No, the web is not driving us mad

Oh Newsweek, what have you done. The cover story in the latest edition is an embarrasing look at non-research that certainly doesn’t suggest that the internet is causing “extreme forms of mental illness”.

The article is a litany of scientific stereotypes and exaggeration:

The current incarnation of the Internet—portable, social, accelerated, and all-pervasive—may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic.

This is an amazing list of mental illnesses supposedly caused by the internet but really Newsweek? Psychosis? A condition ranked by the World Health Organisation as the third most disabling health condition there is and one that is only beaten in its ability to disable by total limb paralysis and dementia and that comes ahead of leg paralysis and blindness.

We’re talking schizophrenia and severe bipolar disorder here. The mention of psychosis even makes the front page, of one of the most respected news magazines in the world, so this must be pretty striking evidence.

So striking, in fact, that it would probably turn psychiatric research on its head. We have studied the environmental risk factors for psychosis for decades and nothing has suggested that the internet or anything like it would raise the risk of psychosis. This must be amazing new scientific evidence.

So what is the evidence to back up Newsweek’s front page splash: a blog post, a quote and a single case study.

The rest of the article is full of similar howlers.

But the research is now making it clear that the Internet is not “just” another delivery system. It is creating a whole new mental environment, a digital state of nature where the human mind becomes a spinning instrument panel, and few people will survive unscathed.

“This is an issue as important and unprecedented as climate change,” says Susan Greenfield, a pharmacology professor at Oxford Univer…

Oh Christ.

A 1998 Carnegie Mellon study found that Web use over a two-year period was linked to blue moods, loneliness, and the loss of real-world friends. But the subjects all lived in Pittsburgh, critics sneered.

They didn’t sneer. They looked at the follow-up study, done on the same people, by the same research team, that found that “A 3-year follow-up of 208 of these respondents found that negative effects dissipated”.

As I’ve mentioned before, it is only possible to report on the first of these findings without the second if you’ve not read the research or are aiming for a particular angle. Why? Because if you type ‘internet paradox’, the name of the original study, into Google, the name of the follow-up study – The Internet Paradox Revisited – comes up as the second link.

If you’d read any of the actual literature on the topic, you’d know about the follow-up study because they are two of the most important and some of the few longitudinal studies in the field.

The article also manages the usual neuroscience misunderstandings. The internet ‘rewires the brain’ – which I should hope it does, as every experience ‘rewires the brain’ and if your brain ever stops re-wiring you’ll be dead. Dopamine is described as a reward, which is like mistaking your bank statement for the money.

There are some scattered studies mentioned here and there but without any sort of critical appraisal. Methodological problems with internet addiction studies? No mention. The fact that the whole concept of internet addiction is a category error? Not a whisper. The fact that prevalence has been estimated to vary between 1% and 66% of internet users. Nada

Sadly, these sorts of distorted media portrayals have a genuine impact on the public’s attitudes and beliefs about mental illness.

But perhaps the biggest problem with the article is that it doesn’t include any critical voices. It’s mainly people who have a book to sell or an axe to grind.

The internet will apparently make you psychotic if you only listen to the three people who think so. Or Newsweek, that is.

Link to ‘Is the Web Driving Us Mad?’

25 thoughts on “No, the web is not driving us mad”

  1. The internet is nothing short of a crime against our own humanity, perpetrated on future generations…. [Hits SEND]

  2. You lost me when you referred to Newsweek as one of the most respected news magazines in the world. That might have been true in 1985.

  3. I have to wonder, did people have similar concerns about books (the written word) when humans first began to write? I can’t even imagine how much that re-wires the brain. (googles difference in literate brain and illiterate brain neuro-networks). I am personally fascinated with how technology is reshaping the way users think and see the world, but I guess I’m young and still less pessimistic.

    1. In her book Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf describes how Socrates was very opposed to written language, which he thought would impair people’s ability to remember etc. And he was right! This book is v. interesting on the topic: Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and Literacy. London and New York: Routledge.
      Also, there’s plenty of evidence that reading ‘rewires the brain’ including some nice studies by Stan Dehaene.
      Does it mean that reading is a bad thing? Of course not.
      It’s also worth Googling ‘Our movie made children’ to see how the advent of film caused a storm of concern in the 1930s, especially regarding the effects on children.

      1. Amen…everyone should read Fr. Walter J. Ong, the high priest of literacy studies. Literacy causes a neurological shift in every individual who acquires it and it can only be learned in dissociation from the tribe, from nature and from one’s own bodily processes. Literacy is an inherently dissociative process in which sight comes to dominate all other sensory inter-connectedness. It also revolutionized society: democritization of knowledge via Gutenberg’s printing of the Bible (forbidden by the ruling elite of the day, the Catholic Church) & the German Peasants’ Revolt. The new individual & societal worlds of post-literacy are causing equally seismic paradigm shifts, computer literacy is an even more bodily dissociative process than was literacy, so we absolutely must develop new ways of mindful usage of it.

  4. Gee, I hope we have enough sane mental health professionals to diagnose all these newly psychotic people in ten years! That would be, what…..about 90 percent of Americans who use the Internet every single day? That should make for some interesting plane rides.

