The advent of the Internet promised many things. Among them was the notion that the world would use less paper and therefore require the cutting of fewer trees, thereby preserving the world’s forests and biodiversity. In fact, the use and waste of paper has multiplied many times since that proclamation. The rise of the Internet also promised to make the world a smaller place by connecting individuals from even the furthest corners of the globe. A person can communicate with family, friends, or business associates anywhere in the world at the speed of light. No more letters, telegrams, or long distance phones call dictated by time differences as the earth spins on its axis.
But the same advantages that have made the Internet such a convenience in our lives have also made it a detriment. Many people are addicted to the Internet, unable or unwilling to look away from their phone or computer. They spend hours on social media, browsing randomly, gambling online, or shopping online compulsively. Some people become news-junkies. Others habitually check their emails and messages a hundred times a day. At the gym, I see college students sitting on exercise equipment obsessively checking their smartphones instead of actually exercising. At restaurants, I see everyone at a table checking their phones instead of talking to each other. All this affects happiness. They say the Internet connects us, but in many ways we are disconnected from each other. Studies suggest that we are lonelier than ever.
Realizing the negative impact on quality of life and happiness, nations such as France have made it against the law for employers to contact workers during their non-working hours. One recent study found that tweens and teens text more than 3,000 times a month! (That’s 100 texts a day.) My six year old daughter wants a smartphone so she can send texts to friends. Six! She can barely spell words, yet she wants to text. When I ask her who she plans to text, she replies, “One of the girls in my class just got a cell phone.” And then there are the pitfalls of social media, which distracts young people even further, causing emotional harm to many and death through suicide for some.
I’m talking about cyberbullying, that epidemic that we know destroys the lives of many young people every year. Indeed, 19% of young cyberbullying victims attempt suicide. But cyberbullying isn’t only for tweens and teens. Adults use social media and blogs to damage the lives, reputations, and careers of other adults. The epidemic can’t be blamed on immaturity and undeveloped brains. The anonymity of the Internet allows bullies to demonize others without fear of retaliation, a kind of remote gossiping. In the past, a wronged person might challenge his or her accuser in defense of honor. Alexander Hamilton, that Renaissance Man of Revolutionary America and the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, whose face graces the $10 bill, met his demise in such a way. But how does one defend against online attacks that never go away and propagate nationwide and even worldwide through social media and blogs?
Sociologist C. Wright Mills recognized the dangers even in the 1950s when he wrote how “the alienation of individuals in modern society results in anxiety, frustration, anger, powerlessness, and apathy—the indifference toward others.” Before the Internet, Mills foresaw how the rise of individualism in the Modern Age corresponded with the loss of the self as an intricate and responsible member of a community in which members are connected and often related to each other. Such closeness to one’s neighbors implies a degree of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness, otherwise community couldn’t be maintained. In a world where people do not expect to be granted compassion, mercy, or forgiveness, how can we expect anyone to grant these graces to others?
Cyberbullying works because people are all too willing to read the online stories on their computer or smartphone and make hasty judgment about the victims. (“If it’s in print,” the saying goes, “it’s got to be true.”) Some forward the stories to others, furthering increasing the harm to victims. What makes a person do such a thing? (Is it the online equivalent of slowing down to peer at car wrecks? Are we so unhappy that we find some joy in knowing that someone else suffers more than we do?) In many ways, the Internet has created a social space where we surround ourselves with like-minded “friends” that hinders free discourse, that cornerstone of democracy.
What is the future of compassion in world where the sales of smartphones increase by more than a billion units every year? How do you practice compassion in an online world? First, as the adage goes, “Don’t believe everything you read.” There’s a reason why someone has posted a malicious story or an injurious image of someone. They mean to harm that person. Don’t compound the harm by reposting or forwarding the story or image.
John Smelcer is the author of more than fifty books, including his inspirational novel, The Gospel of Simon, available on the Charter’s Marketplace page: https://charterforcompassion.org/marketplace-books