Think the Internet isn’t all that Dangerous? Think Again.

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In the lead-up to the Internet Asifa, Rav Aharon Feldman wrote that the problems associated with the Internet do not begin and end with inappropriate content, and thus filters alone are not a solution. Rather, he explained, the Internet affects the way we think, our ability to focus, and the way that we interact.

As far as I know, HaRav Feldman has not even used e-mail. So how does he know something that Newsweek has now documented after exhaustive studies? “New research says the Internet can make us lonely and depressed — and may even create more extreme forms of mental illness.”

The answer, truthfully, is that this isn’t even a revelation of Rav Feldman’s gifted mind. Only the blind could question Rav Feldman’s statement in this regard… but of course, even a cursory examination of “Orthodox” blogs will remind you that the world is filled with blind pundits. Gedolei Torah have warned us about the Internet for over a decade, and those who wish to mock the Gedolim have demonstrated their own foolishness (not to use any of a number of less charitable adjectives) in their haste to attack. As I put it in 2000, when Israeli Gedolim first warned against the harm of unfiltered home Internet, “secular Israeli ferocity pitted itself against plain American clumsiness to see who could provide the furthest approximation from intelligent coverage.”

In 2000, though, Internet use was not so constant and so intrusive (and there were no blogs on which to find ferocity and clumsiness so neatly packaged together). The idea that someone might get up in the middle of the night to use the restroom, and then check his or her email before going back to sleep, was considered funny. [Today, Newsweek asserts that “more than a third of users get online before getting out of bed.”] So twelve years ago, it wasn’t as obvious as today that the Internet can do even more insidious — and just as damaging — harm.

Newsweek begins its coverage with the anecdote of a young man who created a documentary of the crimes of an African warlord, and publicized it via the Internet in an attempt to stop those crimes. But when the video got 70 million views in less than a week, the sudden exposure to digital “kudos and criticisms” overwhelmed the young producer. After a week of decreasingly-coherent Twitter updates, he “went to the corner of a busy intersection near his home in San Diego, where he repeatedly slapped the concrete with both palms and ranted about the devil.” The “sudden transition from relative anonymity to worldwide attention” drove him insane. Oh, and just for good measure, someone filmed his meltdown and stuck it up on YouTube.

The full article is certainly worth reading, but essentially, those questioning the need to warn people about the Internet (e.g. many who mocked the Asifa) deserve all of the same respect and consideration as those who question the need to warn people about using crack. Some quotes:

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.

Research is now making it clear that the Internet is not “just” another delivery system… The Internet “leads to behavior that people are conscious is not in their best interest and does leave them anxious and does make them act compulsively,” says Nicholas Carr, whose book The Shallows, about the Web’s effect on cognition, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It “fosters our obsessions, dependence, and stress reactions,” adds Larry Rosen, a California psychologist who has researched the Net’s effect for decades. It “encourages — and even promotes — insanity.”

China, Taiwan, and Korea… [now treat] problematic Web use as a grave national health crisis. In those countries, where tens of millions of people (and as much as 30 percent of teens) are considered Internet-addicted, mostly to gaming, virtual reality, and social media, the story is sensational front-page news. One young couple neglected its infant to death while nourishing a virtual baby online. A young man fatally bludgeoned his mother for suggesting he log off (and then used her credit card to rack up more hours). At least 10 ultra-Web users, serviced by one-click noodle delivery, have died of blood clots from sitting too long.

Then there was the University of Maryland’s 2010 “Unplugged” experiment that asked 200 undergrads to forgo all Web and mobile technologies for a day and to keep a diary of their feelings. “I clearly am addicted and the dependency is sickening,” reported one student in the study. “Media is my drug,” wrote another. At least two other schools haven’t even been able to get such an experiment off the ground for lack of participants. “Most college students are not just unwilling, but functionally unable, to be without their media links to the world,” the University of Maryland concluded.

