Is being online bad for us?
Is being online bad for us?

If you're under twenty-five, your parents will have often told you that you spend too much time on your phone and that it's bad for you. Don't worry: they were told the same thing by their parents about watching television. And their parents were told the same thing by their parents (your great-grandparents) about watching American films in the cinema. And so on and so on, back down the ages: every generation believes that what was there when it was growing up is both normal and indispensable, and that anything that was invented after they were twenty-five is dangerous and worrying.

But are they maybe right this time?

Online technology is more pervasive and universal than any previous technology. However addicted boomers were to television, they couldn't carry a telly round in their pockets, to watch on the bus, in bed, in the bath, in the toilet. Their parents may have swooned at James Stewart and Rita Hayworth more than was healthy, but there was only one place in town they could do it, and only at certain times. What's more, they didn't need a television or a cinema ticket to communicate with friends, family or workmates, travel on public transport, find their way around town, find out stuff, buy stuff, or perform almost any other everyday task.

Online life is a fact of life. But is it good or bad for us?

The answer is: a bit of both. Below are some of the advantages and disadvantages of online life.

The internet gives us enormous freedom. We can access an almost infinite amount of information, carry out a huge range of tasks, and communicate with a vast number of people, very quickly, easily and cheaply. When televisions first became available to the majority of households, people who had grown up without them often commented that it was like having the world come into their living rooms. A smart phone brings the world not just into your living room but into your pocket. You can carry around with you a device which gives you the whole world, in your hand, with access to a far greater range of information than a television can ever give you.

On the other hand, online technology can create a great sense of dependence. Ever lost your phone? Remember how scary that is? Some people try giving up social media for Lent; they tend to find it a lot harder than going without chocolate. Beyond the practicalities of needing to take an expensive device with you wherever you go, constantly beeping and farting in your pocket and tugging at your sleeve like a demanding toddler, there is also the danger of addiction. Social media sites, online games and apps are all set up to hook you in and keep you there. They feed you just enough 'likes', just enough in-game rewards, to send the dopamine racing through your brain and make you want more. Of course, ever since the first farmers put their shiniest apples at the front of the stall, people selling stuff to other people have gone to a lot of trouble to make it attractive, but this is on a different scale, at a different level of sophistication, and is much harder to detect while it's being done to you.

This dependence on technology can give those who control the technology a lot of power over users. For commercial companies, this can mean locking you into their systems with every new upgrade, taking away any meaningful freedom of choice. It also has the potential to be used by tyrannical governments as a means of control. The Chinese government runs a system of so-called 'social credit', whereby citizens' behaviour is monitored via their online activity. If you don't do what the government likes, you can be blacklisted, and may be banned from certain kinds of travel, schools or jobs.

The internet is a source of information. Previous generations had to wait for newspapers to appear or TV or radio news bulletins to come on to find out what was happening in the world. Now, you can get moment to moment updates on news and sport whenever you want. In the olden days, if you wanted to know what your friends were up to, you had to go to some trouble to organise a social event, or, if they didn't live nearby, wait for a letter from them. If you were desperate, you could phone them up, though you'd need to wait till your parents were out to avoid them overhearing the gossip / complaining about the phone bill. Now, you can contact all your friends instantly at any time of the day and night, and read about and watch what they're up to anywhere in the world.

The internet is a source of disinformation. You might have had to wait a while for your news pre-internet, but you could be reasonably sure it was accurate, if you went to the right place. Now, facts are crowded out by lies, some of them dangerous and divisive. Millions of people in the United States believe that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, that Covid is a fraud, and that the Covid vaccine is bad for them, in large part because these lies have gone viral online. The first lie is potentially fatal for American democracy; the second and third lies have been literally fatal for thousands of people. People have always spread, and believed, lies, but now lies can be spread on a different scale and at a different speed. What's more, they're much harder to call out as lies. This is partly because people with access to sophisticated technology can use bots and fake accounts to make their lies look plausible, and partly because there is just so much information, it is very hard to distinguish between what is true and what is false.

On the level of personal relationships, it might look like we can share more with friends and family, but is the life we see online really their life? Who hasn't retaken or edited a photo to make themselves look better? Who doesn't select the moments they share very carefully to give the best impression of the best time they are having? How often do people admit to being bored or lonely or depressed on Instagram?

The internet creates connection; it brings people together. Think back to the Covid lockdowns. Businesses could go on functioning without anyone having to leave their homes. Children could go on being educated, connecting directly with their teachers. Friends and families could stay in touch, providing invaluable moral and emotional support at a time of crisis. Even in normal times, the ping or buzz of a message from a friend or loved one landing on your phone can bring comfort, joy, or just a good laugh. The internet means the people you love are always near you, always contactable. No matter where you are in the world, you need never be lonely.

Social media can bring people together who would otherwise never have found each other, maybe for a shared cause or project to make the world a better place, mustering people for a demonstration or a protest, or alternatively for more intimate and personal relationships. Almost everyone I know under the age of thirty-five met their partner online. Think of all the children in the world who would never have existed without dating apps.

The internet brings division. Social media apps deliberately direct us to posts and sites which reinforce our existing views, often in more and more extreme ways, so that we end up living in tribes where everyone we interact with reflects back our own prejudices, and we are convinced that people who disagree with us are either evil or stupid or both. Social media also makes people more aggressive. Users hiding behind anonymous accounts can send abusive messages (often racist, homophobic or misogynistic in nature), or even death threats, to people they don't agree with. Twitter pile-ons and cancel campaigns can make people fearful of engaging in public debate.

Interacting with friends online becomes a competitive sport, pitting friends against each other, as everyone strives to make everyone else think they have the most perfect body, the largest number of friends, the best nights out. From FOMO (fear of missing out) to eating disorders and mental health issues, the consequences of this divisive competition can be immensely damaging.

The internet saves time. Your parents and grandparents had to work hard at seeking out the things they wanted to buy, going to the right part of town, walking from shop to shop, making their own comparisons; now you can type in what you want on your phone, instantly see a full selection, and have ordered what you need in minutes or even seconds. A song, a film, a taxi, a meal are all just a few swipes and clicks away. We have so much more time to enjoy the good things of life than previous generations.

The internet wastes time. Having a phone is like having a small child. It demands constant attention. There is always something to do: check your messages; update your social media feed; make sure you haven't missed the latest update on sport, news or celebrity gossip. And the more attention you give it, the more it demands. All that time staring at a screen stops you interacting with real people in real life. It prevents you from rejoicing at the late afternoon sunlight breaking through autumn leaves; it makes you bump into lamp posts. How long, nowadays, can you concentrate on one task? When was the last time you finished writing an essay in one go? When did you last spend all afternoon reading a book? Have you ever spent a whole evening talking (and listening) to a friend without either of you checking your phones?

Like many things in life, whether the internet is good or bad depends on what you do with it.

Motions that go with this topic

1. This house would make social media companies legally responsible for the content of their sites.
2. This house would ban political advertising from social media.
3. This house would not allow children under 16 / 14 / 11 access to social media / the internet.
4. This house would ban mobile phones in schools.
5. This house would make it illegal for internet companies to retain customers' data.
6. This house would ban anonymous social media accounts.
7. This house believes that the internet is good for democracy.
8. This house would delete social media.
9. This house would introduce a compulsory offline day once a week.
10. This house believes that the internet is bad for our mental health.
11. This house believes that the internet has done more harm than good.