What Internet Anxiety has in Common with Bath Salts, Stranger Danger and Satanic Ritual Abuse

Newsweek published a recent cover story called Is the Internet Making Us Crazy whether they Internet, which has made inroads into everything Americans do, has made us more anxious. The article theorizes whether in the world of texts, tweets, emails, posts and other forms of less personal communication has made us more lonely, anxious and depression. The conclusion is based on a “Newsweek‘s review of findings from more than a dozen countries,” including brain scan data.

According to Newsweek, the review:

… finds the answers pointing in a similar direction. Peter Whybrow, the director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, argues that “the computer is like electronic cocaine,” fueling cycles of mania followed by depressive stretches.

 But, in reality, the Newsweek piece seems to be a classic example of moral panic stories, where journalists and researchers identify thinly sourced trends that appear to threaten the social order but with a closer look appear more dubious   (See  human sex trafficking, bath saltsSatanic ritual abuse, “stranger-danger” and child sexual abuse, Dungeons and Dragons and Internet screen time, as well as VCR, television and radio time before them).

It comes as no surprise that Newsweek competitor Time pokes a couple of holes in the magazine’s theory, attacking every platform in the story. Time notes that brain scans cannot “predict … who will be able to regain control over their behavior and who will not” and that ” there is no brain scan that can clearly determine whether certain brain changes signify addiction or simple, harmless enjoyment.”

The Time piece notes that one of the key sources, Baroness Susan Greenfield, a pharmacology professor at Oxford,”never published a study on Internet use,” adding:

The logic behind her claims is often befuddling: for example, this is how she attempted to explain why she believes the Internet has something to do with the recent rise in autism, in a 2011 interview with the Guardian: “I point to the increase in autism and I point to Internet use. That’s all.” Obviously, that is not scientific reasoning, which is why her comments inspired an Internet meme (among other outrage and disdain) that trended on Twitter.

The Time article concludes that Newsweek sqaundered an opportunity with its cover story. “The Internet might indeed be a cause of our societal worries, but not necessarily because we’re addicted to it,” the Time author wrote. “And creating a moral panic based on flimsy evidence isn’t going to help, no matter what the real cause of our problems.”

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