Harms Caused by the Internet

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Harms Caused by the Internet

Key Takeaways

  • According to the European Parliamentary Research Service, around 20-30% of people suffer from information overload caused by internet use.
  • 71% of heavy social media users report loneliness, compared to 51% of light social media users.
  • Oxford University found that cyberbullying doubles the risk of suicidal behavior or self-harm in young generations.
  • Due to the extensive use of the internet, human attention is declining by 88% every year.

Introduction

The report includes 15 insights on the major harms related to the internet. They are divided into four sections, which are information disorders, privacy, social issues, and health-related and other personal issues.

Harms Caused by the Internet

Information Disorders

Information Overload

  • Information overload was named as one of the major harms related to the use of the internet by the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS). It revolves around having too much information to be able to sufficiently understand an issue and make adequate decisions.
  • According to EPRS, around 20-30% of people suffer from information overload.
  • Furthermore, a 2021 article by THNK, a nonprofit organization, "in 2007, an average American took in four times more information as they did in 1986 the equivalent of 174 newspapers on a daily basis." However, the organization emphasizes that pure information is not the sole contributor to information overload. Others include more virtual and real-life connections, interactions with an increased number of companies and cultures, and skills and equipment that people need to master.
  • The primary consequences include " loss of control, feelings of being overwhelmed, reduced intellectual performance, and diminished job satisfaction."
  • Furthermore, research published in Computational and Mathematical Organization Theory found that high information overload contributes to lower online conversation volume and participation. It may indicate that information overload negatively affects communication.
  • A white paper by Cognizant notes that 44% of people in India are dealing with information overload during the COVID-19 pandemic, while the US loses $900 billion each year in reduced productivity and innovation.

Organized Disinformation

  • Disinformation can be defined as "verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public and may cause public harm" (based on the definition by Directorate-General for External Policies of the European Parlament). Unlike misinformation, it is spread on purpose, in order to manipulate the public in a certain way.
  • According to the European Parlament, disinformation is a major threat to democracy and human rights, especially with the rise of social media. A survey found that 44% of people believe that social media have contributed to increased polarization in political discourse.
  • In 2020, the Oxford Internet Institute published a report titled "Industrialized Disinformation: 2020 Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation."
  • The report claims that while manipulating public opinion via social media is a serious threat to democracy, more countries are doing it compared to four years ago.
  • The number of countries with identified cyber troop activity went from 70 to 81 between 2017 and 2020. At the same time, the total amount spent by government actors on cyber troop advertising was around $10 million.
  • Furthermore, the number of countries for which the evidence exists that private companies assisted in conducting such political disinformation campaigns went from 9 in 2017 to 48 in 2020.
  • An analysis of social media content around the 2019 Dutch election (published in "The Politics of Social Media Manipulation") found that different platforms have a varying potential for spreading disinformation. Facebook was identified as the most potent ground, followed by Twitter. YouTube was identified as a platform that contributes to polarization, while Instagram was named as one that has potential for artificial amplification (such as fake followers).

Misinformation

  • Unlike disinformation, misinformation is not intentional. While it involves sharing false information, there is no harm intended.
  • A poll by Lloyd's Register Foundation (powered by Gallup) found that 57% of global internet users perceive false information as the main threat related to the internet.
  • Still, according to Richard Clegg, Chief Executive at the Lloyd's Register Foundation, "The number of people not worried about fake news is a threat to safety. If you aren’t aware that information can be wrong, you are at risk. It is vital, as more and more people access the internet, that people are equipped with the skills to enable them to question the validity of the information they see online."
  • Furthermore, research by MIT Sloan and MIT Media Lab found that false information spreads faster than factual news. Specifically, people are 70% more likely to retweet fake news, which results in such news reaching 1,500 people six times faster. The researchers' hypothesis is that false information is often novel and unusual, which draws interest and urges people to share it. They also noted that the inability to discern lies from truths usually stems from being distracted and lazy, rather than biased.
  • Based on research from Indiana University (US) and the University of Warwick (UK), another reason for spreading fake news is confusing popularity with quality. Through different social phenomena, such as being more likely to adopt, share, and be positive about ideas one is constantly exposed to, "an irresistible urge to pay attention to information that is going viral—if everybody else is talking about it, it must be important."

