If the internet isn’t free, neither are we

How the FCC's decision to nix net neutrality in the US affects us all as students and Canadians

If the internet isn’t free, neither are we

On December 14, 2017, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted three against two to repeal net neutrality laws introduced during Barack Obama’s presidency.

FCC chief Ajit Pai, one of three Republican members of the five-person panel, had proposed the repeal of net neutrality on November 21, 2017, stating that the current rules were overly restrictive for consumer and service providers and did not allow them to offer different tiers of internet service.

Put simply, net neutrality requires internet providers to treat all online data in the same way and not discriminate based on content, source, or platform. As such, it protects internet freedom and preserves user agency. It ensures that profit-driven providers do not block or slow down traffic to certain websites or apps, and that users and developers are not required to pay more to gain access to content posted online. Without net neutrality in place, US telecommunications giants like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon can effectively become gatekeepers of entertainment and information, gaining the ability to demand more money for faster internet, as long as the companies state that they are doing so beforehand.

The repeal of net neutrality might affect Canadian internet users as well. For instance, Canadians might have to pay extra for their favourite US-based streaming services like Spotify and Netflix, as those companies in turn will have to pay more to stay in the US internet providers’ fast lanes.

More concerningly, unbeknownst to many Canadians, Bell Canada, one of the country’s leading internet providers, is also pushing to repeal net neutrality. According to CANADALAND, Bell recently submitted a proposal to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). If approved, this proposal would allow Bell to create an organization called the Internet Piracy Review Agency (IPRA), which, in alliance with US movie studios and broadcasters, would blacklist certain websites on the grounds of combating piracy. Bell’s proposal has since been endorsed by Cineplex, and Rogers is also considering granting it support. However, given Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent affirmation in favour of net neutrality, it seems unlikely that the CRTC will accept Bell’s proposal.

Nonetheless, Pai’s proposal has understandably thrown the internet into an uproar. Users have flooded various social networking sites, urging American internet users to file complaints with the FCC or to contact their local senators or representatives in Congress. Those who were hesitant to go through those probably long and arduous processes were implored to text a service line and to sign a widely circulated petition to ensure that net neutrality remained in place.

Raising various defences to his actions, Pai has stated that repealing net neutrality “is not going to destroy the Internet,” is “not going to end the Internet as we know [it],” is “not going to kill democracy,” and is “not going to stifle free expression online.” These statements ring hollow given that before net neutrality rules were established by the FCC in 2015, telecommunications companies took advantage of the lack of regulation.

From 2007–2009, AT&T, which then had the exclusive rights to sell iPhones, forced Apple to block Skype to avoid competition. In 2010, digital subscriber line provider Windstream Communications started redirecting search results made from the Google toolbar to Windstream’s own search engine. In 2011, wireless carrier MetroPCS announced that it would only allow streaming from YouTube over its 4G network. In 2012, Verizon blocked its mobile customers from using mobile hotspot applications, forcing them to pay Verizon’s $20 tethering fee.

From 2011 to 2013, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon blocked mobile payment systems — Google Wallet being a notable one — since they competed with Isis Wallet, a mobile payment app backed by the three companies. In 2012, AT&T blocked FaceTime from its iPhones unless customers subscribed to a more expensive text-and-voice plan.

All these instances highlight that the repeal of net neutrality will hinder competition rather than promote it. In 2015, the FCC forced telecommunications companies to stop blocking services, and net neutrality rules demanded that they start being transparent and stop paid prioritization and unreasonable interference. Now that the rules are no longer in place, telecommunications companies have free reign to block websites and apps that offer services in direct competition with their own, be they search engines, mobile wallets, voice and video calling apps, or music and video streaming services.

It should also be noted that Pai formerly held the position of Associate General Counsel at Verizon, one of the giants that stands to benefit from the repeal of net neutrality laws. Given this, one might wonder whether Pai is really acting in consumers’ best interests or whether he has ulterior motives.