Recently it became possible to watch this kind of Web use rewire the brain… The brains of Internet addicts, it turns out, look like the brains of drug and alcohol addicts.

A team of researchers at Tel Aviv University… published what they believe are the first documented cases of “Internet-related psychosis.” The qualities of online communication are capable of generating “true psychotic phenomena,” the authors conclude, before putting the medical community on warning. “The spiraling use of the Internet and its potential involvement in psychopathology are new consequences of our times.”

Interestingly, the article persists in claiming that “blaming the television for kids these days” is “silly and naive” — despite the overwhelming evidence of the effects of passive viewing on developing brains. Will they never learn?

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16 Responses

  1. Allan Katz says:

    As an Israeli my point is that despite that our spirituality revolves around our tongues and hence Shemiras Halashon ( which is mainly learnd by women) the dangers of the internet, cell phones and other technologies gets more publicity than the dangers of our tongues. Thanks for sharing the shemiras halashon educational campaign. I am happy to see a focus on chinuch than control.

    [I still believe you are confusing what is making the news this week vs. what is the ongoing communal priority in both quantity and quality. Neither now nor at any time in the future do I imagine 700 sites showing videos about the Internet multiple times every year for public viewing, and tens of thousands of people studying sefarim devoted to the subject. — YM]

  2. Yaakov Menken says:

    Some responses:

    Allan Katz hasn’t been looking, if he claims that he doesn’t “see the same asifa’s and discussion about our tongues as when it comes to the internet.” In fact, he’s about 100 years late, because it was the greatest Halachic authority of that era who is known by the name of his largest work on Shemiras HaLashon. This year on 9 Av there will be video presentations run by a foundation that bears his name on the importance of seeing the good in others and not speaking gossip. Those videos will show in 700 cities. So perhaps he’s right after all that the asifas and discussion aren’t the same, but not in the way that he claims — those on our tongues are far better established and far more broad.

    Second point — I didn’t say anything unique to the observant Jewish community. I certainly agree that taking a 25 hour break each week helps stave off addiction to texting, the Internet, etc., and yet the phenomenon of “half Shabbos” speaks to the inability of all too many teenagers to withstand the temptation.

    Third point — any first set of studies is going to have its naysayers and require further research. Nonetheless, I don’t think there’s any question that it is the Time article, rather than the one in Newsweek, which is more clearly agenda-driven and dismissive of the alternative.

    The Time article takes a quote from one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, Professor Baroness Susan Greenfield, head of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, out of context, as if she truly had no other evidence to support her theory than “I point to the increase in autism and I point to Internet use. That’s all.” Of course, that’s not nearly all of what she said to The Guardian — in context, she explained that she was basing her claims of a linkage between the Internet and autism on “several scientific studies… about the impact technology may be having on young minds.”

    The current writer dismisses the same problem that Time itself identified as very real three years ago. She also claims that the vastly different modern governments of China, Taiwan and Korea have joined together in a hunt for something no more real than Salem’s witches. The fact that Taiwan and China join together on practically nothing else escapes her attention.

    Meanwhile, back in the real world, a technology CEO is now offering $7500 to employees who will go on a truly unplugged vacation trip. The idea came to him when he “was struck by a photo of himself riding a camel among the pyramids, but he was texting.” Those who have taken him up on his offer said that it was difficult to detach themselves from their electronic gadgetry — and extremely beneficial in retrospect.

    And another study has just emerged, this one from Sweden, adding to the body of evidence that constant Internet use appears to contribute to stress, sleeping disorders and depression. And because this study followed the same 4100 subjects for a full year, it is much harder to dismiss it as having failed to establish causation rather than mere correlation.

    No one would say that the research is complete and no further study is needed, but the first studies on smoking and lung cancer were similarly dismissed as hysterical concerns about a non-issue. We need smart and reasonable habits for ourselves, much less for our children, for whom constant texting is far more natural. I am sure that “aap” would concur that there is quite a gap between someone saying that every Internet user goes insane, vs. looking for a rational understanding of the risks and appropriate controls.

