If We’re All Addicts, Then What…?
But that’s okay, because Dokoupil eventually admits that the whole idea of Internet addiction is nonsense (and it reasonably follows that then so is his entire hypothesis):
And don’t kid yourself: the gap between an “Internet addict” and John Q. Public is thin to nonexistent. […] By that definition, we are all addicts now, many of us by Wednesday afternoon, Tuesday if it’s a busy week.
If “we are all addicts now,” then what is the point of a label of “Internet addiction” or suggesting that technology is making us all crazy?
Younger generations don’t see their relationship with technology in this completely negative light like Dokoupil and some researchers view it. Researchers continue to try and measure our relationship with technology with metrics and measures that have no connection to the modern world. They are attempting to define relationship quality, for instance, using old-school measures that weren’t designed to understand the complexity of modern relationships — some of which may be purely or primarily online.
But in a way, it doesn’t matter whether our digital intensity is causing mental illness, or simply encouraging it along, as long as people are suffering.
Of course it matters. Because when you frame it as an either-or proposition without the obvious third alternative — that what we’re measuring could be completely insufficient for capturing the whole picture — you make it sound like it’s a foregone conclusion that technology is “driving us all crazy” (as your headline reminds us). It’s not a conclusion — it’s very much an ongoing debate among academics and researchers who continue to engage in this topic.
It also depends on what you mean by “suffering.” If you mean, “people are in so much pain, they can’t live their daily lives in anything close to a normal fashion,” then I’d agree with you — those people need help.
The Flip-Side of the Coin: Positives of Being Online & Connected
Most people who use technology in their daily lives don’t “suffer” because of it. They have enhanced relationships with people, they’re more connected with others on a variety of levels than ever before, and the very nature and definition of what a relationship looks like and means to people is changing. Being online means we have ready access to information we never had before, which can potentially make us more productive and interactive in our daily lives.
Social networks don’t just take from us, they also give us an enormous amount of benefit. Some of that is subjective — we hook up with old friends, reconnect with past co-workers, and feel like we can more easily share our lives (via photos, status updates, etc.) with our personal network of friends and family.
But there’s also a lot of objective data demonstrating the effects of social networks — and what we can learn about them.
For instance, there are researchers who’ve found how the Internet has enhanced our relationships with others and ourselves. Nettleton et al.1 found our online contacts to be particularly valuable for esteem and emotional support that has generally been perceived to be provided mostly by relatives or close friends. Sanders et al.2 found that online interactions help people deal with their difficult emotions.
My colleague, Scott Caplan3 found support for his theory that individuals who lack self-presentational skill — for instance, people with existing low self-esteem — are especially likely to prefer online social interaction. This preference then reinforces continued Internet use because it’s a positive social interaction (versus the negative social interactions they may experience more of face-to-face). So from this theory, technology is simply providing a reasonable outlet for some people to interact with others — it’s not something that is “addicting” on its own.
Being accessible online has perceived benefits for those after a tragic accident as well. Research conducted after the shootings at Virginia Tech demonstrated that students enjoyed the perceived benefits of being able to reach out to their friends and others online.4
And that’s just a small smattering of the large research base demonstrating the positive effects of being online and connected to others. Dozens more studies show similar results. It’s not all negative after all, if one were really interested in showing both sides of the coin.
As the world around us is changing, and our relationship with technology changes with it, some people get nervous about that change, and cry out “The sky is falling” to the heavens, in hope it will stop.
It, however, won’t stop, because it’s the nature of our modern lives. You can no more stop our use of technology to enhance our lives than people could stop horse-drawn carriages from being replaced by loud automobiles in the early 1900s, or the invasion of TVs overtaking the radio in the 1960s.
Many researchers just seem absolutely flummoxed by how people will deal with this on their own. (Thankfully and coincidentally(?), many of them have written “helpful” books to guide us poor, lost souls.) Yet, throughout human history, whenever technology has changed the very nature of our relationships with one another, we’ve adapted. Yes, there were some difficult times in some of those transitions, but ultimately, humanity pulled through.
And we’ll do it again with the latest round of technology and mobile connectivity.
Newsweek’s Editors Asleep at the Wheel
But Dokoupil is not to blame entirely for this article. The editors at Newsweek — that is, if there are any remaining — must be asleep at the wheel. Because I used to believe journalists were supposed to research a topic, and present both sides of the story — even if they have a bias or the emphasis of the story is largely one-sided.
But this story doesn’t have the other side — it’s 100 percent, “Our relationship with technology is driving us crazy.” The Mindhacks story linked to below also describes how the writer just fell flat on his face with other fine examples. While we solicited Newsweek for answers to some of the questions we posed regarding this piece — the sloppy research, the lack of understanding research results (and later research that contradicted those results), the obvious bias and one-sidedness of the article — they declined to comment.
And that makes me respect Newsweek just a little bit less today.
Read the full, horrible Newsweek piece here: Is the Internet Making Us Crazy? What the New Research Says
For a more nuanced look, check out Mindhacks view: No, the web is not driving us mad
- Nettleton S, Pleace N, Burrows R, Muncer S and
Loader B. (2002). The reality of virtual social support. In: Woolgar S (ed.)Virtual society?: technology, cyberbole, reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [↩]
- Sanders, C. Rogers, A. Gardner, C. Kennedy, A. (2011). Managing ‘difficult emotions’ and family life: Exploring insights and social support within online self-management training. Chronic Illness, 7, 134-146. [↩]
- Caplan, S. (2005). A social skill account of problematic Internet use. Journal of Communication, 55, 721-736. [↩]
- Vicary, A. M. & Fraley, R. C. (2010). Student reactions to the shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University: Does sharing grief and support over the Internet affect recovery? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 1555-1563. [↩]