We are living in a time when internet communication and open access to information is necessary to fact-check every statement made by the President of the United States, to mobilize movements and protests, and to decry and spread awareness of injustice in public forums. Accordingly, the loss of net neutrality is potentially devastating given the possibility that telecommunications companies will deliberately withhold information from users in order to turn a profit.

Despite Trudeau’s support of net neutrality, it is worth noting that Canada could hypothetically meet the same fate as the US on the matter. Bell has violated rules of net neutrality in the past: it was forced to amend the pricing model for its mobile TV app after the CRTC found that Bell allowed consumers to use its mobile TV app for longer durations than other mobile streaming services without incurring extra charges. Bell was also sued for throttling internet speeds in 2008.

It would be dangerous for the CRTC to approve Bell’s proposal to create an organization able to block websites on grounds of piracy — the websites that the proposal would apply to could very well be those websites in direct competition with Bell’s services. This concern arises whether or not the claims of piracy are justified. It should be noted that when Verizon blocked Google Wallet from its smartphones, it tried to use “security concerns” as a guise for preventing other wallets from competing with AT&T, T-Mobile, and the Verizon-backed Isis Wallet.

In today’s political landscape, and given that students rely so heavily on the internet to stay informed, it is nettling to find it held captive by corporations — especially given that much content on the internet is created and distributed through US-based channels. One source of potential relief, however, is that US internet providers will probably not block numerous websites or slow down surfing speeds at once — it is more likely that customers will be eased into a system of multi-tier service, meaning American internet users will likely not see a drastic change in the quality of their internet coverage anytime soon. Given that the FCC is being sued by multiple US state attorneys, the hope is that net neutrality will be reinstated before that time comes.

Zeahaa Rehman is a third-year student at UTM studying Linguistics and Professional Writing.

The permanent internet

IPFS might be a viable alternative to HTTP

The permanent internet

We have reached a point where a life without internet access is simply inconceivable for many, and this is understandable. For the first time in human history, we are able to communicate instantaneously with almost anyone in any part of the world. As well, there is a vast repository of free information that lies within the reach of anyone who seeks it.

But the workings of the internet seem mysterious and otherworldly. What we call the internet is actually a whole bunch of protocols, defined as a set of rules that facilitate data transfer reliably among machines.

The predominant protocol that we see in almost every web address is the HyperText Transfer Protocol, commonly known as HTTP. Created by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, it specifies rules for handling hypertext, which is structured text that uses logical hyperlinks between nodes containing text.

Though HTTP has served us well for the most part, the rapid expansion of the internet has been unprecedented, and it continues to expand at a frenetic pace. As a result, there are some problems that have revealed themselves over the years.

The predominant issue with HTTP is that it facilitates the transfer of a document, or group thereof, from a single computer housed in one location — the server — to another computer that could be in a completely different location — the client. This results in the slow and expensive internet that many currently experience.

Further, this tends to be unreliable because if a single link in an HTTP transfer cuts out, the entire connection is severed. This begs the question: can we do better?

Fortunately, this question is music to the computer scientist’s ears, and the proposed solution is the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS). Instead of delivering a document directly from server to client each time, this protocol allows a client trying to access the document to stitch together shreds of that document from other clients in the vicinity who have already received or are in the process of receiving it from the server.

This might sound familiar because this is exactly how torrents and other peer-to-peer networks work. When someone tries to download a torrent file from a host, they are actually receiving different pieces of the file from ‘peers’ who are actively ‘seeding,’ or uploading, the file even though they haven’t completely downloaded it yet.

Even the user downloading the document is part of this process, and the more peers there are, the faster the download happens. Their combined upload speed determines how quickly the pieces of the document can be up for grabs, and how quickly the client puts these pieces together in their machine depends on their download speed.

This occurs in any torrent client while downloading — hopefully legal — material. The peer list shows their IP address, location, percentage of the file downloaded, and upload speed among other information.

