“This is for everyone” proclaims the plaque put up in East Sheen, London SW14, to celebrate the invention of the internet by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. It is Sir Tim’s local parish. Almost thirty years after this world changing moment, the reality is not quite so noble.
The words “Free-for-all” might define things better.
There has always been something exciting and mysterious about the ramifications of the internet that reminds me of the mysterious East, of the 1001 nights, of magicians and magic carpets.
Pirates and thieves too.
No wonder the world’s biggest internet player is called Alibaba. The West on the other hand, with its Anglo Saxons and Protestants, comes across as much more analogue.
A few years ago, I heard an expert on behavioural addiction (and quite an eminent one at that), say at a conference: “we worry about the number of hours that our children are spending on the internet, but in our day, we spent just as long watching TV.” And he might have added “ ..and that did us no harm at all”.
Today, that statement is starting to look a bit naïve. Why? Because we seem not to have recognised how dangerous the internet can be as an introduction for children – a way into addictive behaviour of many kinds. We need to recognise this now. Some of our kids are tripping up on this magic carpet and when they do, it leads them into all sorts of problems, primarily addiction.
Recently I met a young man of twenty-two who had become addicted to internet poker, often playing 12 hours a day. (Find out more about gambling addiction here)
At first. he had happily surfed the internet for bursts of pleasure. but it had slowly drawn him down into its murkier depths. Watching TV does not normally do that.
All kids have dreams and fantasies. Some adults too. But mostly kids.
“All by myself I have to go,
With none to tell me what to do—
All alone beside the streams
And up the mountain-sides of dreams.”(Robert louis Stevenson ( 1))
To follow your dreams these days, adult or child, you don’t need to get off your seat, you just need a laptop.
Today we are slowly waking up to the dangers of this. At the start of the internet age, most of us were a bit like children entering a secret garden; we did not imagine that this sudden new world could be subversive.
Gradually, we have begun to see how the internet enables us to fulfil our dreams, that it isn’t just glimpses of a new, virtual reality to enjoy, but an amazing magic carpet that can carry us to dream worlds where we live out our fantasies with minimal effort. Suddenly Joe Public becomes James Bond by turning on his pc – no travelling to an actual casino or race meeting needed; the bourgeois housewife can dress like a princess by clicking on one or two choice websites, maybe fixing herself up with a blind date on the way. Madame Bovary(2) would think she was in heaven.
- A career girl no longer needs to run off to London or Paris to try her luck – vanity fair gladly comes to her screen, offering introductions, entertainments, friends and expensive shopping. Andrew Carnegie, Dick Whittington or any get rich quick hopeful can do it all at home these days. Thousands try, most fail.
Let’s consider our young poker player, mentioned above:
He had lost a lot of money playing the game for several hours non-stop. Perhaps even worse, he had lost a lot of friends, his job, the respect of his family and his physical fitness. Significantly, he had come to the internet aged about ten, by playing computer video games, first as a fun leisure activity but later as an obsessive, time-devouring activity that took over his life by putting him into an alternative world. This, he found exciting, but one day he discovered online gambling, and this was way more exciting. And somehow more grown up and glamorous.
The internet, in short, has progressed from its first conception as a means of communication between responsible people for worthy reasons. Now, it is a vehicle whereby we can fulfil our dreams, however impractical or unrealistic they may be.
Perhaps most worryingly, this subversion starts with the very young, and when kids get to like something in a big way, it normally signals a long-lasting relationship. Rock music is a case in point. Yet we old ‘uns are naïve here too – should we not pause and consider the implications a lot more carefully, before we introduce our kids to the digital zoo? After all, most parents would never give an eight-year-old cannabis, cocaine or even alcohol. Yet we offer many eight-year-olds the opportunity to play fantasy computer games and even some childish forms of gambling – should we then be surprised if they quickly begin to spend long hours on these activities and progress to something a lot more risky and exciting than Candy Crush Saga? “The child”, as poet William Wordsworth said, “is father of the man.”(3)
And then there is investment trading. When I was a boy, and a wannabe Rockefeller, if you wanted to buy stocks and shares, you had to speak to someone like my uncle Cyril, a London stockbroker, who had an opinion about everything, and went to the City primarily to have lunch – work was something of an add-on activity. In other words, buying and selling investments was a slow and careful exercise, but it was based on sound judgment and discussion (and usually lunch as well). Concepts such as day-trading, spread betting and cryptocurrency trading, as far as uncle Cyril was concerned, were the undiscovered, dark side of the moon. And now we’ve been there too, done that, of course.
Investment writer Murray Coleman of Index Fund Advisors in his article Addiction Clinic Extends Therapy to Bitcoin Traders, writes about the dangers of emotions-based investing and the excitement and volatility that this generates. Such traders are in danger of investing by following their dreams rather than their judgement. Yet this trading behaviour(4) and attitude is reminiscent of the excitement and high emotions generated during computer gaming activity, especially of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) type. The step from gaming to gambling is easy to make. And when these activities are available 24/7, the attraction is even greater.
No surprise then that the twenty first century is looking to become the era of behavioural addiction. And what do we have to thank for this?
It seems to have been as recent as 1993 that the internet really went commercial, when Global Network Navigator became the first commercial website to sell a clickable ad(5). Internet commerce since then, has exploded and affected all our lives for good and for bad. The internet has been the engine responsible for pumping up the shopping, gambling, pornography and gaming industries into the giants they are today.
- Such then, is the scene in 2018 and it is a very different prospect from even ten years ago. Who knows what it will look like in 2028. What we can say right now is that we were wrong in our expectations for the development of the internet and how it would affect our world.
On the positive side, there have been huge benefits from the sharing of ideas and technology, medicine, agriculture and education being obvious beneficiaries. We’ve seen a lot of that.
On the negative side, there is so much offered by the internet that appeals to our baser and more immature sides – laziness, greed, lust, gossip, vilification, and of course, instant gratification. No wonder that addiction is everywhere.
But what we really failed in, it seems to me, is our custodianship of this immense and powerful digital structure. We should have seen the dangers and acted sooner, especially where addiction is concerned. Now that Pandora’s Box has been opened, It is not good enough to offer counselling and other treatments to people in need – that is merely applying a dressing to a symptom. Nor is it enough to try to educate the kids to the dangers of all this, when we ourselves are indulging in all kinds of internet driven addictive behaviours – gambling, porn and shopping till we drop.
If we want our kids to grow up and navigate the digital labyrinth responsibly, we must first be responsible ourselves. We are the role models and the power of our example will mean far more any number of classroom lectures or indeed any number of rehab stays.
Of course we can lambast and vilify the media giants and blame them for ruining our kids’ futures, and there is a good case for doing so, but we cannot rely on others to put this right. We have to take action ourselves..
Our kids are the future, but we have a massive role to play in making sure they get the right kind of future. It is called responsible parenting, something that is often in short supply.
‘The child is father of the man’ as Wordsworth said, but we should remember too, that ‘the man is father of the child’.
- Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’
- Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert – the tale of a bored wife who longed to escape the banality of her provincial life.
- The child is father of the man. William Wordsworth from ‘The Rainbow’
- The Birth of Banner Ads and CPM – Hotwired’s Homepage from 1994. Global Network Navigator, in 1993, was the first commercial website to sell a clickable ad (later they were termed as “banner ads”). It was sold to the law firm Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe.