The Virtual Happiness Institute studies Internet psychology.
Until now, you may have not been aware that such a field of research existed. But when you think about it, it makes sense. We’re spending an increasing amount of our time down the digital rabbit hole – and wired. So much so, that computer scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil even predicts that by the year 2045, we’ll reach the ‘singularity,’ where biology merges with technology to produce a brain that’s always online.
This represents a radical shift in communication, which in turn beggars the question: what are the psychological consequences of this shift? Depending who you believe, the digital revolution is either a good or a bad thing. But there’s convincing evidence that it’s largely good.
Let’s begin with the question, “Does the Internet make us happy?” Well, this is what they were saying around the year 2000:
“[The Internet] is an uncontrolled medium where rumormongers, pedophiles, prostitutes, and criminals can go about their business with impunity.”
“The internet is a thing that keeps good husbands away from their families.”
Sound familiar? It should, because the same arguments have been used against other technologies that have entered our lives. TV, radio, books have all been subject to the same criticisms. Even Socrates complained that writing things down was bad for the memory.
There has been a major shift in the quantity and quality of research on internet psychology since the advent of the so-called ‘Web2.0.’
A survey conducted in 2008 took 18.000 respondents from 25 European countries and questioned their lives on aspects like income, health, education and so on. The results showed that “people … connected to the Internet are considerably more satisfied with their lives.”
What researchers tend to agree on these days is that the Internet amplifies what’s worst and what’s best in us all. And more, that it’s an additive technology in our lives that enhances social experiences.
In our research, respondents give typically upbeat responses like:
- Bernadette, who says “The web is my window to the world. It feels so wonderful to be able to get any information any time without even having to leave my home.”
- Or Johan, who says “The Internet is the perfect place to interact with all kinds of people. Both friends, relatives and potential lovers, as new people who I never would have a chance to meet in real life.
But will the Internet keep on making us happy ? Unfortunately, there is a bump in the road. We might be ‘informivores’ as a result of the explosion of information out there – insatiable in our appetite for more – but we’re also overwhelmed with the amount of bits and bytes coming our way.
What will Bernadette say when she can’t find the information she needs because the amount of information has quadrupled in the last 5 years? And the same goes for Johan, who has a classic case of ‘friendship inflation.’ Why would you want to keep up with 400 friends on Facebook, when studies show it’s impossible to have more than 150 true relations? Incidentally, “De-friending” was word of the year in 2009.
That’s why we need you to take care of your digital well-being, and that of your network. Because like TIME magazine’s person of the year in 2006, “You” will be playing a big role in how this story continues to unfold. “You” are the game-changers responsible for our future generation’s ‘digital wellbeing.’
We’re already in a situation where children in classrooms know more than their teachers do about how to navigate the digital space. And yet one thing does separate our generation from that of our children. We may not be ‘digital natives,’ but we do understand the importance of education and moderation.
We’re advocating for a digital media literacy that has the same importance as proper diet education – and that’s our responsibility, together. Internet access is now a birth right – that’s a given. But so is a Big Mac and Coca-cola. If we want to stop our children from becoming ‘infobese,’ then we need to educate and guide them in their online habits.
Don’t let infobesity be the next epidemic, our future Internet happiness depends on you.