Scientific Foresight (STOA) By / February 18, 2019

How the internet can harm us, and what can we do about it?

The internet has received much negative news coverage in recent years.

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Written by Gianluca Quaglio,

The internet has received much negative news coverage in recent years. Articles focus on major privacy scandals and security breaches, the proliferation of fake news, rampant harmful behaviours like cyber-bullying, cyber-theft, revenge porn, the exchange of child porn and internet predation, internet addiction, and the negative effects of the internet on social relations and social cohesion. Nevertheless, some 87 % of European households have internet access at home, and 65 % use mobile devices to access the internet. Europeans aged 16 to 24 years spend 168 minutes per day on mobile internet, dropping to 30 minutes for 55 to 64-year olds. Around 88 % of 15 to 24-year olds use social media, 80 % on a daily basis.

While the social and economic benefits of the internet cannot be denied, some of these developments can severely affect such European values as equality, respect for human rights and democracy. Technology companies are under increasing pressure to mitigate these harmful effects, and politicians and opinion leaders are advocating drastic measures.

The recently published STOA study on ‘Harmful internet use’ covers the damage associated with internet use on individuals’ health, wellbeing and functioning, and the impact on social structures and institutions. While the study does not attempt to cover all possible societal harm relating to the internet, Part I focuses on one specific cause of harm, internet addiction, and Part II covers a range of harmful effects on individuals and society that are associated with internet use. The report concludes with policy options for their prevention and mitigation.

Other studies have already extensively discussed some harmful effects, and these are already subject to a history of policy actions. These include harm to privacy, harm related to cybersecurity and cybercrime, and damage resulting from digital divides. In contrast, this study covers the less-studied but equally important harmful effects that concern individuals’ health, wellbeing and functioning, the quality of social structures and institutions, and equality and social inclusion.

Internet addiction and problematic internet use                             

Internet addiction and problematic internet use prevalence rates vary across studies and countries. The noteworthy discrepancy in prevalence estimates has a number of causes, including the different populations studied, as well as the various diagnostic tools and assessment criteria utilised. With this in mind, it appears that roughly 4 % of European adolescents demonstrate a pathological use of the internet that affects their life and health, while 13 % of adolescents engage in maladaptive behaviour when using the internet. Similar numbers are reported for adults.

Part I of the study focuses on generalised internet addiction, online gaming addiction, and online gambling addiction. Clinical presentations, patient profiling, comorbidities, instruments, interventions, and prognoses are different across these three potential addiction disorders. The study states that the individual, cultural and media-use context significantly contributes to the experience and severity of internet addiction.

The study proposes a set of preventive actions, and evidence to support future policies. It states that offering information, screening tools and campaigns to students in secondary schools and at universities regarding internet-use-related addiction problems can help, especially regarding gaming addiction in adolescent populations. This will require allocating research and resources for schools and their staff, and for families, as well as the establishment of working relationships with health professionals and services.

Harmful social and cultural effects associated with internet use

Part II of the study identifies a number of different harmful social and cultural effects associated with internet use. The evidence points to the occurrence of significant damage to both individuals and society. Some of these harmful effects are described briefly below:

Information overload:Having too much information to be able to adequately understand an issue or make effective decisions. Information overload is associated with loss of control, feelings of being overwhelmed, reduced intellectual performance, and diminished job satisfaction. Studies show that information overload affects up to 20-30% of people.

Damage to social relationships:Extensive internet use, of social media in particular, is correlated with loneliness and social isolation. Intimate relationships can be degraded by internet use, particularly due to viewing online pornography. Malicious online behaviour, particularly cyber-bullying, cyber-stalking and online predation, affects a significant percentage of internet users.

Impaired public/private boundaries: The way in which the internet and smartphones blur the distinction between private and public, and between different spheres of life, including work, home life and leisure, harms the boundaries between people’s public and private lives. Harmful effects that can result from such permeations include loss of quality of life, lack of privacy, decreased safety and security, and harm to social relations – when friends and family members feel they are left behind by new technology.

Harmful effects on cognitive development:Empirical evidence suggests that internet use can have both positive and negative impacts on cognitive development, depending on the person and the circumstances. There is evidence that children’s cognitive development can be damaged by prolonged internet use, including the development of memory skills, attention span, abilities for critical reasoning, language acquisition, reading, and learning abilities. More research is however needed to draw more reliable conclusions.

Damage to communities: Many off-line communities suffer through the partial migration of human activities – shopping, commerce, socialising, leisure activities, professional interactions – to the internet. Online communities sometimes extend off-line communities and sometimes replace them. They are often inadequate replacements, however, as they do not possess some of the valuable or the strongest qualities of off-line communities, and communities may consequently suffer from impoverished communication, incivility, and a lack of trust and commitment.

The study identifies a number of broad policy options for preventing and mitigating these harmful effects. They include, among other things:

  1. promoting technology that better protects social institutions, stimulating or requiring tech companies to introduce products and services that better protect social institutions and internet users;
  2. education about the internet and its consequences;
  3. stronger social services support for internet users: this policy option involves strengthening social services dedicated to internet users to prevent or mitigate harmful effects such as internet addition, antisocial online behaviour or information overload;
  4. incentivising or requiring employers to develop policies that protect workers against harmful effects of work-related internet use, such as information overload and the blurring of lines between public and private life;
  5. establishing governmental units and multi-stakeholder platforms at EU level,to address the problems of the internet’s harmful social and cultural effects.

Problematic use of the internet (PUI) research network

Finally, in relation to internet-caused damage, it is worth mentioning the recent article published by the European Science-Media Hub (ESMH) on the European Problematic Use of Internet (PUI) research network. The project, funded by the European Commission, gathers over 120 psychologists, psychiatrists and neuroscientists, with the objective of reaching a better definition of diagnostic criteria, the role of genetics and personality traits, and the brain-based mechanisms behind internet related disorders.

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