The Internet is an amazing resource that manages to inform, entertain, and inspire millions of people every day. Despite the wonders of instantaneous global communication, however, it's all too easy getting distracted online in a way that is counter-productive and potentially damaging. As we become more dependent on the Internet for our work and social lives, it's important to be aware of the dangers of Internet addiction and put safety measures in place to ensure a healthy and productive online life.
From social networking through to telecommuting and education, the Internet has a profound effect on how we live our lives. There are currently three and a half billion Internet users in the world, representing roughly 40 percent of the global population. These numbers are staggering on their own, and even more impressive when you see how fast they're growing. The number of global Internet users increased more than tenfold between 1999 and 2013, reaching its first billion in 2005, its second billion in 2010, and its third billion in 2014. We're also spending more time online than ever before, as every aspect of modern life becomes digitised and inter-connected.
The Internet's omnipresence and lack of boundaries encourage us to lose track of time, as people compulsively seek desirable yet unpredictable pay-offs related to entertainment and social communication. In fact, the reward structures of social media and other online networks are very similar to those associated with psychoactive substances and other behavioural addictions, with professional counselling sometimes needed to break the bonds of Internet addiction. According to Tom Stafford, a cognitive scientist at the University of Sheffield, while "the Internet is not addictive in the same way as pharmacological substances are ... it's compulsive; it's compelling; it's distracting."
Regular Internet use can create a fight or flight response in humans, with people known to breath shallowly or hold their breath temporarily when checking email and social media accounts. This can have a number of negative health effects as the body prepares to face potential threats and anticipate surprises. According to
Stafford, information overload and a lack of boundaries online also has a negative cumulative effect on users, as our concentration and willpower become flexed to the point of breaking. In order to avoid digital exhaustion, it's important to set boundaries for yourself and take regular breaks to put your online life into perspective.
Internet addiction has been linked with a number of impulse-control problems related to virtual relationships, online shopping, online gambling, and computer gaming among others. While these things can be positive in small doses, it's important to set priorities and time limitations. For example, if you're easily distracted online, it may make sense to reward yourself with social media or web surfing after a set amount of time being productive. As mobile technology continues to evolve and envelope our lives, information overload and online compulsions can create significant problems if boundaries are not created or respected. According to Stafford, while "Technology is all about eroding structure ... psychologically, we need more structure, and those things are in tension."
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