Perils of the Internet

The Internet has impacted massively on society, not only socially but also economically and politically.  The political potential is great and certainly not yet fully recognised.  However, there  is a downside.  People are becoming dependent on, and at times addicted to, being on-line.  How do you react if the system goes down for hours – or even days? 

I have just been reading an article in the latest issue of Government Gazette by Dr Richard Graham, Clinical Director, Adolescent Directorate, Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust.  He notes that in a recent survey, 63% of young people aged between 11-18 described themselves as being ‘addicted’ to the Internet, with 26% of them saying they spend more than six hours a day online.  He goes on:

“Much of this time online may involve healthy social contact, though it is mediated through the rapid, hyper-stimulating medium of instant messaging, and largely without any adult moderation.  The impact this has on sleep and concentration is often noticed within education settings, though the longer-term impact on neurodevelopment would be a useful focus for research.  For others, high levels of engagement with social media platforms such as Facebook creates a difficulty switching off, and of feeling painfully excluded from the large numbers of ‘friends’ who still stay online when you do switch off.”

We appear to becoming a little too dependent on the Internet, sometimes unhealthily so.  It cannot only impact on sleep but also limit the capacity to handle social contact other than online contact.  We cannot do without the Internet, but how can we ensure our use is balanced?  Is there an answer?

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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26 Responses to Perils of the Internet

  1. James Walker says:

    When I read the title of this blog my heart sank, but then it turned out to be not so bad!

    In my view, it would be best to setup a government sponsored website on which local groups can register themselves and give details of face to face meetings etc, this could be combined with postcode data.

    As well as providing location details it could also use forums for real life meetups. Goverment/council funding/ attention could also be targeted this way.

    • Jonathan says:

      James, it’s not publicly funded, but are you familiar with the site meetup.com?

      I’m a bit confused whether Lord Norton is referring to 11-18’s specifically, or to the adult population. The former group arranging face-to-face meets unchecked is perhaps not desirable.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Jonathan: It is especially a problem for teenagers, who are especially profound users, but I would not regard it as exclusive as them.

      • James Walker says:

        I am actually, but dislike its fee structure, which is why I think something like it should be partly subsidized, and also given advertising by the government.

        Also a questionnaire to discover your interests and match you up to people with similiar ones would be useful as well.

        THe problem with it is too few people currently use it, so finding nearby groups can be quite hard.

  2. ladytizzy says:

    And you typed these words…when, and after how many cuppas?

    For me, the internet has been liberating. I have grown up with it but knew life before it became all-embracing, understanding the difference between a useful tool and a plaything. Much of what is blamed on the internet today was blamed on yesterday’s television.

    • Lord Norton says:

      ladytizzy: The Internet has brought enormous benefits, and has been a means for many to engage in contact that would otherwise be impossible, but my primary concern here is where usage creates problems. I was conscious that, given the time I was penning the post, I may be part of the problem rather than part of the solution!

  3. Alex Bennee says:

    Is one persons “addiction” another persons finding the Internet indispensable?

    I remember when I was first introduced to BBS systems back when I was a boy. I couldn’t wait for my first connection to the internet, first via University and then with a dial-up connection on Demon. I now have a netbook which I take with me whenever I expect to be on my own at some point, even without wifi I can get on-line by tethering to my phone. Of course my phone is network enabled so at a push I can check Facebook/Twitter/Wikipedia from the phone itself. I have basically reached the point where I am permanently contactable via the ‘net.

    These may be signs of an overwhelming need to be connected to the ‘net but it doesn’t mean I actually spend all my spare time randomly surfing. The tool is available when I need it (potentially any time) but it doesn’t rule my life, it is however incredibly useful for running it.

    Maybe the perspective of kids today is different as they haven’t known a world where everything isn’t available at your fingertips? However they are learning to utilise a comparatively new tool in the human toolkit. I suspect the ability to process and navigate this sea of information and extract what’s needed is going to be of growing importance as the world moves on to being more and more connected. It’s part of the development of human society and like a lot of developments we don’t actually know where it will ultimately end which is probably why it’s a source of worry now. History seems to indicate most worries about new technology are usually unfounded.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Alex Bennee: I don’t disagree – I could not cope now without the Internet (or even word processing) – but take the view we should not see it as an unqualified public good. I am also not certain than being contactable permanently via the web (or other means) is necessarily a total (or healthy) blessing.

      • Alex Bennee says:

        Having the ability to be permanently contactable doesn’t mean I’ll always answer. I’ll happily redirect people to voice mail or set the “Do Not Disturb” status if I’m busy with something. Learning when to ignore the status indicator is a useful skill to acquire.