    When it comes to confronting modern challenges and problems, ridiculing the concerns and methods of our Gedolim is certainly nothing new. Blogs just make it much more widespread and public. The leitzanim seem to have a point, until further research emerges to demonstrate that the Gedolim and their approaches were right all along. To take but one example, people ridiculed Reb Moshe for ruling that current smokers could continue while no one else should start, even after it was demonstrated that the American yeshiva world, following his psak, had produced a generational decline in smokers unparalleled in any other community, anywhere, bar none.

  3. Observer says:

    No reasonable person will deny the the internet presents problems. And, knowledgeable people will all agree that technical devices such as filters are only a small part of the solution. So far, so good. However, the article that this post refers to does not come close to proving the point it tries to make. What it DOES do, especially combined with this post, is to highlight the fact that the ability to intelligently critique what one reads – and the discipline to do so when presented with something that feeds existing biases – is crucial.

    I’m not going to go into all of the issues with this article. But I’d like to make a few points.

    Firstly, one of the people the article relies on, Susan Greenfield has become something of a shem dovor (and a minor internet meme) for making foolish – and possibly dangerous – connections. For instance, she has claimed that internet use must cause autism. She sums up her position this way “I point to the increase in autism and I point to internet use. That’s all. ” (This is a direct quote.) The only problem with this thesis is that it’s actually not possible. But, that’s what a lot of the “evidence” brought by her, and by the article in general comes down to.

    I don’t know what Nicholas Carr’s credentials in mental health are. However, He has an ax to grind about technology, and his prior writings on related subjects (ie the impact of information technology on the business have been profoundly incorrect.) Of course, that does not make him wrong on this matter. But given his track record “Nicholas Carr says” without some proof of why what he says is actually true, is not what I would consider persuasive.

    If you give a look at the “unplugged” study (the snippet you quoted), you will see that it simply does not support the article’s conclusions. Now, given the methodology of the study, it’s quite possible that the study results are invalid anyway. But, if you accept that there was something real there, the results are actually far more interesting and complex. And, in fact, based on what the researchers observed, I think it’s fair to say that if these were frum kids in a frum community, they possibly would not have reacted that way, and that even non-frum kids in a frum community might not have reacted that way had they chosen Shabbos to “unplug”. Why? Because one of the major issues that seems to have been a recurring theme was that they suddenly had less information than everyone else. Remember, this was not a campus-wide experiment. This was a group of 200 students out of a campus population of several thousand – and this group could not avoid being presented with evidence of their fellow student’s being still plugged in. So, not only did they have less information than everyone else, they were markedly DIFFERENT than everyone else on campus.

    I’ll just finish off with their (mis)use of the Carnegie Mellon study. I remember reading about the study not too long after it was published, and there were some real concerns about it. No one “sneered” about the participants being from Pittsburgh. The issues were far more substantive, such as the question of how to tell whether the apparent results (and I say apparent because the correlation was far from overwhelming) were just correlation with no causation, or there was actually a relationship – and if there was which was truly the dependent variable (ie did the internet usage cause the problems, or did the problems cause the usage.) What is really interesting here, though, is that the article takes the first study as conclusive, the second study – done by the same researchers as an intentional follow-up to the first one (a concept known as a longitudinal study) is dismissed out of hand with out even the most cursory look at the study or how it reached its conclusions.

    The bottom line is that if there is evidence of a causal link between internet and IT use and mental illness, it’s NOT in this article.

  4. Ari says:

    I’m not taking sides but Time’s Healthland did a pretty serious dismembering of the Newsweek piece. http://healthland.time.com/2012/07/13/does-the-internet-make-everyone-or-just-journalists-crazy/

  5. cvmay says:

    There is ZERO debate regarding Internet usage.

