Is the fact we're spending more time online really such a bad thing?

The media response to a new Ofcom report warns of addiction and isolation. But the internet is here to stay—so let's let it bring us together

August 03, 2018
We use the internet for everything from banking to arranging our social lives. Photo: Pixabay/Prospect composite
We use the internet for everything from banking to arranging our social lives. Photo: Pixabay/Prospect composite

You’re reading this online—the same way that two-thirds of adults in the UK like to keep up-to-date with the news. More than likely, you’re reading it on a mobile device—now the main way of accessing the Internet. The desktop is fast becoming a relic.

And, in all likelihood, you’re reading this on your commute: seven out of ten people use their smartphones as they travel.

Ofcom’s recent Communication Market Report—an annual statistical survey into developments in the technology sector—paints a picture of an ‘always on’ society: increasing demand and expectation of continuous connection via smartphone and tablet.

The immediate press reaction was one warning of addiction and isolation. The 78 per cent of people in the UK with a smartphone, Ofcom reports, check their phone on average every 12 minutes, within five minutes of waking up in the morning and within five minutes of falling asleep at night.

Friendships across the world

Warnings that increased technology use will lead to social isolation are well-intentioned but misleading.

The smartphones we use every day are fundamentally designed for communication and we are definitely still using them that way, even if voice calls are declining (two minutes per month less than in 2016).

Messaging services are on the rise and average data use has soared. We are almost always a sentence, a word or an emoji away from a friend on the other side of the globe.

"To remain offline is to be left behind."

The reassuring notification of a message reminds us that someone is thinking of us. Video calls mean that family in another country can watch their grandchildren grow. Relationships are formed online; communities are forged.

Any censure of today’s youth being phone-obsessed should be tempered with the knowledge that we need to be connected to function in this world. To remain offline is to be left behind.

The pervasiveness of the Internet and the rise in e-commerce mean that the services we depend on now require internet access. Local councils refer people to their online portals, tax returns and benefit applications are processed digitally, and two thirds of adults do their banking online.

A disconnected nation?

This is where we should be concerned: the increase and dependency on online services mean the digital divide is becoming entrenched. The UK is still behind other countries in terms of broadband connectivity.

Our increasing reliance on online services is excluding those who can’t access—or can’t afford to access—the Internet: the 22 per cent who don’t own a smartphone, or the lower income households without a laptop or tablet. Internet resources are increasingly harder for that demographic to access.

Libraries—often the only method of going online for those groups—are subject to cuts and closures.

There is a certain irony in the government pushing online services to assist with welfare for lower income groups while simultaneously removing any hope of accessing that infrastructure.

According to Ofcom, only 51 per cent of households can access full fibre or broadband offering speeds of 100Mbs or more. The best connectivity is in London and the South-East: not surprising to those jaded by a North/South divide. Rural communities are hit hardest, with poor phone reception further compounding the problem.

Those surveyed by Ofcom recognised the benefits of a connected world, with three quarters agreeing that they can better maintain personal relationships that way.

But they also acknowledged an interruption in face-to-face communication, and 15 per cent of people felt that constant online access made them feel they were always at work.

The internet isn't homogenous

When we talk about technology exacerbating social isolation we need to be mindful of the nuance. The benefits far outweigh the negatives. And, whether, we like it or not, we have to adapt. If we don’t, we miss out on far more than a social media hit.

The internet is not a homogenous mass. To talk about it in general terms is to ignore the vital role it plays in so many different aspects of our lives.

Down the millennia we have seen large-scale, disruptive technological changes: writing; the printing press; the factory. It’s a normal human reaction to see the dystopia and to fear the unknown.

We’ve survived them all because we adapt. We have to. Set down your phone now and again, yes, but don’t demonise it. It’s part of our lives as much as a book or a leaflet—or a conversation.