Another massive advantage of the IPFS is that any media on it is completely distributed. Instead of a link referring to the physical location of a document as in HTTP, an IPFS link will refer to the ‘hash’ of the file’s contents. Think of a hash as a code language: for some sensible input – be it a text file, video, or anything else – a hash function will assign to it a unique sequence of characters.

If someone tries to access a file, IPFS will essentially ask the network, ‘Does anyone have a file corresponding to this hash?,’ and any clients that happen to possess it will reply. Following this, a connection will be established between the device asking for the document and all the latter clients.

This is extremely powerful for another reason: any document on the IPFS network will permanently be on the internet. This can be used to avoid active censorship by any government or authoritarian body, and in fact, it has already been used for this purpose.

When the recent Catalan referendum was organized, the Spanish government actively tried to clamp down on any websites or online content that the proponents of the referendum possessed. As a result, supporters turned to the IPFS to host a website that anyone can access and that no single authority could block. In order to do so, the government would have to block internet usage for all peers on the network and effectively deny internet access for everyone.

This revolutionary form of file transfer is only nascent as of recent. It is imperative that its impact be recognized as an alternative to the sluggish, centralized internet fraught with annoying ads and malicious distributed denial-of-service attacks that will eventually bring about its own undoing.

When livestreaming goes wrong

A look at those who stream harrowing acts

When livestreaming goes wrong

Hypertabs is The Varsity’s online features subsection about all things Internet. Our goal is to explore the depths of the online world and understand how it shapes our habits and affects our communities.


Content warning: descriptions of violence and sexual violence

On January 5, 2017, four young adults from Boston allegedly kidnapped their mentally disabled classmate, chanting anti-Trump phrases while repeatedly assaulting him. There’s another chilling element to this gruesome attack: it was all recorded on Facebook Live. The 30-minute video has now been viewed millions of times.

In April, a man in Thailand killed his daughter on Facebook Live. It took roughly 24 hours for the social networking giant to remove the clip.

Soon afterward, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder, posted a statement on his timeline referencing the issue: “Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen people hurting themselves and others on Facebook — either live or in video posted later… It’s heartbreaking, and I’ve been reflecting on how we can do better for our community.”

Alongside these broadcasted crimes comes an issue of responsibility: at what point are social media platforms responsible for removing content? At what point are we, the users, responsible for enabling and disseminating toxic behaviour?

Before Facebook Live

The first record of internet-based livestreaming technology was a live e-radio broadcast of a 1995 baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Seattle Mariners by a Seattle startup company called Progressive Networks.

A year later came the first video livestream; Marc Scarpa, a proponent of live participatory media platforms, livestreamed the Tibetan Freedom Concert to 36,000 online viewers.

Commercial expansion of livestreaming tools followed alongside the expansion of social media platforms themselves; as public use of mobile phones and social media increased, so too did the technology of livestreaming. Services like Ustream — a platform initially created for those in the US military to contact their families while overseas — and Meerkat gradually grew in popularity.

Periscope was launched in 2015 and offers users the ability to livestream whatever they choose to their audience. Those viewing a stream can interact with it through comments and by giving ‘hearts.’

On February 27, 2015, Marina Lonina, an Ohio teenager, livestreamed her friend’s sexual assault on Periscope. Interestingly, Lonina’s defendant argued that she had “got caught up in the likes.” Lonina was charged and convicted of obstructing justice; she eventually received a nine-month sentence following a plea deal but initially had faced additional charges, including rape.

Since Periscope, livestreaming services have spread significantly across social media. In 2015, Twitter officially bought Periscope. Livestreaming has also been adopted by a variety of other social media platforms including Instagram, YouTube, and of course, Facebook.

On Motives

Criminals seeking fame and attention for their crimes is nothing new, but with mediums like Facebook Live and Periscope, criminals can broadcast their actions instantly. And while previously, those who committed crimes had to rely on traditional media outlets to report on their crimes, now, all it takes is a retweet, a share, or a like.