    Whether it is the time involved, the passive activity, inappropriate social network, nudity & porn or over indulgence in the society of emptiness. Add the religious factor to the equation…and the problems multiply. Everyone is well aware of the dangers and its possible ramifications. YES, YES, so what is there to do? Banning its use and quoting ‘fire and brimstone’ poskumim from sages do not, will not & should not work. An educational awareness & foundation of how to/when to/where to and why to usage may alleviate this problem.

  6. Allan Katz says:

    There is one more dangerous tool than the internet and cell phones and that is our brains and tongue. I don’t see the same asifa’s and discussion about our tongues as when it comes to the internet. The reason is – we can control people by telling what they can buy or use , but chinuch to how we speak and relate to others is a different story

    The problem with internet and cell phones is they are seen as a social medium rather than a learning an educational medium

  7. Just looking says:

    Just to belabor the point, I actually enjoyed an email exchange with Rav Feldman some twenty years ago when commenting on his web site: JerusalemLetter.co.il…

  8. Just Saying says:

    “Then there was the University of Maryland’s 2010 “Unplugged” experiment that asked 200 undergrads to forgo all Web and mobile technologies for a day and to keep a diary of their feelings. “I clearly am addicted and the dependency is sickening,”

    I assume none of these kids were frum or otherwise kept shabbos and were used to going 25 hours or more on a regular basis without the internt… if all frum yidden are immune to the koychos of the internet …why the asifa.

  9. aap says:

    Nearly everyone (I’m rounding a bit) uses the Internet, but I don’t think nearly everyone is insane. There must be a more reasonable approach which could provide more constructive recommendations, rather than just declaring that the Internet causes insanity.

  10. Bob Miller says:

    Are there known cases of addiction to cross-currents.com ?

  11. Dovid says:

    Another thing:

    It is precisely because the internet can be so dangerous that I have internet in the home and let my kids use it.

    Our connection is filtered, the computer is in a central location in the home, it’s locked when nobody’s using it, and each kid is allowed 45 minutes of computer time a day. This way, my children are trained in moderate, controlled use of the internet. I also make a point of having them see me learn Torah on the internet, and often when they have a question to which I don’t know the answer, I bring them to the computer and we look up the answer together. In this way, they are taught that the computer can be a very useful and beneficial tool, when used properly. I think this is much better chinuch than keeping them shielded from the internet and pretending that they’ll never be exposed to its harmful content and never get addicted. If we didn’t have internet in the home, they’d go somewhere else to get internet outside our watchful eye, and eventually they’ll grow up and use internet without the proper training. it is precisely because we’re so concerned about these dangers that we make a point of training our kids how to use the internet the right way.

  12. Dovid says:

    Those who criticized the internet Asifa (and yes, there were many who criticized the Asifa without “mocking” it) did not deny the problems of the internet. They just felt that the way the Asifa went about handling those problems was the wrong approach.

    Repudiating the Asifa’s critics by saying they’re oblivious to, or in denial about, the internet’s problems is a classic case of setting up a strawman.

  13. Whoa nelly says:

    Natan,

    Yes he does use email. Thanks for the clarification to R Menken’s wondering of R Feldman shlit”a uses email. However that was not the point of the article. And does not change the message.

  14. thinking outloud says:

    I’m not convinced by the unplugged study.
    I know of many people who are heavily plugged into the internet, both on their computer and via mobile, yet they don’t have meltdowns when they go offline for 25+ hours every week for shabbos. (the unfortunate growing concept of “half shabbos” notwithstanding.)

  15. CJ Srullowitz says:

    Rabbi Menken,

    You seem to have proved the point that many have been making: the problem with the internet is not one of kind but one of degree. No intelligent person is unaware of the internet’s dangers. The key word is: Moderation.

  16. Natan Slifkin says:

    Actually, Rav Feldman does use email – I have corresponding with him via email on several occasions over the last decade.