As I write this, this seems to be the season for bad news. Most of the stuff that we come across on Digital media (and offline) seems to be doom and gloom. And that set me thinking – Is it really this bad? Or are we experiencing the negative aspects of our ‘always-on’ culture?
I freely admit that I am not very tech friendly, but I am not a technophobe either. I have been working in the Digital economy for two decades now, but friends still laugh when they find out that I frequently know less than them on some specific use cases of the Web. This is especially true when it comes to Mobile phones. While I have had smart phones for a while now, they were mostly work phones and as such, I was very careful not to use it for any personal use (as far as possible). That all changed in 2015, when I purchased my first smartphone for personal use.
I will not deny that there are some positives to come out of the ‘always-on’ culture that the smartphone, especially, has helped drive. For one, connecting with friends and family has become much easier. And that, I believe, is a very good thing. Commuting has become much easier, enabling greater discoverability of places and experiences. Beyond these two, however, there are very few other use cases where I can confidently say that things have changed significantly for the better. The only one that comes to mind is personal transportation. I believe the ride-sharing / on-demand cab services have been extremely helpful, especially if one is living in or traveling to a city with inadequate public transport.
But on the flip-side, these positives have also been accompanied by many negatives. As I started doing some online research on what could be some of the challenges and issues brought about by high levels of internet use, I could not find very many useful articles. Many of them were about the technical issues of connectivity and the Internet of Things. A few touched upon the possible impacts at an individual level. But I was looking at studies that considered the overall societal impact of the Internet.
I finally found what I was looking for on the EU website. Whatever be your opinion of the EU (mine is that it’s a very valuable body, but too bureaucratic), there is no doubt that they are doing some very valuable research on some important topics. One of them is a study on “How The Internet Can Harm Us, And What Can We Do About It?“, released about a year ago (February 2019).
There are two parts to this study. Part 1 looks at the harm caused by internet addiction, but I was more interested in Part 2 that covers the harmful effects on individuals and societies associated with internet use. I am still going through the detailed report (runs into 72 pages), but it has, very helpfully, put out a summary right at the beginning. And these are the eight harmful effects that the study has identified:
- Internet addiction – ‘lack of control over one’s internet consumption that can lead to a decrease in physical and psychological wellbeing, with associated symptoms of distress, anger, loss of control, social withdrawal, familial conflicts, and others.’
- Information overload – ‘having too much information to adequately understand an issue or make effective decisions… associated with loss of control, feelings of being
overwhelmed, reduced intellectual performance, diminished job satisfaction, damaged personal relationships, and harms to health.‘
- Harmful effects on knowledge and belief – ‘Misinformation can cause significant harms to the health and wellbeing of individuals and to the proper functioning of society, including the functioning of democratic institutions.’
- Harm to public/private boundaries – ‘Harm is done by the way in which the internet and smartphones blur the distinction between private and public, and between the spheres of life, including work, home life, leisure and travel…Harm that can result from such permeations includes loss of quality of life, harm to privacy, decreased safety and security.‘
- Harm to social relationships – ‘Extensive internet use, particular social media use, is correlated with loneliness and social isolation.’
- Harm to communities – ‘Many offline communities are being harmed because of the partial migration of many human activities (shopping, commerce, socialising, leisure activities, professional interactions) to the internet… As replacements, they are often not adequate, since they often do not possess some of the valuable qualities of online communities, and do not possess some of the strongest qualities of offline communities, and may also suffer from impoverished communication, incivility, and lack of trust and commitment.‘
- Harm to cognitive development – ‘there is evidence that children can be harmed in their cognitive development by prolonged internet use, including harm to the development of memory skills, attention span, abilities for critical reasoning, language acquisition, reading, and learning abilities.’
- Harm to democracy and democratic citizenship – ‘Some online activities, however,
appear harmful to democratic deliberation and decision-making. These include (1) the incivility of much online (political) discourse, (2) ideological and political polarisation that is correlated with internet use, (3) misinformation, particularly ‘fake news’, and (4) voter manipulation through profiling based on harvested social media information.‘
I am sure that many of us would broadly relate to and agree with the above. I was impressed by the breadth of the findings. I intend to spend more time understanding the study in greater detail.
The study has also suggested some policy options for preventing and mitigating these effects. Again, they seem very logical and comprehensive. But that will have to wait for another post!