This piece was originally published at BreakPoint.org on August 22, 2016.
Late last month, the World Wide Web quietly celebrated its 10 thousandth day of existence, making it almost exactly my age. This information space makes up the vast majority of the Internet, which, though technically much older than the Web, didn’t become popular until my lifetime. At this juncture, the two terms are synonymous for most people, and no one knows or cares what “HTTP” stands for anymore. The point is, the slice of the Internet where billions of people spend most of their screen time has had a lengthy test run, and it’s reasonable to evaluate the effect it’s had on us.
The diagnosis isn’t good. And for all its benefits, I’ve come to the conclusion that we’d be better off if the Internet had never been invented. Here’s why.
It’s stolen a generation of young men.
Amid news that millennial men are the physically weakest generation in recorded history (their average grip strength is equivalent to that of a 30-year-old mom), and that the U.S. fertility rate is at an all-time low, we find out what guys have really been up to. Writing at First Things, Samuel James of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission calls the current generation of young men “lost boys.” He cites Erik Hurt of the University of Chicago, who says the average low-skilled, unemployed man plays video games for 12 hours per week. That figure often jumps as high as 30 hours. And what’s troubling about this is that men don’t seem to have fled to consoles and computers as a means of escape from miserable, real-world existences. On the contrary, happiness surveys suggest the gamers, a historic percentage of whom still live with their parents, are quite content frittering their days away slaying digital foes.
James points out that, historically, the drive to “get busy” has motivated men to, well, get busy—obtaining jobs and the means of wooing and supporting a woman. But something seems to be short-circuiting that desire in the current crop of young bucks. Perhaps it’s the fact that almost all of them consume pornography with jaw-dropping frequency. The Huffington Post, that fever swamp of alarmist conservative reporting, published stats some time ago showing that porn sites now account for a third of internet bandwidth, and receive more visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined. Nearly 70 percent of young men look at porn on a weekly basis (84 percent do so monthly). Dr. Simone Lajeunesse at the University of Montreal remarked after attempting to research men in their 20s who had never consumed pornography, “We couldn’t find any.” And fully two thirds of human resources professionals say they’ve found porn on employees’ work computers.
It’s twisted our sexuality.
Not only has this pandemic affected men’s physical performance, destroyed or curtailed relationships, and fed a notoriously flesh-eating industry. It’s also rewired male brains to become aroused by violence, degradation, and objectification of women. Covenant Eyes reports that 88 percent of porn scenes include acts of sexual aggression—a scary statistic, to be sure. But men who are addicted to darker varieties of porn may not even be seeking out real women with whom to act out what they’ve seen. As it turns out, young men are becoming less, not more interested in real sex.
The Washington Post recently reported that many millennials are avoiding intimacy altogether. A study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior (which I’m sure is always a fascinating read) found that “those born in the 1990s are more than twice as likely to be sexually inactive in their early 20s as the previous generation was.” The news may sound good, but the explanation is disheartening.
In a puzzlingly unreflective piece in New York Magazine, feminist clarion Naomi Wolf writes, “[Pornography] is not making men into raving beasts. On the contrary: The onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as ‘porn-worthy.’ Far from having to fend off porn-crazed young men, young women are worrying that as mere flesh and blood, they can scarcely get, let alone hold, their attention.”
Playboy Magazine, unable to compete with omnipresent online smut, recently deep-sixed its nude photo pages. The World Wide Web has done what Hugh Hefner by his lonesome could never dream of doing: It’s fundamentally re-soldered the circuit boards inside millions of men’s (and many women’s) heads, creating neural pathways that, as Dr. Willian Struthers of the University of Illinois at Chicago puts it, grow “wider as they are repeatedly traveled with each exposure to pornography,” eventually becoming “the automatic pathway through which interactions with women are routed.”
For a generation of guys, one of the most basic biological drives is now chemically channeled toward fantasy. We have no idea what this will do to our society in the long run. But we do know that a social experiment on this scale could never have happened without the instantaneous, anonymous, and usually free access to petabytes of data that the Internet affords.
It’s destroyed news.
John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” show doesn’t often deviate from the late night progressive choir-preaching format that Jon Stewart pioneered. But in a recent segment, Oliver makes some incisive points about the state of journalism, particularly the sad fate of the local newspaper. No surprise, the Internet is the asteroid behind this extinction event.
The seemingly irrelevant small-town newspaper, like the plankton that forms the base of the ocean ecosystem, feeds some the largest media outlets in the world. Online aggregators like the Huffington Post, Vox, Buzzfeed, and even network news don’t have the resources or manpower to attend every Bedford Falls city council meeting. So they rely on local reporters to do the legwork.
