., 2001; Morgan & Cotten, 2003; Weiser, 2001), most research has conceptualized the relationship between Internet use and well-being as a simple stimulus-response process. Little research has hypothesized possible mediating variables that might cause a displacement or stimulating effect of Internet use on well-being.
The main aim of this study is to fill the gap in earlier research and pit the predictions of the displacement hypothesis against those of the stimulation hypothesis. By empirically studying the validity of the processes proposed by the two hypotheses, we hope to improve theory formation and contribute to a more profound understanding of the social consequences of the Internet. In fact, the two hypotheses are based on the same two mediators. Both hypotheses state that online communication affects adolescents’ well-being through its influence on (1) their time spent with existing friends and (2) the quality of these friendships. However, the displacement hypothesis assumes a negative effect from online communication on time spent with existing friends, whereas the stimulation hypothesis predicts a positive relationship between these two variables.
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