By now you’ve most likely heard about or read the succinctly-titled Newsweek article “Is the Web Driving Us Mad?”, which has been making the social media rounds since it was posted earlier this month on Newsweek’s partner website The Daily Beast (Irony? WE HAS IT). In the piece, the author cites some recent comprehensive research undertaken on technology and mental health (the lion’s share of which is covered in the brilliant Pulitzer Prize nominated “The Shallows”, a book the author of the article cribs from liberally), the results of which suggest that, indeed, the web — or rather, our uncontrolled and unrestrained use of it — is changing our brains and how they work, making us depressed, anxious, borderline obsessive-compulsive, and potentially psychotic. This in addition to shortening our already minute attention spans and making us intellectually lazy, of course. D’OH! I CAN HAZ IDIOCRACY TIMEZ NAO? OW, MY BRAINS.
The public’s reaction to these findings has been about what you’d expect. On the one hand, many of us — myself included — have long suspected that the addictive quality of the internet, and the social internet in particular, would end up being problematic for lots of people (myself included again). On the other hand, there’s a vast online contingent that thinks this is a bunch of hooey sprung from a combination of technological hysteria and traditional media’s desire to diminish the internet and scare people into sticking to their nice, safe (and profitable!) print magazines, books, and televisual entertainment. (Yes, true to form, the citizens of the web pulled out the Vast Media Conspiracy angle almost immediately – what did you expect, huh?)
So where does the truth lie? As with most things it’s likely to be found somewhere in the sane middle-ground, the one that lies smack dab between OMG THE INTERNET IS MAKING ME PSYCHOTIC and THE INTERNET IS BEAUTIFUL AND PERFECT JUST LIKE MY MOM.
My own personal experience tells me that the internet, if used compulsively and thoughtlessly, could be psychologically hazardous and certainly addictive. When I read this article, the truth is that I saw myself in many of the unhealthy behaviors mentioned – in the mindless, obsessive checking of email and social media, in the inability to be more than 5 steps away from my iPhone at any time (I take my iPhone with me to the bathroom… this doubtless speaks VOLUMES), in the weirdness inherent in multiple simultaneous screen usage (what, I can’t read a book on my iPad *and* check my email on my iPhone at the same time and not be a kook now?!?), and so on. An eerie, creeping feeling of dread also came over me as I read about Jason Russell (of “Kony 2012″ fame) — about his experience of going from being a virtual nobody to virtual superstar overnight, and the reactive psychosis that seized him after being thrust so rapidly to the forefront of the social internet. Reading this, I thought a lot about my own experiences as a blogger. I thought about how I’ve had the lines between my own public and private spheres blur and shift and be forcibly redrawn through online exposure, and about how that’s affected me emotionally, powerfully, in both positive and negative ways. And in the end my experience leads me to conclude that, yes, the internet and its technology IS changing and influencing us — whether we like it or not, whether we want to own up to it or not — and not necessarily in positive ways.
HOWEVER. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, shall we?
Because though there clearly ARE dangers inherent in heavy, unchecked internet use, that’s also true of most things. If you do anything too much — compulsively and without restraint — the result will invariably be negative, hazardous. So perhaps a better way to frame our use of the internet is the same way many of us frame the existence of alcohol in our lives: a glass of wine with dinner every night is fine, but if you start glugging directly from the bottle all day long, you can without a doubt expect serious, long-term problems. Moderation and self-control seem to be the key here.
And I’m not saying that will be easy in a world increasingly wired to gills, but I am saying that if we want to stay psychologically and emotionally healthy, conscious use of technology and the web and regular “unplugging” may be not just a good idea, but absolutely necessary. I for one am making immediate changes — reducing not just my overall time online but my time on social media in particular, which in my view tends to be where most of the real crazy on the internet lives (I’m looking at you, Facebook) (and don’t get cocky, Twitter – I’ve got my eye on you, too). I’m also instituting new rules about “screen time” relative to my daughter, and encouraging offline reading and imaginative play that doesn’t involve things electronic. It’ll be a never-ending, life-long battle I’m sure — both within and without — to keep us mostly in The Real (Offline) World, but its surely a battle worth fighting.
What about you? How do you feel about the Newsweek article and its conclusions? And will you be making any changes to your children’s online access or your own as a result?
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