By: Jacob Mattie, Peak Associate
The development of the internet was revolutionary, but don’t let its impact fool you. Internet traffic is routed through an increasingly narrow selection of websites and services and is owned by even fewer companies. Content favours ease of access over depth; it is designed to keep us glued to our screens, which pushes us away from other activities such as hobbies, projects, or studies.
Not considering the streaming and gaming services which account for almost 70% of global internet usage by volume, the internet is largely dominated by three websites: Google, YouTube, and Facebook. These three sites together amass more monthly views than the following 47 most-visited websites combined (including other such giants as Twitter, Instagram, and Wikipedia), and their parent companies rank among the top 20 most profitable companies worldwide.
Clearly, there is some financial clout in internet traffic. As online profit is driven by advertising, it is in the companies’ best interests to put tremendous amounts of resources into designing websites. This is intended to keep visitors as engaged as possible, for as long as possible — which it certainly does.
The problems with this arise from our inherent diversity. People have a huge array of interests, forms of expression, social structures, and other quirks, which require an entire life’s worth of experiences and interactions to satisfy. The catch-all internet experience offered by the largest websites fails to do this. Regardless of the possibilities that the internet contains, these experiences are hardly achievable through a screen.
Internet use is inherently a solitary activity. Even in social situations, such as video calling a friend or posting on message boards, many of the cues that we would otherwise rely on (like eye contact or a shared environment) are lost. Simultaneously, the emphasis on online relationships serves to isolate us from people in the offline world. As we develop and engage further with online communities, it can become more difficult to break out of the habit of internet addiction as our support network.
In order to produce content that draws and maintains as wide an audience as possible, websites focus on a structure that prioritizes ease of access and curates content to mirror what we have liked. This is done instead of exposing us to new ideas. As we’re coerced into spending more and more time browsing and scrolling through the content specifically designed to catch and hold our attention, we lose time for other more enriching activities. As a result, we may find that being addicted to the internet impacts our well-being and quality of life. But by any definition of internet addiction, there is a reported correlation with a host of mental health issues; depression, anxiety, and ADHD are among the more prominent.
The internet is harmful, not for what it is, but for what it takes away from us. We spend so much time captivated by endless scrolling, it keeps us from pursuing other, sometimes more enriching, activities. As we visit our favourite sites, soaking up bits of information, and as we ride the emotional roller coaster of a well-made piece of media, we need to consider them as the metaphorical golden handcuffs which are fantastic in the moment, but leave us with little to keep.