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The computer industry has been making wildly exaggerated claims about the social impact of the Internet in order to sell products, according to lots of research.

In a report that summarises 22 research projects undertaken by 76 researchers in 25 universities in the UK, Holland, Denmark, and the United States over the last three years, the research group Virtual Society concludes that for many, the Net could be little more than a passing fad.

The group found that people are becoming disenchanted with the virtual world and are returning to reality. In the US there are 28 million former surfers, and the UK could have as many as 2 million people who no longer get online. Virtual Society estimates.

Professor Woolgar, director of the Virtual Society, said: "The results are counter-intuitive. Wholesale take up of the Net is clearly not happening."

The group said that the current rate of expansion was unlikely to continue. "There is already evidence of drop off and saturation among users," Woolgar continued. Teenagers in particular, he said, had been energised by the Net and what they could do with it, but: "They realised there is more to life in the real world, and they've gone back to it."

Patricia Hewitt, minister for e-commerce, welcomed the report. "Research into the social, cultural and business impacts of the new technologies is vital," she said. "Beyond the sometimes exaggerated claims, we especially need to know what actual circumstances will best help us take advantage of the potential on offer." ®

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