        Luckily IM messages are not as distracting as phone calls. Some IM conversations I have can last a few hours in time but only contain a few dozen lines.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Alex Bennee: I’m glad I am not the only one who is not a slave to the mobile or landline. I am quite capable of switching off the ‘phone or leaving it on answerphone and not answering it when I am already engaged in a face-to-face conversation. I regard it as highly anti-social to ignore someone who has taken the trouble to visit and wishes to converse in order to answer a ringing ‘phone.

  4. Not having the Government Gazette available, I can’t read the article in question but claims such as these have been made before. Importantly, they were made without any evidence or indeed research they were just speculation. Even if from an expert in the neuroscience, pyschology or something similarly relevant, speculation is just that.

    Baroness Greenfield has been caught doing this, although her comments were made worse by the spin put on them by tabloids who directly named websites themselves not mentioned by Greenfield:
    http://www.badscience.net/2009/05/professor-baroness-susan-greenfield-cbe/

    Are the claims of Dr Richard Graham from a simple survey result, or the result of planned and reviewed research?

    • Lord Norton says:

      Chris Nicholson: I think they are based on his professional experience in dealing with young people who have problems with the extent to which they use the Internet.

  5. Carl.H says:

    Like food, water, vitamins if anything is used to excess it will be harmful.

    Most will know I work in IT, from home and I possibly spend upto 10+ hours a day in front of a screen. I love it and it isn`t work to me and I`ve always time to post here or other places. It isn`t hard graft.

    I get worried when any politician starts posting ” Is this good for us ?”….you start thinking oh oh here we go, what are they going to stop now ?

    Let`s look at teenagers.

    I am finding more and more parents are becoming aware, Microsoft and the like are helping a great deal by including things like parental controls and the ability to see what their kids are typing/posting, it`s not enough yet but it`s going in the right direction. It does and will create some friction as it is at worst spying. My kids and my wife know that everything that is typed over my network I have logs of, I do get the privacy complaints but I pay the bills and the internet is in my name. I`ve avoided a teenage pregnancy, stopped illegal pictures and sorted out a lot of bullying because I snoop.

    My children cannot remember not having the net and I only restrict them as a form of punishment which can and does last for months. Does the internet affect their behaviour, yes it does my children often complain their friends won`t /don`t go out because they`re sat on messenger or facebook. These kids are sat at home doing all the exciting things my kids won`t because they know I`m watching. The sexuality of young teenage kids has changed and younger girls are being coerced into sex because of the pressure of the net. If I have a computer with a teenage boy user in to repair it would be extremely unusual not to find pornography on it. All teenage users appear to download music and films illegally, parents are made aware.

    Is all this harming them ? I don`t know, they certainly are addicted. The internet is a necessity, not only in social contact but for school, rarely is there a time when a child has not been told to search the net for something as homework, it pays a great part in the school curriculum. My 9 year old is constantly searching interesting things and has found a great deal of information on various subjects.

    If these kids weren`t onthe net they`d be sat surfing the TV channels, they still go out once they`ve arranged it by networking. Parents of course have to take responsibility and make decisions and it should be a parental thing…so hands off politicians.

    There are many many good things to be said about the net but it`s life that everything has a bad side too.

    To my embarrasment I`ve been agorophobic for 20 years, I still go out…in my car… but never further than 20 yards away from it, else I have the most terrifying panic attacks and end up in casualty. So the net to me allows me to work, it`s social to a degree and let`s me do things I otherwise wouldn`t like shopping. I`m quite happy but totally incurable due to pride. There are others I`m sure handicapped in some way or form where the net allows them so much more life. Is it a substitute ? Yes it is but speaking with LN and the other fantastic people here and elsewhere is something I couldn`t do without it.

    We have become a modern society of addictions some more harmful than others but I don`t believe life was any different at any other time except for the fact now we have those addicted to paranoia, mostly of addictions.

    What each and everyone of us needs to do is just be aware that we`re not irresponsible with our time on the internet or elsewhere, there are plenty of golf widows, football widows and like me horse widowers around but these were there before the net.

    • James Walker says:

      “Like food, water, vitamins if anything is used to excess it will be harmful.”

      Carl. H, one word, breathing. We all need to do less of it!

      Sorry I couldn’t resist.

      • Carl.H says:

        Actually breathing specifically oxygen increases free radicals which are known to cause cancer and we all know from the moment you start breathing you`re doomed to die.
        😉

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H: I don’t disagree with the general thrust of your comments: my concern is whether we need to achieve balance through education (I’m not in favour of regulation) and whether parents are able to provide that, given what appears to be the knowledge gap between Internet-savvy children and less savvy adults. You are exceptional in that you are among the alpha-savvy. As you say, there have always been golf widows and the like, but are we adding to that Internet widows at the expense of family interaction?

