you're reading...

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

Written by Gianluca Quaglio,

Surprised shocked group of people men women texting on smart phone
© AdobeStock/Pathdoc

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.

About Scientific Foresight (STOA)

The Scientific Foresight Unit (STOA) carries out interdisciplinary research and provides strategic advice in the field of science and technology options assessment and scientific foresight. It undertakes in-depth studies and organises workshops on developments in these fields, and it hosts the European Science-Media Hub (ESMH), a platform to promote networking, training and knowledge sharing between the EP, the scientific community and the media. All this work is carried out under the guidance of the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA), composed of 27 MEPs nominated by 11 EP Committees. The STOA Panel forms an integral part of the structure of the EP.


5 thoughts on “How the internet can harm us, and what can we do about it?

  1. The radiations that come out from the wifi is also poor for health. It destroys the immune system of the person that causes many problems.


    Posted by Albion Claude | September 18, 2019, 13:58
  2. im a black rattle snake


    Posted by black | April 22, 2019, 02:05


  1. Pingback: How consumers use technology and its impact on our lives – Gems in the Net - August 2, 2020

  2. Pingback: How to prevent negative effects of internet | internet addiction in kids - June 2, 2020

  3. Pingback: Issues with the Internet – Sanjay Varma - March 7, 2020

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Download the EPRS App

EPRS App on Google Play
EPRS App on App Store
What Europe Does For You
EU Legislation in Progress
Topical Digests
EPRS Podcasts

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 3,505 other followers

RSS Link to Scientific Foresight (STOA)

Disclaimer and Copyright statement

The content of all documents (and articles) contained in this blog is the sole responsibility of the author and any opinions expressed therein do not necessarily represent the official position of the European Parliament. It is addressed to the Members and staff of the EP for their parliamentary work. Reproduction and translation for non-commercial purposes are authorised, provided the source is acknowledged and the European Parliament is given prior notice and sent a copy.

For a comprehensive description of our cookie and data protection policies, please visit Terms and Conditions page.

Copyright © European Union, 2014-2019. All rights reserved.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: