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About 60 million Americans say the Internet played an important or crucial role in making a major decision in two years before being polled.
And, whether they're seeking investments, home improvements, medical issues or guidance on voting, Internet users are more likely to turn to help from their social networks than their counterparts who don't use the Internet.
The Pew Internet & American Life Project Survey, released this week, sheds light on correlations between Internet use, relationships and how much people turn to others to solve significant problems in their lives. It also shows a growing trend toward seeking information about major life decisions online.
"A fairly consistent pattern is that Internet users have greater access to help about a variety of things," the report states.
Far from predictions that the proliferation of technology would cut people off from each other, the report shows communications technologies make it easier for people to maintain and cultivate social networks. Those are contacts that can be called upon for help. It also concludes that, weighing all other factors, email contact is associated with greater levels of getting help while other forms of communication are not.
Thirty-nine percent of Internet users who were looking for jobs sought help from the people they know, while 21 percent of non-users consulted friends and family. Similar gaps exist between the two groups whether they're looking for housing, a new computer or financial advice.
The report, based on surveys in February and March 2004, states that newer technologies, like email and cell phones, seem to smooth more paths toward getting help than traditional means. That may be because people "show a tendency over the course of item to use email for weighty or urgent purposes."
However, the report does not conclude whether the Internet and other technologies are changing the way users behave or whether users -- who tend to be better educated, more involved in their communities, and generally more advantaged than non-users -- are more inclined to reach out to others in the first place.
Forty-five percent, or about 60 million Americans, said the Internet played an important or crucial role in making major life decisions regarding these topics: career training, medical conditions and health issues, education, car purchases, financial moves, housing and jobs.
About 21 million people said online information was important or crucial when they considered career training; 17 million said it was key to helping someone else with a medical condition or health issue online; another 17 million said it played heavily in decisions about education.
Of those citing the Internet as an important or crucial source of information, 34 percent said it helped find advice and support from others; 30 percent said it helped them compare options and 28 percent said it led them to professional or expert services.
Information overload did not register as significant complaint. Only 15 percent of respondents said they were overwhelmed by the amount of information they had. Of online users who relied on the Internet for one of five major decisions, only 5 percent said they obtained bad information. Seventy-one percent said they had all of the information they needed and it was manageable, and 11 percent wanted more information.
A Pew survey in March 2005, which followed up on questions about major life decisions posed in 2002, indicates that the Internet's role in assisting with major life decisions has grown. In 2002, 45 million Americans said the Internet played a crucial or important role in decision-making. The jump to 60 million people represents a one-third increase.