Lots of old fogeys, including famous social scientist Robert “Bowling Alone” Putnam, have said that TV may be ripping up our social fabric, on the grounds that time spent with Tony Soprano is time not spent with friends and neighbors. It’s hard to test this hypothesis because in the US the spread of TV coincided with other trends, like suburbanization, so the other trends might be at fault and TV an innocent bystander. But Harvard economist Benjamin Olken found a way, in Indonesia. The availability of TV in 600 villages in eastern and central Java there isn’t related to other social trends as far as he can tell, making their experience a reasonable test case.

You can read all 44 pages of details here (PDF) if you want to quarrel with the methodology, but here’s the gist:

“Reception of an extra channel of television is associated with a decline of about 7 percent in the total number of social groups in the village, and with the typical adult in the village attending 11 percent fewer group meetings. The effects are particularly strong among community self-improvement activities, neighborhood associations, school committees, and informal savings groups. These declines in social participation represent a net decline in social activity, rather than a shift from formal social groups to informal gatherings.”

More TV also leads to “substantially lower self-reported levels of trust” in the villages, writes Olken, but did not seem to affect the level of corruption in ongoing road projects.

Is it too early to ask whether YouTube will bring us all back together again?