'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 the UK government's media regulator, British people, normally renowned as a fairly restrained bunch, are now among the most active social networkers. This escalating rate of mobile internet engagement is common across the developed world.
In Australia, more people than ever share everything from photos, to gossip and personal secrets online. Australians are now responsible for around 12 million Facebook accounts and only slightly fewer YouTube accounts. Meanwhile, two million Aussies use Twitter and LinkedIn, the social site for professionals (www.socialmedianews.com.au ).
Worldwide, the rate of social media engagement is set to continue its upswing indefinitely, on the back of record smartphone sales and the roll-out of new 4G services in some regions.
New technologies expected this year include wearable phones – especially the possible launch of the iWatch. Meanwhile, mobile augmented reality will become widely available via Google Glass and Vuzix.
It won't be long before bendable phones are on the market, too. Screens will be made from Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) and 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. 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 our 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.
In the face of recessionary pressures and rapid change, some of us find great comfort and solace by retreating into the cybersphere. 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.
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