      • Carl.H says:

        “Are we adding to that Internet widows at the expense of family interaction?”

        It is a recent experience that women have now taken over the internet with the likes of facebook and such. We are seeing a major downturn in family interaction, I quite often state the only way I find out anything is through their facebook accounts. There has been an explosion of online affairs and it is a point of trouble I come across often but this is not the very young this is the often 30-50 year olds.

        There is also a very large increase in amateur pornography though I don`t view this as a bad thing as sex is not to be embarrassed about, howver in my work it can make it difficult looking some customers in the eye. The access to digital cameras and ease of film and photography meant this was only waiting to happen.

        I believe all this is a process of evolution, we may move away from physical contact but actually increase our interaction. Sitting typing this is far easier than my visiting the House and explaining in person. The worldwide access we have now takes away from old fears and phobias, we can talk to different people from different countries and find we have much in common, this can only be a good thing.

        I don`t think we will become a solitary species, the internet is used too often to arrange meetings in person. I think we will see a decline in long term relationships but this is already occuring through other ways, whereas a couple would depend on each other for certain functions this is no longer the case with independence and equality. What we often end up with now are two individuals living together but I must say I do not think it was different in the past by much anyway.

        There are internet addicts without a doubt but most people find their own levels eventually, there will be a number of people however that are boom and bust types.

        Online bullying is a problem and the social networks need to deal with it better. The age needs proving to join a social site and a parent informed by email, especially of passwords and usernames. There are children as young as 5 on these sites.

        Parents need educating and PC`s and laptops that already have the ability to stop porn, gambling and such sites should have it enabled as default. At present it isn`t. The Government COULD at least regulate that far, it would give a degree of protection though the savvy teenager would switch it off ….possibly.

        In answer to your question “Are we spending too much time online to the detriment of the family?” I will ask another :

        Does Lord Norton spend too much time on politics to the detriment of his family, his life, his world ?

        We can provide parents with a lot more help and the ability to switch off the kids net, we can empower them which I feel they need. Things like K9 afree web filtering program, although later versions of Windows have this capability and monitoring capability but it comes switched off.

        http://www1.k9webprotection.com/

        Regarding self constraint I think this is a parental thing, I don`t monitor my 19 or 15 year old but they both go to bed at around 11 if not slightly earlier. They have been taught to be responsible but they also know I will know.

        You could ask should we close streets because some teenagers are on them until late at night, abusing them and causing trouble. With bad parents this will happen, sometimes even with good parents but we have to give the parents the tools so they can get parental responsibility. I am asked more often for spyware by parents, how to access the kids accounts we need to make it standard in computers for these things to be setup.

        Does family life suffer due to the internet ? Yes. Does it suffer when my kids and wife are at the horse all weekend ? Yes. Can we go back to families like the Waltons ? I doubt it.

        Like the Chinese Ying and Yang we have a balance to all things and it is upto us the individual to find that balance. The car was a superb invention, it made us lazy. The TV and radio, fantastic, we`re too informed and paranoid. Take away food, great, we`re obese and so on.

        My 32 year old daughter spoke to me as much as the ones on the Net, she was listening to music instead. So was I with my parents or drooling over Pans People.

        So what are we losing, the ability of some boys to take a ball in street to play football ? That`s illegal ! For my 15 year old to go to the park and let the boys practise undo the bra strap ? Or see if we can get her drunk and go further ? Me watching the news whilst the wife is upstairs sorting out the kids for nightime routine ?

        Are my daughters less than I was at their age because of the internet ? No they are far better informed, more independent, more responsible and have learnt valueable social skills because of it. They are however not as fit, that needs addressing,and I believe schools need a far greater part in that.

      • Carl.H says:

        This was a major contradiction :

        “We are seeing a major downturn in family interaction”.

        As I wrote and thought more about it, I realised it wasn`t the case. That it would be no different than it was in the past, teenagers don`t do parents, wives are busy with said teenagers and husbands watched the news after a hard days graft and said where`s my tea ?

  6. Troika21 says:

    Dr Richard Graham has it wrong, there is a problem but it has nothing to do with addiction, its one of consolidation.

    I read newspapers online, watch TV online and listen to radio online, as well as read blogs and listen to podcasts.

    Because I get everything through the internet it becomes much more important to me than it otherwise would be. But that is because it fills roles that were once provided by separate machines, not because I’m addicted to it.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Troika21: One of the clear benefits of the Internet is the speed with which we can obtain information that was previously difficult to obtain, as well as the speed with which we can communicate with others. It depends what we use it for. If we use it for social communication which is in addition to the normal communication we have, then there is an opportunity cost. It is a question of balance. I could happily spend all day blogging, but I have a job to do – and lots of articles to write! Talking of which…

  7. Carl.H says:

    I wonder what the psychologists would have made of my generation ? Bought up on Britishness and how great we were, glued to films like Zulu, The Battle of Britain and many war films, hating the Germans cos they were all Nazi`s and the French cos we beat them at Waterloo and Agincourt and the immigrants who were a different colour.