    This is why I don’t eat while I’m reading media science pieces. It nauseates me.

    George Will has been loudly denying climate change on Newsweek’s behalf for five years running, and now suddenly it exists again? What the hell?

  5. Thanks, Vaughan! This is a great take down of a lamentable piece of sciency fear mongering and moral panic.

    The Baronness Susan Greenfield is a serial offender — she must be on every hack science writers speed dial for getting absolutely over-heated, sky-is-falling rhetoric about the dangers of videogames, the internets, Facebook, Twitter, or horseless carriages. We’ve written her technophobia up at Neuroanthropology years ago, but she’s as dependable as a bubble economy.

    Great post.

  6. I agree with Robert. Newsweek is even a step below Time in its attention-grabbing tactics and questionable rigor. And yet they are still important, so I’m glad to see you debunk their silliness.

  7. I’m sorry, buut this article jumped out at me. Recently I thought I was losing my mind, and funnily enough the doc tried to put me on an anti-pychotic (which I refused).

    What caused my condition…. a host of beliefs that the world was about to end, controlled by Satan, controlled by aliens, that I was in a matrix, that I was A.I created by an advanced race, that we were all under an advanced mind control by defecting Nazi.s from WWII.

    Where did I get all this…. the internet. At first it was a ‘truther’ type hobby, but it slowly got a lot worse the deeper I thought I was ‘researching’.

    I had panic attacks, would walk for hours in middle of night up hills miles away, was terrified the wolrld was about to turn into zombies.

    All insane (to me anywat… now). I was drawn to this stuff and trulky believed everybit, and I see it in mnay others.

    Please don’t ASSUME the internet is NOT a source of driving people to madness, when it is for a lot. The amount of vast differing views, all with their own ‘excellent’ research makes it all very alarming.

    Look at the New Age sites, David Icke forums, Galactic Federations, Blogs on reptilians/grey, satanic sites, religious arguments on YT.

    All much more data than a human was EVER given freedom too.

    Please be careful debunking this, especially as most of your work is solid.

    Thanks for reading.

    1. Harry,

      if you read all this wierd stuff and believed it to the point that it “made” you ill, does this not lead you to ask question your state of mind at the time that you read it?

      Most people would take a somewhat critical approach to what they read, particularly on the internet; the fact that something is online (or even in print, considering some of the books I’ve read) does not make it true.

      I tend to find it a good idea to presume that anything “unusual” is at least mistaken, and then wait to convinced otherwise.

    2. The problem for you is not the Internet, it is what you chose to take away from contradictory information. Though we as humans are often taught to think and divide things into dualisms, that doesn\’t necessarily make it so: truth is found in the gray more than the black or white. The Internet is that vast grayness, a perfect chaos from which we may better make a solid structure of thought. The only way to navigate this sea of entropy? Critical thinking.

      Critical thinking is a much-needed but rarely-obtained skill that wading through information requires, regardless of the information. You must determine the good sources from the bad, the crap from the facts, and in doing so, allow yourself to better back up your own personal convictions. In my experience, the truther community-at-large lacks critical thinking skills: while many have them and use them to the best of their ability, there are those who take what they see and run with it, regardless of the truth in that situation. They miss out on this because they lack critical thinking.

      But even if you do all this stuff, or even if you don\’t, you don\’t go mad from it. The Internet does not induce psychosis or any other mental \”disability,\” if you prefer the misnomer, not if it already wasn\’t there. While critical thinking is a wonderful skill to have while you navigate the World Wide Web, it is not necessary for Facebook, for Twitter, or for YouTube, for that matter. Connectivity has nothing to do with critical thinking or any social disorder, it is the basest of human needs beyond our organic necessities. And the Internet, while it is many things, is connectivity in its purest form, free from the restraints of physical reality and social norms.

    3. Well put, and touching in your transparency. Good wishes for keeping on with balanced approaches to life & the information age!

  8. The social and physical environments in which we live are full of ideas and situations that have the potential to trigger incredibly complex mental health issues. The internet is a medium of communication and computers are machines, it is the way in which people interact with them that can prove to be healthy/unhealthy, productive/unproductive, or relaxing/stressful.

    I think an important take away from this might be that as a culture (of internet users?) we need to find better ways of teaching critical thinking and self discipline.

