Can We Gain the Whole World Wide Web without Losing Our Souls?

A few years ago, we learned the people of Sweden were the “best” in the world at using the Internet. At least, that was the claim of a five-year study conducted by the World Wide Web Foundation.

What does it mean to be “best” at using the Internet? It’s an interesting question in light of the warnings from Silicon Valley elites to put down the smartphones and step away from our computers. They worry, as many others (who once were largely dismissed as hopelessly out of touch) have worried for years, that they may have created a monster. Turns out they have discovered for themselves that Internet use demands moderation. Among the dangers they’ve identified are “people’s inability to disengage” and the need to “help them slow down and disconnect.”

Tech professionals aren’t the only ones waking up to the Internet’s destructive powers. In the updated edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), released in 2013, an appendix includes a description of “Internet use disorder,” something the American Psychiatric Association believes warrants specific research. Being included in the definitive reference for mental-health professionals often serves as a precursor to eventual listing as an official diagnosable condition, a move the American Psychological Association appears to have been considering since 1996.

The Web Foundation’s study measured countries according to their Web accessibility and the percentage of the total population, as well as specific groups, using the Internet. It also considered issues of freedom and government interference as well as how broadly the Internet is used for various purposes. It did not include questions about our mental and emotional health, and what’s good for our souls.

Given the consequences we are seeing in U.S. society—which ranked number two, by the way—we might reconsider these measurements. As the tech executives expressed, “the lure of constant stimulation—the pervasive demand of pings, rings and updates—is creating a profound physical craving that can hurt productivity and personal interactions.” In other words, one of the greatest personal productivity tools ever invented is undermining personal productivity. And the most powerful avenue for communication and social connection hurts our social connections.

Why? On the surface, it doesn’t really follow that the Internet should hurt us in the very places it promises to help. Perhaps the answer is in the virtual, staged, and low-risk nature of our interactions online. We engage people and ideas in a space where relational dynamics and consequences are very different from those in the physical world. However friendly we may feel toward our global neighbors, we can’t reach out and touch them. The Internet can introduce us to anyone, but it can’t help us fully know them.

Socially speaking, the World Wide Web is an inauthentic world where people and experiences lose dimension. We have nearly unlimited powers for image control. We have the capacity to carefully plan all our interactions. Every act of communication, even if mundane, is intentional. Lying is easy, “liking” is even easier, and there’s no such thing as body language (unless you count “LOL”). “Listening” is mostly intentional as well: we click to actively choose what to expose ourselves to. Marketing messages are customized, and we have the opportunity to waste time in what feels like anonymity and virtually no accountability. Anyone looking exclusively online for genuine human relationship will find plenty of promise and very little fulfillment.

If the Internet doesn’t deliver on authentic connection, what keeps us coming back? Are we lured by the possibility of true connection, or have we become content to substitute participation and opportunities for self-expression? Perhaps we’re afraid of being left out or missing out on something we should know. Either way, most of online “connection” pales in comparison to the kind of connection we can find with people in the same room. Ironically, though, in our quest for connection in a virtual world, we often ignore the people we can see and touch.

I saw a clear illustration of this a few years ago at my daughter’s school volleyball game. Sitting along the gym wall was a row of middle school girls who had stayed after school to watch the game. The entire time, they sat facing the court and next to their friends, eyes glued to the small screens on their phones, fingers furiously texting. They could have engaged with the people around them and the action in front of them. Instead, they were hopelessly devoted to something they could have done anywhere.

Part of using the Internet well has to be learning how to not use it. Also critical is using it to truly connect and to do good work rather than simply plug into the nonstop flow of information—most of which we don’t need and won’t retain.

In reality, perhaps the ones who are “best” at using the Internet are those who are able to gain access to the whole world without losing their souls. Those who are able to maintain their connections to flesh-and-blood reality, spontaneity, and authenticity in a world where image control is easy and paramount.

Perhaps Christians, of all people, will become the “best” at using the Internet in this way. Just as Christians have responded to timely social needs throughout history, the church can be a beacon of genuine relationship and a force for the common good. Christians can lead the way in unplugging regularly (not just for periods of “electronic fasting”), using the Internet responsibly, and maintaining strong and significant connections to what we can perceive with our senses—and with the people God has placed in our lives.

This article was first published here by CT Women.

  1. Thank you so much Amy for this poignant look at our internet usage and how it affects our relationships with others. The internet is not a substitute for real relationships, something we all need. This is especially true for those of us experiencing a mental health diagnosis that we seek to connect with others- in person, and help break the barriers of stigma that seems to hold so many of us back.

    • Amy says:

      You’re right, Aimee! People with a mental health diagnosis might feel like virtual connection is all they can manage, but there really is no substitute for the healing presence of other loving people.

© 2017 Amy Simpson.