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Heavy personal computer usage as a leisure activity has long been associated with solitude and depression. The ‘computer geek’ stereotype however has since been eroded by the unstoppable intrusion of the internet into our daily lives in the realms of both work and play. So ingrained is internet usage and cyberculture into the fabric of modern life that anyone who doesn’t regularly log on is in fact more likely to be subject to exclusion.
Social networking sites look to reverse the geeky, insular nature of computers, gadgets and the internet, opening them up as conduits for social interaction and a conversation with friends. What happens then when people begin to prioritise online interaction over face-to-face or ‘real life’ sociability? Is there such a thing as internet addiction? If so what affect does it have on our behaviour and mental state?
Nowadays, the internet is a relative necessity, millions of people use it to carry out routine daily activities such as paying bills, doing the grocery shopping and sending emails. In this sense, the internet is merely a technological extension of our lives, but what happens when it infiltrates our attentions to the extent where it begins to interfere with our offline lives? Experts believe the internet has a darker side.
A recent study carried out by The University of Leeds appears to have established a link between internet usage and depression. The study of 1,319 subjects aged between 16 and 51 discovered that 1.2% were what they described as ‘internet addicts’. This group were more likely to use the internet for porn, gambling and interacting with online communities, and had a depression score that was five times higher than average.
Dr Catriona Morrison who was leading the study confirmed that the link between excessive internet usage and depression was clear, bit conceded that ‘we don’t know which comes first – are depressed people drawn to the internet or does the internet cause depression?’.
In qualitative studies such as this one, causation is always difficult to prove. Dr Vaughan Bell, a expert in Psychiatry from King’s College London highlights the fact that any addiction is likely to be the result of some kind emotional disorder such as depression, and in light of this, the internet is no different from an addiction to say television, food, alcohol or shopping.
It has in fact been suggested that that internet, specifically social networks, are beneficial to one’s overall social life since they can augment and diversify existing online relationships as well as creating new ones.
Problems come however when these online relationships begin to replace ‘real’ offline bonds. As Sophie Corlett of Mind, a mental health charity puts it ‘Although excessive internet use can't be said to cause mental health problems, if a web addict is substituting meaningful friendships and socialising with virtual contact on the internet, this might have an adverse affect on their mental wellbeing.’
As with most things in life, the key is moderation. Social networking is now a well established part of most people’s lives and doesn’t look like a trend that is going to go away any time soon. A moderate amount of online interaction can serve to deepen and enrich relationships, but it is important to keep to reigns on the amount of time you spend online, ensuring it doesn’t develop into an addiction.
Having said that, the rapid and consistent development of social media means that being ‘online’ doesn’t necessarily mean being confined to one’s bedroom. Geo-location and mobile technology services like Foursquare and Facebook Places are looking to shore up the bond between on and offline activities by rewarding users with badges, awards and vouchers for exploring physical spaces with friends.
How do you manage your on and offline relationships? Do you find yourself prioritising one or the other?