The internet can be dangerous. Internet addiction in China was a crime treatable by electrocution and corporal punishment until last year, when the death of a 15 year old and critical public attitudes led to a ban. Less than a year later, in South Korea, a couple’s three-month old daughter died due to starvation as her parents became increasingly drawn into their own internet addiction. In a cruel and ironic twist, the parents were playing a game that involved raising a virtual child.
Distant and bizarre as these two stories seem, they are not entirely irrelevant; a recent survey by the Leeds University revealed 1.4% of participants were addicted to their use of the internet. Nationally, access to the internet is expanding, and overuse is increasingly a danger. To what extent is it defining our personal lives?
“Yeah, I did a report on this,” says Amy, a 21 year-old Psychology student. “We looked at Facebook profile pictures. If you’re on your own in it, it means you’re independent and have a stronger sense of the self. If you have a photo that’s more group-centric, it means you’re interdependent. Men are more likely to have a picture of themselves, whereas women tend towards group shots.
“It’s interesting how much information about ourselves we readily make available on the internet. I suppose if you take the line of thinking that the study developed too far, those people who have a Japanese cartoon character, or like a dog or something, are androgynous?”
Most people perceive Facebook to be dominated by young people. While they still make up the largest group on the site, there is a rising tide of usage amongst older people. Last year, the fastest growing demographic of new users was the 55+ woman. Behind that came people between 35-54.
With 2.5 billion photos uploaded to the site every month, the site is an increasingly dangerous minefield for family relationships. “My dad thought for a few months after we became Facebook friends that I was gay,” says Robert, a 19-year old PPE student. “He believed me that I wasn’t when my girlfriend visited at Christmas, but the sight of me wearing a dress, stood next to my housemate and holding a bottle of wine … it just wouldn’t happen in his time. It was very awkward; he sees pretty much everything I do at uni.”
It is also increasingly defining our friendships, or at least our perceptions of friendship. Adele, 16, explains. “I became friends with someone in a different group to me at school, but no one knew about it until he posted something on my Facebook. People actually came up to me to ask about it. The fact that I knew him changed their perceptions of me. But it changed the way I acted around him. There was pressure, when there hadn’t been before.”
It seems there’s a pressure to uphold a certain image of yourself to the watching world. “Whenever I go out, I see people taking pictures on the dancefloor, looking at them on their camera and immediately screeching, ‘Profile picture!’”, says Hannah, 20, an English and Drama student. “People definitely take pictures just to put on Facebook – it creates the image that you actually have a life! It’s almost as if you haven’t gone out if you can’t put the proof online the next day.”
But why is this? Why do we feel the need to prove such things to all our acquaintances, most of whom we wouldn’t consider close friends?
“There’s this mentality of ‘broadcasting yourself’,” says Frankie, 19, a student at Southampton. “Some people are worse than others, but it’s made it normal to know everything about everyone. Quite often I’m talking to someone, and they mention something which I’ve already seen on Facebook in a status update or whatever. Do you admit it or pretend not to know? It makes you seem like a bit of a stalker, even though they’ve put that information out there themselves. It’s weird.”
Asking around, most people are more than willing to share any embarrassing Facebook stories. Hannah admits, “I once pulled someone on a night out and he added me on Facebook the next day. I saw he had a girlfriend, which he conveniently hadn’t mentioned at the time! It definitely made things awkward on our next meeting – I think he did it to prove a point. I wouldn’t have known otherwise.”
Adele is concerned by the predominance of information that is accessible to almost anyone. “I removed my boss as a friend because he kept mentioning things he’d seen on my Wall when I was at work, and I found it really uncomfortable. But then he noticed that I’d deleted him, and it made things even worse.
“I’m really worried about privacy now. I do everything in the knowledge that other people will read it, and won’t do anything unless I know other people will respond. I’m so aware that everything is public. It has to be a conscious decision not to tell everyone everything. I don’t think it’s healthy.”
Our access to this new venue is not exactly cheap either. “I’ve got a phone contract I cannot afford. You know … Crackberry.” confesses Stephen, a 19-year old Journalism student. “It cost me about £200 for the phone at the time, and I spend over £35 a month on the bills. If I call abroad, or, somehow end up going over the minutes it can often come in around £40-45 or so. That’s too much, but I feel like I need it. I didn’t before, but since I got a phone that can do Facebook and all that jazz I have no real idea how I’d do without it. I basically live on it.”
Frankie admits to once having sent 72 texts in less than two days. “It’s a bit of a status symbol sometimes – when you see someone on their phone constantly during a lecture when you haven’t had any texts, it’s hard not to feel a bit annoyed. It’s almost unconsciously aspirational, I’d say.”
But there are bigger dangers to our new digital existences than just dented pride; while in years prior, unless two people met or knew a few mutual friends they were unlikely to have heard of each other, the internet very publicly displays our information to the world.
Millie, a Politics and Economics student from London, shares her unease with this relatively new phenomenon: “A creepy story? I was in a lecture once when I noticed some guy, who I didn’t know at all, on a laptop in front of me. He was browsing my Facebook, with a fair attention to it as well. Not a passing viewing either, it was pretty intense stuff. I still have no idea who he was.”
While relatively innocuous in this sense, our ability to connect with people who are, in reality, strangers does have dangers. This month, Peter Chapman was jailed for murder, and his seduction and targeting of his 17-year old victim was done entirely through online social networking. It had allowed him access to a wealth of individuals and the ability to construct an entirely false reality to trick her into meeting him.
Our increasing reliance on the internet comes with risks; while we are relatively unlikely to be stalked and killed, there are still darker sides to a dependence on online interaction. When the University of Leeds carried out their study into internet overuse, they saw that the 1.4% who were addicted were more likely to suffer depression as a result. Stephen agrees: “I suppose it is kind of sad I can’t leave the house without my phone”.
“There’s definitely too much focus on communication nowadays,” says Frankie. “I’m less likely to meet up with someone if I’ve already heard all their news on Facebook, even if I haven’t actually spoken to them. Everyone thinks they keep in contact, but it’s not proper contact. It’s not actually real.”
*Names have been changed.