  9. I have an old archive of emails between myself and a woman who lived an ocean away

    in these emails we both lost track of who’s thoughts were who’s – i mean that when you are reading something intensely personal written by someone who is being intensely personal, the boundaries of self are confused

    and more to the point perhaps is that you can read far more into something than perhaps was intended

    when two people are caught in this “reality” is lost

    blurred, confused

    like a “psychotic” episode where you have no clear idea of what “truth” is – the feeling of being totally unsure of what reality is

    and then you start to get paranoid

    and then you start get get scared

    and then, as your world is falling apart and everyone you know thinks you’re crazy

    you are

    it takes months or years to recover

    and if you were unlucky enough to run into a shrink or the “authorities” you’re likely also to end up on anti-psychotics – and i have a good understanding of where that can lead

    is that not the same thing as psychosis?

    or does everyone have to appear suddenly in front of you, mad, in the worst of it, so that you can fill them full of haloperidol?

    knowing that you are clever enough to recognize schizophrenia

    you hero


  10. Folks don’t understand the notion that one variable may simply accompany another without either of them being causal. In other words, I may have a mental illness such as psychosis AND I like to spend my time on the internet, or – I like to spend my time on the internet AND I have blue eyes. Neither psychosis nor blue eyes cause me to spent my time on the internet – although if I were schizophrenic I might find it less stressful to spend my time on the internet than spending it with irrational non-psychotic people like those who claim that spending a lot of time on the internet causes psychosis!

    1. yes you are right – some people do not understand

      many years ago when i was a real hot-shot straight A undergrad in computer science – smartest of the students at my uni and held in awe by many – i worked also for a start-up that had employed a top line programmer from overseas – he was like a god.

      He used to tell me about “panic attacks” and i assumed there was something wrong with him as no such thing could possibly happen to normal people.

      That was then – i’ve learned since then what it is to suffer an attack of panic.

      Now i have true understanding of that subject.

      A lot of people think schizophrenia is a disease of the brain when there is little evidence to support that even though nobody would deny that someone suffering from the psychoses and paranoia is obviously suffering.

      We all assume that psychotics have a disease that is a lifetime affliction and consequently we treat them that way and we fill them full of incredibly damaging drugs that actually make such people worse.

      What if psychosis is a natural, 100% normal way for people to deal with certain life situations?

      Maybe some people more readily succumb to such life situations.

      It’s not the internet itself that “causes” psychosis. It’s also not the individual who is already psychotic.

      It’s that certain natural behaviours of humans (eg “falling in love”, going through divorce…) that are naturally totally intense may, when carried out over the medium of writing, almost instantaneous writing, be so much more intense that the culmination may be too much for some people to handle – and so may end up flipping out.

      I’ve seen people become quite psychotic when under enormous stress.

      I’ve experienced myself – and mine was all wrapped up with the use of email 20 years ago when the net was in its infancy.

      Back then after years of reading psych books i came to the conclusion that such use of the net could indeed lead to psychosis and i was not alone in that view – it was not uncommon for others who had had such experiences to end up in therapy and such cases were reported in the press.

      It’s not the net but it is psychosis brought on while using the net, intensified by the medium.

      Ignorance can lead people to do one of two things: you can either rubbish what you hear or you can look for the grain of truth

      it’s the truly bright person that does the latter

      most of us are the fools that do the former


  11. The latest example of a magazine resorting to front-cover trolling to get attention.

    Back in the Age of Paper, all a magazine had to do was print good articles and people would read them.

    But nowadays, the internet does that for free and even if a magazine does publish a good piece, someone will summarize it on their blog and people will read that rather than buy a whole magazine for one article.

    The solution seems to be to write bad articles and put them on the front cover, then reap the free publicity from all the critics.

    It won’t work though, because blogs can also do that, better than magazines can.

  12. I love this, it encapsulates all the crude oversimplifications and truths evenly mixed to confuse the most season advocate and naysayer all in one full swoop….which I think was purposefully done. The Intenet is but humanity’s mind on full display: deal with it. It’s the best entertainment going.

  13. Great post. As a specialist Internet Psychologist I am regularly interviewed by the media about the so-called “dangers” of the web. Frequently I find myself countering the ill-informed speculation of Baroness Greenfield. But she is not alone. I was interviewed for an article a while back which was headlined “Facebook causes cancer” (I kid you not…!). But that was quickly followed by an article which said “Facebook leads to syphilis”…! (No, I’m not making this up.)

    The history of the introduction of new technologies shows that there is always fear and backlash. The Gartner Hype Cycle calls this the “trough of disillusionment”. The Newsweek article is merely an indication that this is where we are in terms of the development of the Internet. Hold on tight, we’re going to rock around the bottom of this trough for a while, but look forward a few years and we’ll reach the “plateau of productivity” after we have been up the “slope of enlightenment”.

    What this all means is that before too long, the naysayers will be consigned to the “don’t bother contacting” list by journalists.

  14. Reminds me of the fellow who read the dictionary to save time, because all the other books were in there. I think it was either Groucho Marx or Hawkeye Pierce. Probably both.

    Newsweek used to be good, now it’s god-awful. Even that hack George Will quit.

  15. It may be an exaggeration to say that the Internet is making people crazy but that doesn’t mean it could not be a factor in the general craziness of out time. I don’t think it’s healthy that so much of society has moved on-line and is only accessible through a computer. We are seeing young people becoming alienated from ordinary social life, to the extent that they are exhibiting autism-like disconnection from society. In fact, I have for long wondered if social media could be behind the fad of diagnosing (and self-diagnosing) “high-functioning autism.” Genuinely autistic individuals do exist, of course, but I suspect that many people are falsely diagnosed as mildly autistic because they are so immersed in Internet culture and from such an early age that they missed out on normal socialization.

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