With this week's Newsweek cover story, we get yet another article telling us how bad all our Internet use is for our mental health. We've seen a lot of Internet scare stories recently, including in the pages of The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. But these types of musings aren't unique to 2012. In 2010 The Awl wondered "Is the Internet Making Us Crazy, or Is it Just Me?" Time also had a 2010 story about obsessive Internetting and depression. In 2008, Nicholas Carr gave us The Atlantic cover story "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?" presenting similar points about the Internet and our brains. And, really, as far back as the Internet existed as a tool for the masses, people have worried about its effect on our mental health. A 1996 Chicago Tribune story by Cornelia Grumman quoted "mental health professionals" who worried about a new addiction they dubbed "webiholism." "I think psychologists are starting to see more cases of this. It's not just a joke anymore because people are having real problems," University of Pittsburgh researcher Kimberly Young told Grumman. That quote that would fit right in with Tony Dokoupil's Newsweek piece. Sixteen years later, we're still Internetting, and the fretting continues, as dramatic as ever: "This is an issue as important and unprecedented as climate change," Dokoupil quotes British scientist (and baroness) Susan Greenfield saying.
The "Internet making us crazy" stories are even more compelling these days, as journalists scarily juxtapose research with anecdotal evidence ofsocial media's failed promises to bring us closer together. "Every ping could be social, sexual, or professional opportunity, and we get a mini-reward, a squirt of dopamine, for answering the bell," writes Dokoupil not after noting research and anecdotes that find we're lonelier than ever. (Closer together, farther apart, the poetic saying goes.) Of course, none of this, including online networking is that new. But today's story has a few minor pegs. "The first good, peer-reviewed research is emerging," says Dokoupil. Plus, the Internet sent Jason Russell, creator of the ultra-viral Kony 2012 campaign into mental breakdown after the Web chewed up and spit out his idea, notes Dokoupil. And, this year, for the first time, Internet Addiction Disorder will appear in the way back pages of the DSM as a part of an appendix for "further study." Now is the time to freak out.
It's not that Dokoupil doesn't present some convincing evidence that the Internet has some deleterious effects on some people's brains. Russell's story is scary. That at least 12 people have died from freak Internet related accidents, such as one South Korean couple whose infant died of neglect while they "reared" a virtual baby online, is cause for concern. Plus the research, including brain scans that found brains that use Internet prove the medium is doing something to our minds.
But, is it wide spread? Or any more alarming than before? Dokoupil uses the following note to ensure us it has gotten to new, unprecedented levels. "Don’t kid yourself: the gap between an 'Internet addict' and John Q. Public is thin to nonexistent. One of the early flags for addiction was spending more than 38 hours a week online. By that definition, we are all addicts now, many of us by Wednesday afternoon, Tuesday if it’s a busy week," he writes. That doesn't sound like a new phenomenon -- in Nicholas Carr's Google story, he talks about all the time he spends online for his writer job. Plus, as Dokoupil points out, a lot of that time is enforced by employers not indicating an addiction, but rather an imprisonment.
Like all trend stories, for every anecdote and piece of research we get scaring us back into the stone age, someone else can report that we do just the opposite. During our newspaper archive search for Internet and mental illness, the early results pulled up articles detailing Internet depression forums that helped the suffering. "Surfers find solace within the Net," reads one 1995 headline from the Calgary Herald. Or, on the research side, just this 2009 study here, for example, tells us this evil Internet machine is helping senior citizens keep their brains sharp. And from the anecdotal end, it employs some people. (Ahem.) And, we don't find all that social networking so lonely. And, this happens every time one of these stories comes out, with the Internet wary duking it out with the Web defenders.
So maybe let's stop with the "making us crazy" trend stories, since, well, it's making us crazy. Understanding the way the technologies we use regularly can impact our emotions and brains especially for that unknown percentage (big? small?) of users who really are addicted is interesting. And good to know. But, stories like this just makes us feel bad about a useful tool we love—and need—to use. The Internet might be making some people crazy sometimes, but its also making life better in other ways.