Filter Bubbles

  • Some researchers name another contributor to spreading misinformation and increasing polarization in social media. It is a phenomenon called "filter bubbles." According to it, automated personalization determined by previous online activity may shelter internet users from different points of view, thus negatively impacting the ability to recognize fake news and bias.
  • The term "filter bubble" was created by Eli Pariser, a tech entrepreneur and activist, in 2011. Such "filter bubbles" were later named as contributors to populist political phenomena surrounding Trump, Brexit, and Bolsonaro. As a consequence, social media and search engine companies were criticized for not doing anything to combat it.
  • However, it is important to note that multiple researchers (including Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford and Internet Policy Review), while encouraging to pay closer attention to algorithms, simultaneously caution against focusing solely on them.
  • Internet Policy Review states that filters that people have in their heads are more powerful than those enforced by algorithms.
  • A paper included in "After the Digital Tornado" advises a more holistic approach, "Algorithms can play a role but focusing exclusively on them while ignoring the manner in which data, algorithms and people interact can paint an incomplete, and even misleading, picture when attempting to understand the effects of each component across different contexts. By systematically decomposing the causes of filter bubbles, we are able to provide a more complete characterization of the problem and facilitate the development of meaningful policy changes for moving forward."

Privacy

Data Use and Sharing by Companies

  • Companies using and sharing private data is a major issue related to the internet according to Pew Research, Public Knowledge, and International Corporate Governance Network (ICGN), among others.
  • According to ICGN, companies collect an incredible amount of personal data, which eventually allows them to assess their moods, preferences, and personalities to effectively target them. It is not only true for big tech players but also for smaller businesses that "buy, build and monetize data through data brokers and consumer surveillance."
  • The organization believes that this data privacy issue is a threat to human rights. The data may not only be used for product marketing but also to influence their general preferences, including political views. At times, it can reinforce dangerous biases.
  • Public Knowledge also warns that while a lot of discussion on privacy revolves around data sharing, data exploitation may occur even if a company doesn't share personal data. For instance, a tech giant like Facebook can interpret the information about a person logging to Uber or Uber Eats as a sign that they are a high earner and show them ads of more expensive products.
  • According to a survey by Cisco, 48% of global consumers don't think that they can sufficiently protect their data, mainly because they don't know what companies are doing with their data (79%), have to agree to how the company wants to use their data to use the service (51%), and/or believe their personal data has already been made available (45%).
  • Furthermore, 29% of consumers have already switched brands they use due to data privacy concerns.

Data Use and Sharing by Public Entities

  • According to OECD, it is alarming that governments increasingly have "unconstrained, unreasonable, or disproportionate requirements" for private companies to share consumers' personal data.
  • Additionally, governments are also collecting unprecedented amounts of data, especially since the pandemic has started. While collecting and processing this data has been somewhat effective in containing the virus, it raises further concerns about violations related to privacy.
  • As stated in the report by OECD, "Few countries have frameworks in place to support the extraordinary contact-tracing and population-wide surveillance measures envisaged."
  • A poll by Pew Research showed that 63% of people in the US think that it is not possible to conduct daily online activities without the government collecting their data.
  • Furthermore, 66% believe that risks related to the government collecting data about them outweighs the benefits, while 64% express concern over how their data is used after its collection by the government.
  • TechCrunch notes that data collection by the government can have tragic consequences. For example, when the Taliban seized US military devices with data of Afghani citizens who were pro-coalition forces, it could have made it easy for the Taliban to track down those citizens.

Online Fraud

  • Online fraud includes both digital financial fraud and identity theft, which can be separate or related offenses, as per National Crime Victim Law Institute. There are multiple techniques for such crimes, including email schemes, email phishing, selling fictional items on auction sites, and many more.
  • Information fraud was named as one of the main security threats, a major group of social media dangers, based on a large-scale study by the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia.
  • According to Statista, between the start of the pandemic and August 2020, 47% of global cyber fraud experts observed a significant increase in risk, while 36% of them reported a slight increase in risk. 60% also expected a significant increase from August 2020 and August 2021 and 30% expected a slight increase.
  • A survey by Lloyd's Register Foundation found that people over 65+ are the most concerned with online fraud, with 55% being afraid of it, compared to 42% of people aged 15-29, and 45% of people aged 30-49.
  • In the UK alone, the rise of online shopping and other digital activities contributed to a 33% growth in online fraud between April 2020 and April 2021, compared to an 8% increase the year before.


