In the following article, we will explain how the internet has affected society so dramatically since it became publicly available in 1991 - transforming everything from communication and social interaction to shopping and entertainment.
Even when compared with the development of air travel, nuclear weapons, and the contraceptive pill, the internet is arguably still the greatest invention of the 20th century.
What began as a largely technical, read-only universe has grown into one of the most important mediums in history.
Crucially, the internet is a completely new type of animal since it has integrated all the different medias - news, entertainment, communication, and so forth - that came before it.
The internet has spread its tentacles around the world and become increasingly central to every aspect of our lives, and we need to look at what this has meant for society as a whole.
It ushered in the Information Age and has empowered people in every aspect of their lives. It changed the course of humanity like nothing before it, to the point that - in many respects - the internet is society today.
Understanding how the influence of the internet, and the digital technologies that enable it, can help us to address numerous global concerns - from the very nature of democracy and freedom of expression, to modern relationships, culture, and business practice - is crucial to success in the modern world.
The Many Benefits of the Internet
Early advocates believed that the internet would help to alleviate all the problems in the world, and this argument is still touted in discussions about rolling out connectivity across developing nations.
But these supporters could hardly have imagined how powerful computers would become in just 30 years. For context, your smartphone is millions of times more powerful than the guidance computers on Apollo 11 - the ship that brought the first man to the moon.
This power has meant that the internet has dramatically revolutionized pretty much every industry in life.
Thanks to smartphones, we’re all permanently connected. We can communicate with anyone instantaneously, no matter where they are in the world - anyone growing up with a parent living overseas in 1991 would have been lucky to have heard their voice even once a month.
This technology has changed how we form and maintain relationships with friends and romantic partners, and it’s interesting how our cultural attitudes and beliefs have been shaped by social media.
We all now have all the information in the world at our fingertips, and can access the latest news from anywhere in the world at the touch of a button.
Simply put, life has become much more convenient. Our devices enable us to arrange a date, reserve a restaurant table, and book a table - all at the click of a button. We can buy something online and reliably expect it to arrive on our doorstep within a matter of days.
So important has it become that living without the internet today is a real handicap, particularly with regard to undocumented migrants and people who can’t afford devices - groups that are basically excluded from much of modern life.
But in many ways, the internet was a godsend during the COVID-19 pandemic; with most people around the world stuck at home during lockdown, this technology is what kept people working, children studying, and stomachs full - ultimately, it prevented complete economic collapse.
And besides, who doesn’t like cat videos?
The Internet as a Force of Destruction
Convenience is all well and good, but no one has ever seen this as the defining feature of a utopia, and the voices of the internet’s champions are today drowned out by those pointing to the role that the internet plays in the many key issues that define the world today.
This universe has proved to be highly addictive, with more than one in three young adults reporting smartphone dependency (King's College London). This has profound effects on personal wellbeing and overall health, and affects everyone around them.
As always, children have been affected the most, with suicide and self-harm - particularly among teenage girls - skyrocketing since the arrival of the smartphone in 2007.
This problem is rooted in the perception that celebrities and peers are more beautiful and living more interesting lives than most impressionable teenagers can ever hope for - and this creates feelings of loneliness, alienation, and low self worth.
The internet has also had a fundamental impact on the nature of relationships and has changed the notion of intimacy. From live tweeting miscarriages to under-the-duvet selfies, people are comfortable sharing every aspect of their lives to an extent that would have been inconceivable even twenty years ago.
It can be pretty crazy online, but also dangerous - providing swindlers and fraudsters with new avenues through which to steal and scam other people. In the US alone, $3.3 billion was lost to fraud in 2020 - nearly double the amount lost in 2010 (Consumer Sentinel Network Annual Reports).
From adultery and pornography to gambling and substance abuse, the internet enables all our worst impulses.
And at the same time, the sheer power of the internet has been exploited by companies that value profit over the wellbeing of users and wider society. This has led to the prevalence of fake news, misinformation, and radicalization, with malicious social media strategies tied directly to coups, civil wars, and genocides around the world.
Digital Wellbeing as a Societal Good
Ultimately, the internet’s impact on society is a huge topic and we can only really scratch the surface of it here.
What is clear, however, is that it has had a seismic impact on everybody’s lives. And, with the roll out of Web 3.0 seen as as important as the invention of the smartphone, it will continue to change our lives.
In this context, improving our relationship with our devices is all the more vital and this highlights why digital wellbeing as a concept has grown into a central pillar for overall mental, physical, and emotional health.
Not only is this useful on an individual level, but digital wellbeing offers real benefits to society as a whole.
If you’d like to learn more about this subject, we’ve created a Resource Hub that will teach you how to improve your own digital health.