The madness of net scare stories

Here’s my latest BBC Future column, exploring the latest incarnation of the tech vs. sanity debate – and how it threatens sensible discussion around getting the most out of technology.

“Is the web driving us mad?” asked Newsweek magazine, in a cover story this Juy that fuelled some frantic global debate on technology and mental health. “Our digitized minds can scan like those of drug addicts,” it noted, in terms likely to have most concerned parents rushing to rip plug sockets out of their walls. “Normal people are breaking down in sad and seemingly new ways,” it added.

As sites like Mindhacks (co-written by BBC Future columnist Tom Staffordhave already argued in response, the evidence behind such claims is rather more tenuous than the article might have you believe. One of the pieces of research cited, for example, linking web use to “blue moods, loneliness, and the loss of real-world friends”, was later accompanied by a follow-up study involving 208 of the original study’s respondents (which the article doesn’t mention) that showed these negative effects dissipated with time.

Similarly – as has been noted on BBC Future, among other places – the notion that the internet is uniquely perilous in its ability to “rewire our brains” is not nearly as alarming as its sounds, not least because pretty much every other sustained mental activity we undertake also has a “rewiring” effect.

More generally, though, there’s a profound problem encoded in questions like “is the web driving us mad?”. For beneath a sporadic veneer of neuroscience and behavioural research, they represent an attempt to conjure a definitive moral perspective on an entire communications medium. Which is a little like asking someone “are books good or bad?”, and then basing the entire future of your society (should you be burning these things or giving them out free in schools?) on a definitive response to something that can never meaningfully be answered in binary terms.

It’s certainly clear, today, that the use of digital technologies is intimately bound up with some patterns of behaviour that make some people feel profoundly alone or unhappy. What should be equally clear, though, is that simply blaming an innate, toxic technological quality for this offers no-one any realistic hope of improvement or understanding – especially in a world in which using the internet is a habit that involves over two billion of us on a regular basis.

What we urgently need to do, rather, is to look at the nature and the quality of the experiences being created by different people’s use of new technologies – and then to ask what it might mean to create happier, richer human experiences through these tools.

There is, it’s worth noting, no such thing as a neutral tool. All our technologies push us towards certain kinds of behaviour, and push us away from others. If I want to kill someone, a gun is more useful than a pen. If I want to communicate with a thousand people, an iPad is better than a paper notepad – although it may become considerably less useful if I spend more than 24 hours away from a power source.

Similarly, there’s no such thing as a neutral way of using our tools. And when it comes to digital devices, fetishising the technologies themselves often means losing sight of something far more important: the patterns of behaviour in which they are implicated. Simply telling a lonely or depressed person to stop using their computer is not helpful, any more than telling them to pull themselves together is likely to effect an immediate cure.

What might help, though, is an examination of how and why the experiences they’re having online may be implicated in their unhappiness, and of what it might mean to develop different, better patterns, both digitally and in person. It is, after all, perhaps the greatest gift of digital media that all its screens are two-way surfaces: places that can bring us towards a deeper engagement with the world and each other, as well as cut us off.

If there is an elephant in this room, it’s not brain-rot, but the implacable complexity and scale of the information systems in which our lives are increasingly entwined – and from within which, for many people, opting out or pushing back can seem a wishful dream rather than a real possibility. Even here, however, a rigorous focus on human experience can be emancipatory – and feed into those increasingly important larger debates surrounding the politics and ethics of technology and its regulation.

Above all, it’s vital that we don’t let moral panic prevent us from bringing the best of our past thinking to bear on the present, or cut us off from analysing our online experiences in the light of sensible notions of what it means to be happy, sane and treat each other well. There’s nothing more likely to make us irrational and ineffective in the face of human misery than the notion that we’re facing some kind of existential, mind-warping threat – and nothing more likely to make words of caution and advice fall on deaf ears among those not afflicted by such concerns.

To this end, it seems increasingly important that schools and national curricula establish a place in children’s lives from an early age for the discussion of what it means to use digital media and devices well. This isn’t about preaching, fear-mongering or offering by-numbers solutions. Rather, it means acknowledging the uncertainties and fears that accompany many online experiences, and permitting people to share these feelings – and access good quality information and advice – without leaping towards labels like “addiction” or pathological diagnoses.

A few years ago, I wrote about an educational game aimed at helping British teenagers enjoy better and safer online experiences, especially in the fraught environments of social media. Parents’ and teachers’ concerns for these teens largely revolved around headline-grabbing issues like cyber-stalking, sexual assault and addiction. For teens themselves, however, it soon became clear that small discontents, frictions and uncertainties loomed far larger: online bullying and mockery, a lack of expertise around privacy settings that they didn’t feel able to share with anyone, an uneasy sense of being forced to “keep up” and perform social roles without knowing how to switch off.

Having the space to express, share and explore such fears and uncertainties is an important part of any education system hoping to teach digital literacy, alongside the provision of information and community resources to support these enquiries. It’s also likely to provide a saner and more rigorous basis for regulatory policies, privacy and criminal laws, and emerging notions of decent digital citizenship.

All of which is far from being a panacea for modern ills – but which is certainly a better place to start from than with the kind of scaremongering that denies our capacities to learn and overcome, to share our discontents, and to help each other live a little better in the present.

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