Think the Internet isn’t all that Dangerous? Think Again.

In the lead-up to the Internet Asifa, Rav Aharon Feldman wrote that the problems associated with the Internet do not begin and end with inappropriate content, and thus filters alone are not a solution. Rather, he explained, the Internet affects the way we think, our ability to focus, and the way that we interact.

As far as I know, HaRav Feldman has not even used e-mail. So how does he know something that Newsweek has now documented after exhaustive studies? “New research says the Internet can make us lonely and depressed — and may even create more extreme forms of mental illness.”

The answer, truthfully, is that this isn’t even a revelation of Rav Feldman’s gifted mind. Only the blind could question Rav Feldman’s statement in this regard… but of course, even a cursory examination of “Orthodox” blogs will remind you that the world is filled with blind pundits. Gedolei Torah have warned us about the Internet for over a decade, and those who wish to mock the Gedolim have demonstrated their own foolishness (not to use any of a number of less charitable adjectives) in their haste to attack. As I put it in 2000, when Israeli Gedolim first warned against the harm of unfiltered home Internet, “secular Israeli ferocity pitted itself against plain American clumsiness to see who could provide the furthest approximation from intelligent coverage.”

In 2000, though, Internet use was not so constant and so intrusive (and there were no blogs on which to find ferocity and clumsiness so neatly packaged together). The idea that someone might get up in the middle of the night to use the restroom, and then check his or her email before going back to sleep, was considered funny. [Today, Newsweek asserts that “more than a third of users get online before getting out of bed.”] So twelve years ago, it wasn’t as obvious as today that the Internet can do even more insidious — and just as damaging — harm.

Newsweek begins its coverage with the anecdote of a young man who created a documentary of the crimes of an African warlord, and publicized it via the Internet in an attempt to stop those crimes. But when the video got 70 million views in less than a week, the sudden exposure to digital “kudos and criticisms” overwhelmed the young producer. After a week of decreasingly-coherent Twitter updates, he “went to the corner of a busy intersection near his home in San Diego, where he repeatedly slapped the concrete with both palms and ranted about the devil.” The “sudden transition from relative anonymity to worldwide attention” drove him insane. Oh, and just for good measure, someone filmed his meltdown and stuck it up on YouTube.

The full article is certainly worth reading, but essentially, those questioning the need to warn people about the Internet (e.g. many who mocked the Asifa) deserve all of the same respect and consideration as those who question the need to warn people about using crack. Some quotes:

The current incarnation of the Internet — portable, social, accelerated, and all-pervasive — may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic.

Research is now making it clear that the Internet is not “just” another delivery system… The Internet “leads to behavior that people are conscious is not in their best interest and does leave them anxious and does make them act compulsively,” says Nicholas Carr, whose book The Shallows, about the Web’s effect on cognition, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It “fosters our obsessions, dependence, and stress reactions,” adds Larry Rosen, a California psychologist who has researched the Net’s effect for decades. It “encourages — and even promotes — insanity.”

China, Taiwan, and Korea… [now treat] problematic Web use as a grave national health crisis. In those countries, where tens of millions of people (and as much as 30 percent of teens) are considered Internet-addicted, mostly to gaming, virtual reality, and social media, the story is sensational front-page news. One young couple neglected its infant to death while nourishing a virtual baby online. A young man fatally bludgeoned his mother for suggesting he log off (and then used her credit card to rack up more hours). At least 10 ultra-Web users, serviced by one-click noodle delivery, have died of blood clots from sitting too long.

Then there was the University of Maryland’s 2010 “Unplugged” experiment that asked 200 undergrads to forgo all Web and mobile technologies for a day and to keep a diary of their feelings. “I clearly am addicted and the dependency is sickening,” reported one student in the study. “Media is my drug,” wrote another. At least two other schools haven’t even been able to get such an experiment off the ground for lack of participants. “Most college students are not just unwilling, but functionally unable, to be without their media links to the world,” the University of Maryland concluded.

Recently it became possible to watch this kind of Web use rewire the brain… The brains of Internet addicts, it turns out, look like the brains of drug and alcohol addicts.

A team of researchers at Tel Aviv University… published what they believe are the first documented cases of “Internet-related psychosis.” The qualities of online communication are capable of generating “true psychotic phenomena,” the authors conclude, before putting the medical community on warning. “The spiraling use of the Internet and its potential involvement in psychopathology are new consequences of our times.”

Interestingly, the article persists in claiming that “blaming the television for kids these days” is “silly and naive” — despite the overwhelming evidence of the effects of passive viewing on developing brains. Will they never learn?

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