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Necessity or luxury?

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Friday, 17 September 2010


Governments must prioritise necessities over luxuries. They should never use our taxes for projects that they can’t prove will be good for the community. It is not clear whether the internet is doing more harm than good to the human species. But what is incontestable is that it is a luxury. Human beings don’t need it to flourish - the internet pales into insignificance compared to the must haves of security, health, housing and education.

That’s why the Federal government’s plan to roll out cable under every street to give us quick internet for the cost of $43 billion will go down in history as Australia’s greatest public waste. Forty-three billion dollars amounts to more than $2,000 for every Australian man, woman and child.

That could be used to build and run more than 50 new major hospitals; or about 50,000 new residences, and forever end the homeless crisis in Australia. In fact so many homes could be built that we would have enough spares to house unwanted pets.

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If the government wanted to find out about the effects of encouraging more internet use, it should have jumped on the internet to see what the research says about the impact of the internet. It paints a grim picture, whichever way you Google it.

A recent Neilsen study found that Australian users are spending an average of more than two working days (17 hours) on the internet per week. Younger people spent far more time and broadband access also increases usage times.

Most internet use relates to email, (anti-)social networking sites and trash searches, including video clips and porn.

But what about positive educational outcomes? Well, on balance there probably are none. The research suggests that the internet is probably making us dumber. It allows us to access millions of facts, but does nothing to improve our problem-solving and cognitive capabilities. While screen based learning can enhance visual-spatial intelligence, it weakens our higher level intellectual functions.

It is even more retrograde from a work and health perspective. Online technologies make workers contactable 24/7, breaking the separation between work and family and social life. High internet users report higher levels of stress and anxiety.

And forget out making work more efficient. The media and the financial and legal services sectors have the highest need for internet data and facilities and work hours in those sectors has increased in the internet age. While the internet allows us to do things more quickly, it also results in higher output demands and more stress for workers.

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The passivity of computer use is a major reason for obesity emerging as the number one health problem in the Western World.

The internet is also socially isolating. Facebook and Twitter facilitate superficial, meaningless communications which are devoid of emotional and deeper connectedness and cut into the time people have to develop genuine bonds through shared activities with others. The internet is the cause of incalculable emotional distress from bullying and defamatory tweets. The Australian Bureau of Statistics found in 2009, that 3 per cent of children who used the internet experienced some kind of personal safety or security problem on the internet.

It is hardly surprising that in first large-scale study of Western young people looking at the impact of the internet on mental health, psychologists at Leeds found that high internet users “had a higher incidence of moderate to severe depression than normal users”.

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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is the author of 20 books and over 100 refereed scholarly articles. He is not connected with any political party or other interest group. He is the author of Australian Human Rights Law (forthcoming). Mirko is the author of Being Happy and Dealing with Moral Dilemmas.

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