But in a cruel irony, the Internet has also conquered the advertising business, with services like Google AdWords and Craigslist far exceeding the revenue of all print advertising combined. And since the Mayberry Tribune relies on ad revenue to stay afloat, it doesn’t stand a chance. Hundreds of such mom-and-pop papers nationwide are folding, leaving the giant filter-feeders of the media world starving for quality content.As a result, many such outlets have turned to cheap gimmicks like the infamous “chumbox” to bring in revenue, often at the cost of ethical standards and good taste. In an uproariously funny (but profane) video, College Humor ridicules the way such paid advertising plays on deep psychological philias and phobias. Oliver likewise mocks Tribune publishing’s bizarre rebranding to “Tronc,” a so-called “vertically integrated” digital media company that transparently aspires to be the next Buzzfeed. Cats that look just like raccoons, it seems, earn more clicks than an article about the latest developments in the Syrian civil war.
Yet another blow from the Internet turns this foul weather into a perfect storm for journalistic integrity. Aspiring writers, who once cut their teeth under the tutelage of small-town editors and didn’t have to worry about revenue, must now consider the bottom line with each line they write. This constant pressure creates a perverse incentive to write profitably, rather than accurately or even skillfully. In a world where Nicki Minaj is a double-platinum artist and Mozart only plays on government-funded radio stations, it’s obvious that popularity is no measure of excellence. And thanks primarily to the Internet, serious journalism, too, may find itself resorting to public life support.
It’s made us nastier, crazier, and more paranoid.
The Internet has reshaped us on an even more fundamental level. Think of the calls to shoot Michelle Gregg as punishment for the death of Harambe the gorilla, the annihilation of Justine Sacco over an ill-considered tweet, or the body-shaming, death threats, and suicide cheerleading that have become daily experiences for the less-than-flawless who dare to show their faces online. Think of the sexual harassment that has become an established norm for women. Think, for heaven’s sake, of any YouTube comment section!
Pew research quantifies the situation. A study of 18 to 24 year olds who regularly use the Internet found that 70 percent had experienced harassment. Twenty-six percent of women said they’d been stalked online. A quarter had been physically threatened or received unwanted sexual overtures.
Part of this, of course, is just human nature. People have always been horrible to one another, with or without the Internet. But just because a flame already existed doesn’t mean pouring gasoline over it is a good idea. Writing at TIME, Joel Stein argues that the Web has given users an unprecedented platform and incentive to indulge their basest impulses. It’s taken bad people, and made them worse.
Psychologists, he explains, have dubbed this the “online disinhibition effect, in which factors like anonymity, invisibility, a lack of authority and not communicating in real time strip away the mores society spent millennia building.” And this behavior, Stein contends, is reaching a critical mass with the rise of the Alt-Right and other committed “trolls” whose chief pleasure in life is making others miserable.
Then there’s the wide, wacky world of conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and scams that could never have gotten off the ground without the Internet. Whether the story involves “chemtrails,” 9/11, or miracle pills and diets, huge numbers of credulous, often poorly educated surfers fall prey to collective delusions, courtesy of the information superhighway. One of the most famous trends is the “Mandela Effect,” so-named because many people swear they remember South African president Nelson Mandela dying in prison during the 1980s (he actually died in 2013). What for most people would have ended in a shrug prior to the Internet has become a febrile conspiracy community on YouTube and elsewhere, filled with folks who are convinced the spelling of “The Berenstain Bears” has changed, that Darth Vader’s lines in “Star Wars” aren’t as they were in 1980, and that the Bible is gaining new verses. According to the woman who named the Mandela Effect, paranormal researcher Fiona Broome, these collective false memories are evidence of alternate universes that occasionally interact with our own.
Ten thousand days into this experiment we call the Internet, we’ve become more isolated, addicted, uninformed, sadistic, and paranoid than anyone could have anticipated. Americans now spend so much time hunched in front of glowing screens that doctors are calling for an intervention—at least for children. The time has come to admit that we have a problem, and it’s called the Internet.
I realize how ironic it is to write all of this on the Internet. And without a doubt, I recognize the immense good this invention has done for me, for the Church, and for the world. All technology is a double-edged sword, whether it’s nuclear fusion, genetic engineering, or Sudafed. The Internet has created vast new economies, linked continents, given a voice to the voiceless, and generally accelerated human progress. But when weighed in the balance, I think it’s done more harm than good. We would, quite simply, be better off without it.
Of course, it’s not going anywhere. The Internet is here to stay. But in light of the staggering damage it’s inflicted, the amplifying effect it’s had on all the worst habits of humanity, and the potential it still has for greater destruction, I think it’s time Christians recognize this threat and shift our posture toward it. Yes, we can and must continue to use the Internet. But we need to acknowledge that it’s not neutral. It’s a net enemy of human flourishing, health, morality, and love. And if it could think, it would not have our best interests at heart. When we invite the Internet into our homes to do all the things it’s so good at, we need to stay on our guard. When we let our children play with it, we must never leave the room. And when we ourselves come face-to-face with the beast, we need to pray for wisdom, surround ourselves with accountability, and remember where the off switch is.
Ten thousand days in, we may have little choice but to use the Internet. But we have no excuse to trust it.