Social Issues

Social Isolation

  • Damage to social relationships was named as one of the main harms related to the use of the internet by the European Parliamentary Research Service. Online pornography has an especially negative effect on intimate relationships.
  • A study by Cigna found that there is a correlation between social media usage and feeling lonely. In 2020, 71% of heavy social media users reported loneliness, compared to 51% of light social media users.
  • Similarly, a study by Regis College, conducted among adults aged 19-32 who use social media frequently, found that they are three times as likely to feel lonely than those who use social media less frequently.
  • According to Louise Hawkley, a psychologist, "Those who are substituting online relationships for real relationships, unsurprisingly, don’t see a reduction in loneliness and in fact may actually see a deterioration relative to people who use online interactions to supplement their face-to-face relationships."

Impoverished Community Experiences

  • Especially during the pandemic, a lot of human activities have (at least partially) migrated to the internet. These include shopping, socializing, leisure activities, and work-related interactions.
  • As noted by the European Parliamentary Research Institute, in some cases, traditional communities formed around those activities are sometimes completely replaced with online ones. However, replacements are often inadequate, which results in communication, trust, and commitment issues, as well as a worse experience overall.
  • For example, The Education Endowment Foundation collected the available evidence on effective teaching strategies and concluded that digital approaches should complement traditional methods, instead of replacing them. Online learning alone can't provide all the elements necessary for a young person's development.
  • Also, a survey by Hogan found that while employees see benefits of working remotely, 36% say that communication and collaboration within their teams suffer due to remote work arrangements.

Big Tech / Algorithm Bias

  • Soraya Chemely, Executive Director at the Representation Project, emphasizes that big tech companies have encouraged environments that encourage real-life violence, possibly because Silicon Valley is dominated by white men.
  • Furthermore, Twitter's AI bounty program revealed bias toward young, skinny, white people, while also showing that the company's algorithms marginalize elderly and disabled people.
  • Algorithm Watch, a German nonprofit organization, reported that Google Vision Cloud, a computer vision service, displayed racial bias by labeling photos with the same items differently depending on the skin tone.
  • Even though the service has been updated, experts believe such mistakes are common and are likely to continue into the future, which may have a tangible effect on the lives of dark-skinned people. Various systems, including automated surveillance ones, may flag such individuals as dangerous.
  • Another example of algorithm bias is Facebook not displaying certain job ads to qualified people based on gender.
  • Safiya Noble, an expert from the University of California Los Angeles' new Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, focuses on examining racial and gender bias in search engines. She says that Google algorithms reinforce stereotypes, even though people aren't aware of how they work and influence them. According to her, the best solution is to have separate engines that focus on advertising revenue (such as Google) and ones that are curated by researchers and other types of experts.
  • She also notes that according to research, a more diverse group of engineers leads to more inclusive algorithms. Therefore, people who design the algorithms may be responsible for the bias.

Cyberbullying

  • Cyberbullying is one of the main harms related to social media use, according to a study by the University of Technology in Sydney. The study defines it as "an attempt to harm and disempower the victim using electronic communication" and classifies it as criminal behavior.
  • UNICEF distinguishes several types of cyberbullying, including posting embarrassing content about a person, spreading lies about them, sending threats or hurtful messaging, and impersonating another person.
  • The organization also notes that cyberbullying may have serious mental, emotional, and physical consequences.
  • For example, Oxford University found that cyberbullying doubles the risk of suicidal behavior or self-harm in young generations.
  • According to Pacer's National Bullying Prevention Center, in the US, the rate of people who have experienced cyberbullying during their lifetime more than doubled between 2007 and 2019 (from 18 to 37%).
  • Among US kids aged 12-18, 15% were bullied by text or online.
  • Julia von Weiler, psychologist and an expert on cyberbullying, said that "Unfortunately, many studies show that between 20 and 50 percent of children report being affected by cyberbullying. Thinking about it that means almost every child is somehow affected either being bullied him/herself, knowing someone who is being bullied, or being part of the group that bullies another child. For this reason, it is important to be involved in your child’s digital life and to understand how digital devices, social networking sites and messenger apps have changed bullying. It has made it easier for the bullies to get to their victims and difficult to get away from with the 24-hour nature of the internet."


