Mal Fletcher
Are We Becoming Internet Addicted?

‘The effect of the mass media,’ wrote social critic and historian Christopher Lasch, ‘is not to elicit belief but to maintain the apparatus of addiction.’

Lasch died in 1994, before the explosion of internet-based media. Yet his words were prescient in ways that we are only now beginning to understand.

According to Britain’s media regulator Ofcom, the UK now leads the world in its use of data, having overtaken Japan in 2012. Today, Brits are among the most active social networkers in the world, sharing everything from photos, to gossip and personal secrets online.

This is set to increase, on the back of record smartphone sales prior to Christmas and the new 4G services that will launch across the UK by summer. New technologies expected this year include wearable phones – especially the expected launch of the iWatch. Mobile augmented reality will become widely available via Google Glass and Vuzix.

It won’t be long before bendable phones are on the market, with screens made from Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED), coated in plastic rather than glass. All of this will increase our interaction with mobile gadgetry.

There are huge benefits in all this new technology. (See my new book Fascinating Times for more.) Yet in the face of our love affair with social networking, psychologists warn of certain potential dangers which are linked to internet addiction.

As a social futurist, I have no interest in Luddite solutions – I wouldn’t want to turn back the technological clock even if it were possible to do so. However, it is vital that we don’t allow our take-up of new technologies to overshadow discussions about their potential pitfalls.

Addiction may seem too strong a word to apply to engagement with mobile media. Yet the description is apt. Human nature being what it is, we are prone to engage in potentially damaging long-term behaviours simply because they offer an emotional or psychological pay-off in the short-term.

This is especially evident in tough times. The recent recession and the rapid rate of change in our society are just two factors leading to higher levels of distress in our community. In the face of this, some of us find comfort and solace by retreating into the cybersphere, where it is often easier to build relationships on Facebook than face-to-face.

If we’re not very watchful, we can develop an emotional dependency on the online experience, habitually seeking escape and reinforcement through the cyber window.

That an over-dependence on the internet is becoming a real societal challenge is reflected by the fact that psychologists have begun identifying ailments related to it. For example studies are now being conducted into Constant Partial Attention.

As the name suggests, this is a condition in which people lose the ability to follow a line of argument for any length of time. They lose focus because they’re addicted to digital multi-tasking and flitting from one screen or internet page to another.

In 2009 the senior judge in England and Wales remarked that the emerging young adult generation are no longer useful for jury duty. It’s not, he said, a result of any lack of intelligence; it’s a product of their general inability to follow the case notes in a long trial. Their attention spans, he said, are too short.

A 2009 Ontario study suggested that young adults were less well equipped to enter university than they had been just a handful of years before, simply because they were not as good at following auditory lectures. Much of their content was now coming from the internet and most of that experience was a visual one.

Linked to these attention deficit problems is the social challenge of Absent Presence. This is where you have, say, ten people sitting around a table, only to find that just five of whom are really ‘present’. The others are mentally or emotionally out-to-lunch, as they sit texting, tweeting or instant-messaging other people in cyberspace. Studies have shown that when this happens, people are often messaging other individuals who are in the room with them!

Much is said about the ability of today’s younger generation to multi-task, as a result of their adeptness in the digital environment. Not long ago, the media regulator OfCom found that the average British child will take in nine hours of digital media per day. However, he or she will cram this into just five hours of real time, through multi-tasking.

It is such a sexy word, multi-tasking. It suggests a preternatural ability to juggle many activities simultaneously, without muffing a single one. Industrial studies have shown, though, that multi-tasking is only effective in very short bursts. Over longer periods it leads to mistakes, falling productivity and rising levels of frustration. Multi-tasking is, in fact, often nothing more than another word for distractedness.

Now, there is much to be said for day-dreaming. Some of the greatest inventors and pioneers in history have been notoriously skilled at staring blankly into space. Newton and Einstein were both renowned for this particular talent.

It may have been one of the reasons for their success as innovators. Research continues to show that the human brain functions well only when it has adequate ‘spare’ time for reflection. Our brains need space to make sense of what we are experiencing, by referencing new stimuli against established patterns. They also need time to build this new information into long-term memory.

If the data doesn’t find its way into long-term memory, it is effectively useless to us because we can’t build on it. Being constantly switched ‘on’ – as many of us are while our smartphones or tablets are in the room – often robs us of essential downtime for the brain.

Of course, if it’s not properly restrained, day-dreaming can give way to mental laziness. Most of us remember at least once school teacher who constantly nagged us to ‘Concentrate!’ The ability to maintain focus is an important mental skill.

Today’s click-scan-click-away learning culture and rapid-fire communications not only remove reflection time, they can simultaneously weaken our concentration muscles.

Over-exposure to the digital experience poses threats to physical health, too – not least among children. Last year researchers found that 40 percent of British children who own a mobile phone are sleep deprived. New research is showing links between high use of computers and obesity in children, because of prolonged inactivity. There are also more serious risks to health – for example, the risk of developing certain forms of cancer, among people who undergo extreme exposure to video screens.

Some of the challenges with online dependency are less obvious, however.  Ofcom has estimated that British children spend 60 percent more of their time in front of screens than they do with their families. This means that children’s values might be shaped to a very significant degree not by their parents, but by media – particularly online media.

Despite the pressures we’re under, we need to find time to engage in face-to-face interactions with our kids, away from interruptive technologies. We may need, for example, to establish digital-free zones in the home, such as around the meal table.

In a similar way, employers and workplace managers need to find ways to improve ‘eyeball time’ on the job, especially for younger team members. This may mean setting aside a gadget-free zone around the water-cooler, or encouraging the use of paper notebooks in planning sessions. (There is some evidence that people retain information better when they write it on a piece of paper, rather than typing it on a screen. It has something to do, apparently, with the tactile sensation of using paper and pen.)

As has often been said, an increasing reliance on high-tech carries with it a growing need for high-touch. In the end, each of us must decide for ourselves – and our children – whether or not we want to live in a Laschian world of media addiction.

"Fascinating Times: A Social Commentary" by Mal Fletcher: now available worldwide on Amazon Kindle. Click here for more, including the movie trailer and interviews.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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