The Washington Post
By Dominic Basulto
A new study from researchers at the University of Hong Kong claims that 420 million people are addicted to the Internet, about 6 percent of the world’s population. That 6 percent number may not sound high but it is – it’s actually more than three times the rates of pathological gambling observed in even the most gambling-obsessed nations around the world. Taken at face value, this study supports the notion that the rapid rate of technological adoption around the world is being taken way out of control, and that we’re awash in gadgets, phones and digital devices.
Consider another, more positive scenario: That 6 percent number is actually a sign that more people than ever before are using the Internet to drive rapid and systematic socioeconomic change. In short, rapid rates of Internet adoption by the world’s youth are the reason why we are seeing Arab Spring-type scenarios spontaneously happen around the globe.
To set up the study, the Hong Kong researchers considered two possible hypotheses. The first one, based on Robert E. Mann’s paper “Availability as a Law of Addiction,” suggests that “availability” matters: The more you have access to the Internet, the more you will use it. The other hypothesis, not quite as obvious, is that “Quality of Life” matters: The worse your quality of real life, the more you are looking for an escapist alternative in the virtual world. The question the researchers were trying to answer is whether the relatively high rates of Internet addiction around the world were a result of “availability” (lots of gadgets and ubiquitous Internet access) or a result of “quality of life” (low GDP per capita and grim socioeconomic conditions).
Based on the data used, the paper argued that Internet addiction was a result of “quality of life” – impoverished nations with weak socioeconomic safety nets are more likely to have worse Internet addiction rates than wealthier nations. In fact, according to the researchers, Internet addiction was found to be highest in countries or regions with a lower quality of life (defined both by low GDP and environmental factors such as bad pollution and lots of traffic jams), not in the countries with the highest rates of Internet availability. In other words, people are getting addicted to the Internet because their real-world lives are so awful and they want some form of escape, not because they are surrounded by tablets and smartphones and PCs.
The Middle East scored a lot higher than Europe, for example. According to the researchers, the Middle East posted an Internet addiction rate of 10.9 percent, compared to a rate of 2.6 percent for Northern and Western Europe.
Importantly, the researchers had to throw out a lot of the data in order to compare apples with apples and oranges with oranges. So, the average age of a person considered for the data set is 18.42 — basically, your average teenager who has lots of free time to spend texting and hanging out online (and filling out surveys). So, the study is basically saying that 6 percent of teenagers around the world are addicted to the Internet, not 6 percent of all Internet users. This is a huge distinction.
Taken together, what it all means is that all the breathless hype about “Internet addiction” and “a world awash in Internet addiction” might actually be a good thing, not a bad thing. It means that the Internet continues to be viewed as the route to socioeconomic improvement and betterment. Emerging nations with below-average GDP growth rates or low quality of life factors (high pollution, high traffic, bad health care) are the ones that stand to benefit the most from Internet penetration. From that perspective, initiatives such as Mark Zuckerberg’s bold vision to bring the Internet to the world’s billions might really make a difference.
And that’s what squares with recent experience of the Arab Spring in the Middle East (not coincidentally, the region posting the highest rates of Internet addiction in the study). There you have massive youth unemployment, combined with difficult social conditions that curtail opportunities for women and religious minorities. As a result, the region’s youth take to the Internet, find out about Western freedoms and democracy, and begin spontaneously organizing using tools such as smartphones, Twitter and messaging apps. Their willing embrace of all new technological platforms becomes the impetus for massive social change and social betterment.
So the next time someone frets about high rates of Internet addiction, just smile and know that maybe it’s a good thing, not a bad thing.
The numbers appear to support the arrival of even more Arab Spring scenarios in nations where young teenagers are living without any future economic prospects. It’s not so much that they are “addicts” — it’s that they are intoxicated with the ability to use the Internet to change their standards of living.
Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.