Health-Related and Other Personal Issues

Addiction

  • Internet Addiction Disorder is defined as a condition in which internet use interferes with everyday life (i.e., relationships, work, school). It may involve excessive online shopping, Facebook use, and/or video game playing.
  • Multiple studies show that around 6% of people are severely affected by internet addiction.
  • However, the figure may be underreported since, in the US, 40% of households with income above $30k reported using the internet almost constantly, compared to 30% of households with income below that threshold.
  • Furthermore, a study conducted among 32 nations showed that around 13% of people show severe symptoms of social media addictions.
  • Also, Washington Post reported that 31% of social media use stems from self-control problems.
  • According to Dr. Andrew Doan, an expert on digital addiction, the issue might have been exaggerated by the pandemic. As he said, "Stresses in life leads to cravings for behaviours and escape mechanisms. The pandemic has increased stress in people's lives, and a convenient way to escape is using entertainment digital media, such as gaming and social media. Excessive use to escape stress is a risk factor for the development of addictive behaviors."

Cognitive Development

  • There is evidence suggesting that a child's cognitive development can be impaired by extensive internet use. Affected areas may include memory skills, attention span, critical reasoning, language acquisition, reading, and learning abilities.
  • Specifically, prolonged use of the internet can negatively impact a person's ability to focus, attention, and short-term memory skills.
  • Cognizant notes that due to extensive use of internet, human attention is declining by 88% every year. It is currently at eight seconds.
  • A study conducted in Indonesia found that children with internet gaming disorder tend to score lower on cognitive abilities, including recall memory and language.
  • Still, it is important to note that the issue is problematic. According to the European Parliamentary Research Service, more research into the area is needed, since the use of the internet is linked both to fostering cognitive development and impairing it.
  • A research paper published in Education and Information Technologies gives more insight into the subject. According to it, audio-visual media exposure can be associated with negative effects on cognitive development, while touchscreen devices and appropriate mobile applications can promote cognitive development.

Mental Issues

  • While the extent to which social media have an effect on mental health is yet to be determined, a review of studies on the subject shows that social media use can aggravate existing mental conditions or have an overall negative effect on mental health.
  • Several sources, including The Hill and Common Sense Media, observe that the rise of rates of depression in teens is correlated with the time when the use of social media in this group increased significantly.
  • According to a study by the Wall Street Journal, around 33% of teenage girls experience mental health problems due to the use of Instagram. The issue is more severe among Black girls.
  • Deborah Glasofer, a psychologist from Colombia University, said, "For those vulnerable to developing an eating disorder, social media may be especially unhelpful because it allows people to easily compare their appearance to their friends, to celebrities, even older images of themselves. Research tells us that how much someone engages with photo-related activities like posting and sharing photos on Facebook or Instagram is associated with less body acceptance and more obsessing about appearance. For adolescent girls in particular, the more time they spend on social media directly relates to how much they absorb the idea that being thin is ideal, are driven to try to become thin, and/or overly scrutinize their own bodies."


Digital Divide

Inequal Development of Digital Literacy

  • According to Diginuity, a nonprofit organization that has been promoting digital inclusion in the US since 1984, the digital divide stems from three systemic issues: inequal distribution of equipment, unequal access to the internet, and differences in digital literacy skills.
  • Similarly, G20 Insights believes that digital infrastructure and digital skills development are equally important for closing the digital gap. However, it notes that digital literacy is a dynamic concept that should undergo regular redefining.
  • It is considered a critical issue because it is a prerequisite for people succeeding in today's work environment. Furthermore, digital skills such as evaluating content are necessary to avoid other potential harms of the internet.
  • Brookfield Institute, a Canadian research institution, even calls unequal access to digital literacy "a social justice issue." It believes that improving it can reduce economic, social, cultural, and civic gaps.
  • A study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that around 16% of US adults are not digitally literate, compared to 23% of adults globally.
  • Also, Georgi Dimitrov, Deputy Head of the Innovation and EIT Unit of the European Commission and project team leader for the new edition of the European Digital Education Action Plan, states that while 90% of future jobs will require digital skills, 35% of European workers don't have adequate levels of them.


Research Strategy

We researched academic papers, reports by nonprofit organizations, research, and consulting companies, reputable media sites that included expert quotes, government sources, and papers with policy recommendations.

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