Positive & Negative Impacts of the Internet

By Elizabeth Mott

From 1991 through 2001, computer scientists at the University of Cambridge maintained a webcam pointed at the coffee maker, saving department members a trip down the hall to an empty carafe. In the Internet's infancy, it astonished everyone with its ability to put seemingly everything onscreen, from profound to trivial and enlightening to irrelevant. Which parts of Internet access, behavior and information you consider positive and which you call negative depend on your likes, dislikes and experiences.

Global Learning Vs. Vegging Out

Internet connectivity puts a world of entertainment, information, scholarly research and educational content at the fingertips of anyone with a Web connection and a browser. It speeds access to knowledge and serves up source material that otherwise would languish on shelves in distant repositories. At the same time that it encourages learning and rewards research curiosity, however, Internet access can promote inactivity and a lack of physical fitness, and increase the amount of passive entertainment consumption that substitutes for stimulating physical activity.

Immediate Information Vs. Data Overload

In a world with an increasing taste for instant gratification and a growing tendency to expect an answer to any question instantaneously through a search engine, the Internet encourages a specialized form of intellectual gullibility. Online connectivity leads people believe everything they see if it appears real, valid and trustworthy, especially if multiple results point to the same dubious conclusion in an apparent chorus of agreement. The sheer volume of information available through search engines can overcomplicate simple research tasks and leave individuals drowning in a sea of data. Of course, that data sea is also responsible for the widespread dissemination of useful information.

Global Communication Vs. Isolated Oversharing

Find a friend, locate a lost relative, connect with people who share your interests regardless of where they live, help and support others who face familiar illnesses or troubles -- all these interpersonal positives become realities with online access. At the same time, the built-in anonymity in which individuals can cloak themselves gives them opportunities to indulge in behavior they never would commit in public, and offers con artists and other bad guys legions of targets they otherwise couldn't access. The chat-room friend masks a predator; the poignantly plucky survivor of a deadly disease turns out to be a con artist; the gut-spilling oversharer forms an all-too-convenient target of cyberbullying.

Crowdsourced Strengths Vs. Security Risks

With Internet access, you can start a movement to correct an inequity or save something that's endangered, fund a worthy cause through the small donations of tens of thousands of far-flung donors or shine a bright virtual light on inequities that otherwise might continue unnoticed. The same connectedness that powers all these moments and milestones also can enact a price for Internet participation, in the forms of privacy risks, identity theft, compromised personal security and computer malware. Without vigilant use of protective software and an "are-you-who-you-say-you-are" skepticism about the strangers you meet online, you face the real possibility of losing control of your persona in the face of Internet crime.