In the past 15 years, the Internet has transitioned from a medium that’s interacted with strictly though desktop computers in homes, offices and computer labs to one that a growing number of people take with them everywhere they go. Whether via laptops, ever-evolving mobile phone devices or through Internet-connected workstations in the office and at home, many are online all the time.
We’re checking multiple e-mail accounts and peer networking sites, in addition to texting and instant messaging our friends, family and co-workers almost constantly. If we’re not glued to the computer screen, we’re plugged in through our headphones, catching the latest music or podcasts.
There’s no denying the convenience of all of this. But what is the social impact of making online technology so omnipresent?
As with anything else, there are advantages and disadvantages. John Grohol, CEO and founder of Psych Central, who has been writing about mental health and psychology issues online since 1992, feels a big benefit of this accelerated level of Internet involvement is that it strengthens interpersonal connections.
“Before, you might call your friend once every couple months if they’re long distance or keep in touch with them via e-mail every now and again, but it really wasn’t a day-to-day interaction,” Grohol said. “There was far more time between your interactions with your long-distance friends.”
Peer networking sites and instant messaging brings people geographically removed from one another into each other’s lives more casually, making it a daily interactive stream. “Technology allows those interactions to occur more frequently, allows a person to stay updated about their friends’ and families’ lives and actually creates stronger bonds because of that,” Grohol said.
“The flipside, though, is that there’s the potential for people to rely too heavily on these technologies — almost as crutches — rather than engaging people in the traditional ways, [such as] going out face-to-face for a drink. [They may say], ‘Oh I’m all caught up on your life through Twitter, so I don’t really need to try [with] catch up to you face-to-face.’”
The problem gets more complicated when you factor in that the technology can follow people everywhere they go, and may invade face time.
“It depends on how plugged in your particular social group or co-workers are, but in some groups you can be at a meeting and literally everyone is heads down with their cell phone or iPhone or whatnot, and only marginally paying attention to what’s going on [at] the meeting,” Grohol said.
“Or you could be out at dinner and one of the people at the table could be using their cell phone to text another person who’s not there or Twittering or something of that nature. While that allows us to really connect with people in our lives, it also can be a detriment to our traditional face-to-face relationships. It’s changing our social interactions with one another to varying degrees.”
Layne Hartsell, a professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, Korea, lectures and publishes on the topic of Internet communications and how they relate to community and interrelationships. Hartsell agreed that continual online interaction has the potential to adversely affect our social lives and how we interact with others.
“If we are to value human interaction — the old-fashioned kind, where we sit and talk over coffee or tea or where we can reach out and touch the other person — then being plugged in constantly diminishes our social lives,” Hartsell said. “Since people are spending more and more time on the computer or using their other electronic devices for any number of functions, I think many people are putting less value on human relations. Because time is not infinite, there will be trade-offs. The more time I spend on the computer, the less time I have for friends and family.”
Hartsell also points out a far more immediate risk in constant online communication, relaying this anecdote: “I was in a cafe the other day, and a young woman was hit by a bus in front of the building while she was crossing the road [and] texting on her phone,” he said. “Fortunately she survived, but had to be taken to the hospital.”
Such dangers are present with any type of distraction, but may also speak to a larger issue — whether or not human beings as a species were really meant to constantly communicate.
“This always-on, real-time flow of conversation that we’re getting from everyone isn’t the way that human beings were designed to process information from an evolutionary perspective,” Grohol said. “There are real challenges here as a society for us to incorporate these new technologies in ways that can find some balance because that’s what it’s ultimately about. And it’s harder for people when the new technologies really are integral social interaction. We have to learn to take it into our vast experience of how we communicate and find a way that it fits in with our social interactions.”
Children of Men
One of the most interesting factors to consider in examining this topic is the experience of children, who are being born into a world completely plugged in to the Internet, compared to adults, who know of a time when such levels of access did not exist — or were not even close to existing.
From one perspective, for children born into the possibility of 24×7, everywhere Internet access, adaption to the technology will be seamless and effortless, and it will be less likely to have an intrusive effect on their lives.
The real problem, then, is for adults being introduced to this technology, who may react to the convenience so much so that it seems as if they’re addicted.
