Online insanity: will the web leave us all in straight-jackets?

We all jokingly confess our own internet-addiction sins: how we always find ourselves lost in a black hole of Lolcats the night before a big deadline, how we send off 20 emails before we get out of bed, how we only know what’s going on in our partner’s life by following their Twitter feed. But more and more research is mounting up to suggest that it isn’t a joke at all, and that our internet dependences actually might be making us crazy.

Books and articles about how the internet is making us go insane have been circulating for as long as the internet has existed, but there’s (once again) been an upsurge in commentary. This time, it’s Tony Dokoupil in Newsweek sparking debate about the increasing body of research indicating that the internet might be altering the structures of our brains, making us lose important cognitive skills, particularly those related to concentration and deep thought. An extract:

Susan Greenfield, writing in a Science article in 2009, reviewed over 40 studies on the effects of various types of media on intelligence and learning ability. She concluded that our growing use of the Internet and other screen-based technologies has led to “widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills,” but a weakening of our capacity for “deep processing,” that underpins “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination and reflection.” In an address to the British House of Lords, Greenfield went even further: “As a a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilized, characterized by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity.”

The problem seems to be that our brains evolved to be distractable, and that the internet gives our brains more opportunities to be distracted than ever before. We get a little hit of dopamine every time we check a ping and become addicted to these short-term rewards, even though they distract us from our long-term tasks and goals. Neurologist Peter Whybrow said that “the computer is like electronic cocaine”.

We fool ourselves into believing that we’re more productive because we’re effectively multitasking, when in fact University of Stanford research shows that we are actually incapable of multitasking (when we think were multitasking, we’re actually just switching our attention really quickly between several things), that “multitasking” makes us perform much more poorly at every single cognitive test they’ve run, and that we actually get worse at “multitasking” the more we try to do it.

And that’s just about our attention spans. Research has also demonstrated that online-obsessive behaviour does some pretty peculiar things to our emotions, too. A recent study shows that we actually fall in love with our phones (when you look at your phone, your brain lights on an MRI machine exactly as it does when you look at your significant other).

There have been some famous cases of full online breakdowns, such as the public meltdown of Jason Russell, the creator of the “Kony 2012″ video. Russell’s wife blames his breakdown on the massive online response that the Kony video garnered, which led Russell to develop “reactive psychosis”. Dokoupil notes that during the eight days preceeding Russell’s breakdown, he barely slept and spent every waking hour updating social media feeds (he’d previously been an occassional social media user). These posts became increasingly bizarre and arbitrary, creating a picture of a man who experienced instant fame, suddenly became the object of the praise and scorn of millions of strangers, and couldn’t process it.

This is an extreme case, but many of us addicted to social media in some small way. We’re all living in a virtual Big Brother house, trying to make sure that we’re Instagraming how awesome our lives are. We might just be looking at a few likes or a retweet here and there, but we’re still becoming dependent on online validation. We’re constantly anxious to check those pings on our phone (even feeling “phantom vibrations”) because of that validation.

It’s a cycle that’s making many of us stressed out and disconnected from what’s actually happening around us.

But whilst the pessimists paint the picture of us all becoming dumb, lonely, anxious ADD kids, there’s another side to all of this. There are studies that claim that certain kinds of online-related behaviour is actually good for our brains. For instance, a number of reports have been published which provide evidence supporting the claim that video gaming increases the speed and accuracy at which we can make decisions and process stimuli.

It might also be that some of the cognitive tests that are being administered test for increasingly irrelevant skills in the modern world. As the optimists say: who cares whether you can remember facts off the top of your head, when there’s Google? Surely knowing how to search effectively, scan through reams of data quickly and extract the key information is the more important skill, now?

But the fact is, losing our memory cuts us off from essential parts of our mind. If we don’t remember facts, it becomes impossible to find new connections between things that we have learned — a crucial basis of creativity. Without memory, we are reliant on the hyperlinks that other people have make for us, rather than being able to construct new links of our own.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. The internet gives us access to more information and more quality media than we’ve ever had, which is a wonderful thing, but it’s precisely this that gives rise to the stressed-out distractedness we see in so many people these days. They’re two sides of the same coin. That leaves us with the onus of finding ways to control our own urges.

Perhaps the internet is like fast food. It’s fine in controlled quantities, but humans are wired not to notice when we’ve had enough. Can we imagine a future where legislation aims to help us exercise self-control? Where, just as we have calorie counters on McDonald’s menus, we had “addictiveness counters” on web pages (“Warning. Pinterest will exceed your recommended daily allowance for messing around on the internet. Are you sure you wish to proceed?”)? Where there was a “checking your cellphone” area right next to the smoking section in the restaurant?

On a more serious note, there have been a number of thoughtful people who recommend ways to control your own online addiction and reprioritise the really important things in your life, some calling themselves advocates of the “Slow Tech” movement. Joe Kraus in this brilliant 15 minute video recommends some small practical steps, like taking a weekly media holiday. Apps like InstapaperFlipboard and Evernote Clearly allow us to read web articles without the distracting clutter of links and adverts that surround them.

Switching off the internet and running away to live in a cave in the mountains isn’t an option for most of us. So we all have to find our own ways to balance the need to read every article on the internet with the need to live a conscious, contemplative life. Doing so is quickly becoming something more than an overhyped technophobic rant, it’s becoming a serious question of mental health.

This was a long article, so congratulations for reading to the end of it without getting distracted and…

The author confesses that while writing this article, she read 6 articles about the new TV show Girls, watched 3 unrelated YouTube videos, added four new pins to her Pinterest board and updated her Twitter status three times.



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