In recent wars with technology, society argues that the internet is bad. These claims catch governments and public institutions in a snare: most recently, the UK government’s scramble for a catch-all security act. Four years after its proposal, the Online Safety Act is now law. With a crackdown on age limits and risks for youth, the bill addresses “legal but harmful” content. Nationwide, schools address social media addiction with phone bans and web filtering. The contemporary idea that the internet is negative — plaguing most with social media addiction, disinformation, and lingering mental health effects — is arguably unstoppable.
Building a better internet, however, is a greater challenge.
It is a Wednesday afternoon and I sit, coffee in hand, laptop resting on a sticky table in the corner of a Costa — just feet away from a child, their iPad, and their parent. It is a scene repetitively watched in all but the town’s nightclub. I observe that I am on the cusp of the last generation that has grown up without the overarching presence of the internet in their upbringing. If the effects of social media damage the mental well-being and emotional development of teenagers, the youngest generation will have it even worse. With ten-year-olds spending five and a half hours on the internet, the figure is warped only by the eight hours for teenagers.
Modern social platforms are developed for spectacle, and media-minded academics study these trends in relation to psychology, law, and politics. Content which increases interaction — be it a click, like, or comment — will become increasingly popular. The implications of internet regulation are far-reaching and change with the adaptation of new technology.
The ethics of social media and internet security rely on the internet’s dogma: whether it must be run as a business. Developed each year with the increasing technology and intelligence of a trillion-dollar industry, the internet’s culture and hegemony change faster than any historical trend: fashion, music, or cuisine. The platform can be built upon by anyone — the internet is open-source, and its culture rests on the choices made by collective culture and both large and small corporations — the internet becomes what we desire it to be.
In October, Wired published a story on the disappearance of autonomy while online browsing. Browsing is no longer idle: an online shopping binge, a dive into the dangers of paragliding, and searches for the best cleaning supplies incur effects. For Meta — Mark Zuckerberg’s parent company, a conglomeration of Facebook, Instagram, and more — ad revenue in 2023 is up 23 per cent from the previous year.
In the same month, the technology conglomerate was sued by three dozen American states. Allegations centre around consumer protection violations, and a thereafter escalation of addictiveness for youth. The aftereffects, for young adults and the widening school and health systems which aid them, are also undoubtedly ever-increasing. Students face heightened screen time, anxiety, and less social experiences face-to-face. For these problems to be amended, it starts with the internet.
Designing a better internet? The problems are numerous. Begin with addictiveness: create a social media which refrains from the tangible pull of Twitter debates, or TikTok’s undeniable doom-scroll. Yet the impact of non-addictive social media is counteractive. Social media without such addictiveness are the platforms which fail. Arguably, social media is addictive because of its harmful qualities: disinformation, alternative and unique expressions of thought, and the most extreme members of society create an enticing experience. If the internet was once built on a platform of freedom of speech, little has changed but the avenues in which we consume such thoughts.
How to build a better internet? Difficult, when the culture of social media is steered by our own interests.
Image from WikiCommons