Govindraj EthirajFounder, Ping Digital Broadcast, IndiaSpend The Internet Is Destroying Our Lives Too
Imagine visiting your doctor one day complaining of a headache. And your doctor says, just as you sit down, "Well, you could have anything from a hangover to a brain tumour."
Quite likely your reaction would be: "My God, are you sure, can you tell me more about the brain tumour?"
This might not happen with your real doctor but it is precisely what happens when you do an internet search using the word "headache" or a similar ailment.
A search will throw up a selection of options that typically includes several worse case scenarios, which are there exactly because someone like you clicked on them earlier.
This click in turn impacts frequency rankings, constantly moving the worst-case results to the top.
And because the algorithm has no clue about your age, gender, general health or medical history, it has little or no context.
For instance, only 0.002 per cent of the population may get a brain tumour and this sample will most probably not be in your age category.
But don't expect this insight from internet search.
There is a term for all of this: it's cyberchondria. It is among the many deadly ailments we have acquired as we engage more and more with the internet and depend on it to answer questions which in many ways it has no business to.
This deepening engagement is impacting our lives in many ways, changing us as human beings, affecting our interactions with other people, manipulating our behaviour and in extreme cases, even taking our lives.
This is the Cyber Effect, the title of a book by Mary Aiken, a "cyberpsychologist" who has specialised in the transformational impact of the internet on our daily lives. And most of her findings, unfortunately, are not pretty.
Why are we talking about this now?
Because the number of people with access to the internet has gone from 6.5 per cent of the world's population to 43 per cent. There are 3.2 billion people now accessing the internet in some form and the number is rising steadily. Soon, it will be 5 billion.
An increasing part of this access is happening via mobile phones, more so in countries like India. Mobile phones once only carried voice calls, now they carry data too.
Americans now check their phones 8 billion times a day. Most of us check our phones 200 times a day and even this number escalates towards the evening.
Do you keep "hearing" your phone ringing in the distance ?
If so, you are not alone. Excessive addiction to phones does this to you. And the time you spend with phones will increase 65 per cent every two years.
The number of minutes you spend checking your phone and scrolling through social media posts is not insignificant, argues Aiken.
"In the home, these minutes are not spent doing other things - reading a book to a child, playing with a toddler on the floor, chatting with your family at the dinner table, with your partner before bed. When you are checking your phone or spending time surfing websites, you are effectively in a different environment. You have gone somewhere else. You are not present in real-world terms."
And we don't notice time passing by. Next time you log on, says Aiken, turn off the clock display. Thanks to a time-distortion effect, you won't be able to estimate the passage of time, which you can do much better in the real world.
And as we slip away into this new and different world, our behaviour too begin to change.
It's called the disinhibition effect, a condition where our behaviour online is far more emboldened than real life. In effect, we become different people.
It's more frightening than it sounds; these are the trolls, perverts and child molestors who lurk in the anonymity of the virtual web with the distinct possibility of becoming a physical threat.
And worse, all this content, you see, including the porn to which your children might be exposed, only represents 1-4 per cent of the content on the entire internet. There is a Deep Web that represents 96-99 per cent of content, which includes US government databases, medical libraries and even e-commerce exchanges selling illegal substances.
Where are the biggest threat points?
Excessive exposure can have a profound and negative impact on young children. It is almost critical, from my reading of the book, that children below two years should not be exposed to any screens.
Beyond two years and up to almost adult age (whichever way you define it) utmost care is important. For instance, do you have parental controls on desktops and phones at home? And what about other homes your children visit?
More importantly, as a young parent, do you combine cuddling or feeding a child with looking and surfing on a mobile phone?
Aiken says this is dangerous for this is the time you should maintain eye contact with your newborns who are in their most formative years rather than the mobile phone screen.
As insights on the intersection of technology and human behaviour go this is the best book I've read this year, and perhaps the most frightening too, particularly when you are a parent to young children.
The examples Aiken uses are sometimes extreme. Not every child is driven to suicide because of lewd comments circulating on the internet, but the possibility of mental damage is very much there.
Aiken asks a very poignant question at the end, "How different would the internet be if it was designed by women?"
Think about it the next time you pick up your mobile phone.
THE CYBER EFFECT
A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behaviour Changes Online
Author: Mary Aiken
This article originally appeared in the Business Standard