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Are we becoming Internet addicts?

By Mal Fletcher - posted Friday, 11 January 2013

'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 ( ).

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.

One product of our growing engagement with the mobile internet is what psychologists have labelled 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.

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 both multi-tasked and visual.

Linked to this attention deficit problem 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!)

Being constantly switched 'on' – as many of us are while our smartphones or tablets are in the room – also robs us of essential downtime for the brain. Research continues to show that the brain needs reflection time. Our minds need space to make sense of outside stimuli and add what we learn into long-term memory, where we can build upon it.

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 suggests that a by-product of the digital experience is rising obesity among children, because of the sedentary lifestyle it encourages.

An increasing reliance on high-tech carries with it a growing need for high-touch; for self-restraint and a commitment to 'de-gadgetising' areas of our lives. In the end, each of us must decide whether or not we want to live in a Laschian world of digital media addiction.

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About the Author

Mal Fletcher is a media social futurist and commentator, keynote speaker, author, business leadership consultant and broadcaster currently based in London. He holds joint Australian and British citizenship.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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