Are We Slaves to our Electronic Devices?
As the leaves fall from the trees and the temperatures drop, I am beginning my Christmas shopping. I have turned toward the Hottest Toys for Christmas 2011. However, upon reviewing, I am shocked. Gone are the days of tops and blocks, dolls and carriages. In fact, nearly all the toys listed are electronic one way or another. The closest coming to an old fashioned toy would be the Harry Potter Hogwarts Lego board game. Hardly the old fashioned by any means. In today’s world our children seem to be more connected online than in person. In truth, even we adults are spending more time online than ever before. How many days are started by checking email with a hot cup of coffee? How many afternoons are spent on Facebook? How many minutes add to hours, which in turn add to days simply updating our Twitter accounts?
The Virtual Hermit
As there are only so many hours in a day, this would lead me to believe logically we are spending less and less time in face-to-face conversation and instead are opting for online posts and comments. At what cost is this change? How are people affected by this virtual hermitage? Studies are conflicting. However, in 1998 the Carnegie Mellon University found that high Internet usage was directly linked to fewer friends, heightened levels of stress and higher levels of depression. Furthermore, many more studies in the 1990’s offered supporting documentation. It was then that the term “Internet Addict” was coined. Symptoms of this addiction include compulsive email usage, utilizing online services daily, interacting socially less, losing track of time and relationships being compromised. Interestingly, this occurred long before the social networking sites took over our communities. One can nearly laugh at this criterion. In today’s world, nearly all of us have fallen victim to this addiction. Despite the derision, it is undeniable that this addiction is real. Just like addicts of gambling or drugs, Internet Addicts often display secretive behavior, lying and display compromised relationships both personally and professionally because of their Internet usage. Although it may be difficult for one to immediately see the forest through the tree, it is undeniably there. Internet addicts suffer from true addiction and their loved ones inherently suffer as well.
Critics claim that the Internet is nothing more than a communication device. That much is true. However, the communication online differs greatly from communication in person. While indeed the Internet does allow connecting to others worldwide, it does so under compromised circumstances. When we interact in person we are offered words to ponder, but also tone and inflection to consider, attitude and body language to reflect on, facial expression to inform us. Communicating in person offers us a deeper, richer experience. We as humans are social beings. We need to be social, one way or another. Researchers have found that interacting in person is inherently therapeutic. No one can claim that of the Internet. On the contrary, communication online is deficient, uninspiring and lifeless. Critics claim that the Internet is the perfect avenue to maintain social relationships. However, other researchers have discovered that such virtual relationships are shallow and insincere at best. Truthfully, what do they offer us? In short, it would seem that we have given away the evocative in-person interactions in order to have more and more artificial online connections. By doing so, we are settling for something more convenient but definitely less than. Why?
The Internet offers control in the deepest sense. We are able to control if we want to communicate, who we interact with, when we choose to, how to do so…etc. While yes, it would appear that such virtual interaction is superficial at best, we are still choosing it simply because we can control it. It is easy to see the appeal of such control. However, the negative costs cannot be ignored. These virtual relationships are lacking and deficient at best. Furthermore, many individuals preoccupied with controlling social situations actually have social anxiety. For such people the appeal of the Internet is tangible. However, using the Internet as your crutch is not a healthy way to grow beyond the anxiety. It in fact does nothing more than reinforce old patterns and stunt growth. Lastly, another supporting factor is simple laziness. It is easy to get online. Computers are everywhere. The Internet is massive. Thanks to social networking sites and online gaming, the possibilities are endless. Hours that used to be spent at dinner parties or theatres are now spent surfing the web, playing Farmville, or tracking eBay. It is a real pity to see how entire communities of people are no longer interacting in person are instead are willfully choosing to stare at screen.
Kids Turning Geek Gurus?
As a parent, I cannot help but worry over the sheer volume of electronic devices my children are subject to on a daily basis. Regarding the Internet specifically, we have had to place rules and new rules upon usage, appropriate sites, appropriate avenues of communication, appropriate behavior, and most obvious time limits. Our kids are spending so many hours that in turn become days and months of their lives online and only online that many clinicians are worried social skills are simply not developing. Sadly, many children who demonstrate heavy online usage are already suffering from lack of confidence and lack of ease in social settings. The Internet offers them refuge. Interacting online is easy. It is also superficial. This refuge comes at a significant cost. These kids are unlikely to ever develop fully, let alone gain much needed self worth and confidence and will instead be led down a road of loneliness and seclusion.
Claims of Diversity
While it is clear the negative aspects of the Internet are plentiful. There is a very real positive attribute- diversity. At no other time in history has the human population routinely interacted with others from such different social groups. Religious, geographical, racial, ethnic, cultural, age, socio-economic status- the Internet is blind to such boundaries. While this is exciting in and of itself, it in turn allows us a people to be not only exposed to others who differ from ourselves but also to be aided by their experiences and to offer our own experiences to them as well. In such diverse situations, one cannot help but gain a new perspective.
How to Cope With Our Internet Obsession?
As a parent, I am forced to address our nation’s Internet obsession. The Internet is everywhere, a part of everything. It can be difficult for parents to take on this issue, either for themselves or for their children. It is important to remember not to get fanatical. There is no need to donate the laptop to Goodwill immediately or begin snipping wires. Instead, address it one step at a time:
- Limit computer time. It is best to decide how much time to allow each day and be held accountable to it.
- List all the things that were enjoyable before the Internet. This will give you something else to do and may re-spark an old passion.
- Create a behavioral treatment plan. Decide exactly how much time you are going to allow for each online activity. When the timer is done, shut off the computer.
- Initiate an online-free day. Try this each week with your family. Get creative! This will allow for computer free time but also family bonding!
- Become more active. Join a team. Find a local group that interests you. Learn a hobby. Our communities have a wealth of things to do if only we choose to utilize them!
- Finally, note where you are emotionally when you go online. You may see a pattern of you using the Internet as a way of masking your depression or enabling your anxiety. If so, seek help.
The Internet is neither wholly bad nor good. It is simply a tool. We are the ones in control. Such tools are dangerous but are also very useful and even more valuable.