“Adults typically have a harder time learning that kind of new integration rather than a teenager or child who grows up with it as a normal part of their tool kit,” Grohol said, dismissing the idea that growing up with such wide Internet access could have an adverse effect on children.
“I don’t think it has any kind of negative effect because they’re going to learn how to use it in mostly healthy ways from the onset. The bigger challenge is for adults who get enamored [with] the technology and immerse themselves in ways that may not be entirely healthy.”
Hartsell disagreed. He feels that 24×7, everywhere Internet access may cause children to become isolated developmentally.
“When children play video games, it may help their eye-to-hand coordination, or they may be able to develop other skills,” he said. “However, once those skills are developed, what is the purpose of the continued orientation of their lives around the online world? There is an addictive process going on, along with the observed fact of severe attention deficit and the craving for stimulus after continuous interaction with the screen. Children will and are becoming less capable of seeing or comprehending the world around them.”
Hartsell has observed children today, saying they “hate” nature, which he feels is an alarming change in human sentiment that he attributes to the prevalence of online access.
“It is clear from the conditions today that parents are unconcerned about nature, but they do not necessarily state it outright,” he said. “Their children, on the other hand, feel comfortable enough to make such pronouncements without further consideration. Since many children’s lives today are centered around the online world, I am presuming that the disconnect is coming from the centerpiece of their lives.”
In assessing the risks inherent in 24×7 Internet access, it’s important to consider the concept of self-correction. This is particularly germane to the topic as it relates to adults vs. children.
While adults may eventually conclude that Internet use has become pervasive in their lives to such an extent that it is a detriment, “children do not tend to self-correct except when there is an obvious danger,” Hartsell said.
And Internet addiction is far from an obvious danger: As access and convenience increase, it passively establishes itself in the daily routines of individuals.
To better diagnose the problem, it helps to look at how advances in technology have socially asserted themselves in the past.
“At the moment, the online world and gadgets are just beginning to become sophisticated, so we will have to watch closely to see the effects,” Hartsell said. “However, if we look back at the ways various technological applications have played out in society, the precautionary principle should be enforced more stringently now. Thus, the principle itself is self-correction.”
Thinking around this topic is relatively new; in fact, there’s disagreement as to whether Internet addiction actually constitutes an addiction at all.
“There’s no agreement on a basic definition or symptoms or any of that, so it’s still very much in the air as to whether [Internet addiction] truly exists or not,” Grohol said. “My problem with the whole theory is that anything can be addicting. When TV first came on the scene, people were concerned about children becoming addicted to [it], and if you keep going further back, you’ve got the same concerns about movies and radio. It’s human nature to almost fear these new things that do initially take an enormous amount of time and focus away from our family and social life.”
Again, this is where self-correction — the ability to set limits on how much time people allow the Internet, or any activity, to take from their lives — becomes important.
“People [for whom] it’s not self-correcting certainly might need some assistance or help with the problem, but I don’t think it rises to the level of needing to give it a new label and call it an addiction,” Grohol said.
So will 24×7 Internet technology continue to increase in severity, or is it as mature as it’s going to get? After all, it’s hard to see it getting more omnipresent than it is now. When people can take the Internet with them everywhere they go, where do you go from there?
Grohol predicted the technology will expand further. “I don’t think technology has plateaued, and I don’t think our ability to find new ways to interact with it in more intuitive manners has plateaued,” he said. “There’s still a long way to go before we’ve reached any kind of technology plateau between being immersed in this technology and feeling connected with our friends and family.”
Hartsell, meanwhile, is philosophical in considering the continual growth of this technology. He feels people should consider whether adapting every piece of newly emergent technology is necessary.
“As new waves of technology come to us, there will be the potential for advantages and disadvantages, each with its own graded potential or degree,” he said. “Thus, the conditions will change as new technologies emerge, and the concepts of severe or mature now will become a various set of potential circumstances under newer, future emergent conditions. Sometimes, it’s better to simply not do what it is possible to do because the product or process is not necessary, or not important, or simply too risky.
– Daniel Margolis, firstname.lastname@example.org