    It was quite a lesson in how to create xenophobes. Rock n roll was a corruption, we all took drugs in the 60`s and had great massive orgies, all addicted to smoking which was cheap and advertised everywhere. The Moors murderers were going to get us. We were practicising hiding under tables in school for the nuclear attack that was possibly going to happen and Russian spies were everywhere………

    And you`re worried about a kid sitting in a bedroom talking with the World ? Hmmmm

    • Croft says:

      Gordon will be round to see you shortly 😉

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H: “Rock n roll was a corruption, we all took drugs in the 60`s and had great massive orgies, all addicted to smoking which was cheap and advertised everywhere.”

      Speak for yourself! I was a well-behaved schoolboy.

      • Carl.H says:

        Somehow I can`t quite believe that for someone of such a strong personality, ego and charm.

        I think there are a few stories there somewhere.

        The dugs and orgies I`m afraid I missed out on, the nearest being seeing my first live naked woman at the free Rolling Stones Concert in Hyde park. Don`t think I`ve seen another since…..

        😉

  8. Miss Wheldale says:

    Like everything it’s a question of balance. I sometimes feel the media is slightly hysterical in its treatment of the issue of young people and internet use. Also I can’t help but wonder if the 63% of 11 – 18 year olds questioned for the survey have a proper understanding of what addiction is and if that very serious label can really apply to their use of the internet. Addiction is a term we sometimes use a bit flippantly, I’ve been known to proclaim I’m ‘addicted’ to chocolate. I’m not though, not really.

    A lot of school work now requires students to do online research or participate in online classrooms and exercises. Time online quickly adds up if you consider that most young people probably spend an hour or so a night online doing homework and then a further hour or two on social networking sites or watching online programmes. You also have to take into account what this time on the internet has replaced. Years ago people were moaning that young people watched too much TV so you could argue they’ve just replaced one box for another. At least social networking is a two way interactive process instead of one way like TV.

    Then you have to take into account mobile devices. Technically speaking, thanks to my beautiful new HTC Desire, I’m online 24 hours a day. (Speaking of which Lord Norton, when are we going to tempt you onto Twitter?) Did the teenagers questioned take that time into account when they gave their figures?

    I also think that the negatives are often balanced by the positives that the internet has brought for young people. Ease of communication and greater access to information are huge benefits, particularly for disadvantaged young people, although we mustn’t forget that not everyone is part of the digital revolution and the very poorest have been left behind.

    Young people can now access the services they need much more easily such as Job Centres, information about Further Education and health services at the click of a button. The internet is particularly useful for providing information about issues that young people may feel too embarrassed to access in person such sexual health services.

    The media somewhat hysterically portrays the internet as a huge playground where children are bullied. To an extent this is true, and this is where good parental guidance and support comes in. However it’s also a place where it is very easy to find groups of like minded individuals who can support you through life’s difficulties, further educate you about hobbies and interests, and broaden your mind to new cultures and ways of life. Let’s not forget how crucial the internet was in persuading young people in America to mobilise and motivate each other to vote and even campaign in the last election.

    I don’t know if it’s really the case that socialising online causes us to lose our offline social skills. I think that’s a bit of a circular situation. People with poorer social skills are perhaps drawn more deeply into online socialising because this is easier for them. Also social networking sites can be used to organise off line meetings. Speaking from personal experience I’ve used social networking sites to meet other people who share my interests in the off line world and these meetings have been very successful and the individuals I’ve met haven’t shown any sign of lacking social skills at all. We meet to talk about science fiction by the way, before you all jump to conclusions.

    I think the balance issue and the sleep issue is down to self discipline of the individual. Using the internet late at night will damage your sleep but so will any stimulating activity such as watching TV, exercising or even drinking too much tea.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Miss Wheldale: “I’ve been known to proclaim I’m ‘addicted’ to chocolate. I’m not though, not really.” Hmm….

      I very much agree about balance. As you say, self-discipline is important. Some people, though, are better at disciplining themselves than others. Staying up late can be harmful, whether watching TV through the night or accessing the Internet. It can have major consequences not just for the person indulging in it, but for others if it affects the person’s ability to do their job – especially dangerous if the person is a long-distance driver for example. Knowing how to exercise restraint is important or finding ways of getting round the problem. It is, for instance, possible not to damage your sleep by drinking lots of tea at night as long as it is decaffeinated tea!

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