With the added element of a livestream, criminals can now perform their crimes for an audience. In an increasingly connected world, perhaps users should expect more livestreamed crimes intended for an audience.

Moving Forward

Recently, a trove of leaked documents was revealed to showcase Facebook’s policies on removing content from the site. The leak, published by The Guardian as the “Facebook Files,” offers insight into what the platform will allow — like illustrated sexual activity and animal abuse — and what it will not allow, like graphic sexual activity. However, much of these rules are a result of user-generated dissatisfaction and uproar.

The Boston kidnapping and Thailand murder all illustrate a powerful shift in the culture of live streaming. With nearly a third of the world’s population using Facebook, the social media site has promised to hire an additional 3,000 moderators to their Community Operations team — bringing the total to 7,500 moderators for its nearly two billion users.

It has been suggested that, in the future, technology companies will consider automated tools to moderate content for possible removal. Until then, it’s up to users to flag inappropriate content, and human moderators to skim through it all and make judgement calls.

Given the rise in performative crime and livestreaming, it’s up to users to consider what content they want blocked — and at what cost.

For immediate (stress) relief

Writers divulge their favourite sources of online escapism

For immediate (stress) relief

There are certain things that just make us feel good. It’s hard to understand why we’re attracted to those things, but the answer may lie in their stress relieving abilities. We asked our writers to share the videos that help them get through the tough times; they delved deep and dished about watching everything from pimple-popping videos to old band interviews. Remember: this is a judgment-free zone.


 

Dr. Pimple Popper

Dr. Sandra Lee, better known as Dr. Pimple Popper, takes pimple popping to a whole new level. She is not your average pimple-popping human, but is actually a qualified dermatologist from Southern California. She is certified to treat skin conditions and extract milia, epidermoid cysts, pilar cysts, blackheads, whiteheads, lipomas, and more!

The feeling of complete satisfaction while watching cyst after cyst become free of the confines of human skin is quite nice. Watching Dr. Pimple Popper successfully extract the cysts with some medical tool after oh so many attempts, causes a sense of gratification to take me over. This exact feeling keeps me coming back for more. In a world full of dissatisfaction, let me justify my strange infatuation with pimple-popping videos — I need some satisfaction in life. In fact, maybe you do, too.
— Grace Manalili

Band interviews

I am obsessed with watching music interviews on the Internet. When I say obsessed, it means that I can go hours watching 45 minute interviews back-to-back. I study each response and bear in mind every facial expression. It’s like the greatest stress reliever. In my early highschool years, One Direction, 5 Seconds of Summer, and Mindless Behaviour were my drugs of choice.

Recently, retro interviews have been my favourite. It’s fascinating to see a time when the Internet did not exist and wearing spandex was acceptable. It’s also amazing to see how these artists could become famous without the help of the Internet.

One example of this is Outkast. They were this group from Atlanta who rose to fame in a time when the kings of rap, Biggie and Tupac, were feuding between the east coast and west coast. They were young, ambitious, and hungry to take over the industry. This interview is my favourite because it was the dawn of their stardom. How could they possibly have known that mega-hits like “Hey Ya!” or “Ms. Jackson” were in their future?
— Gabrielle Warren

Travel videos

The Internet and I are best friends. From the confines of Robarts, I can experience delicious food I can’t afford, wear clothes I can’t afford, and travel to amazing places I have never been to — and definitely can’t afford. In my first year at U of T, I unwittingly fell down the rabbit hole of travel videos. Since then I have been to Norway, Italy, Thailand, and anywhere else YouTube wants to take me.

It was in these many searches that I discovered one particularly magical video that changed the game of Internet travelling for me. Hailing from Calgary, Alberta, I often find myself overwhelmed by the beast of a city that is Toronto and longing for the Rocky Mountains and the endless sky of my homeland.

The aforementioned magical video is a Travel Alberta advertisement. Whenever the weight of U of T or the bustle of the city makes me feel the need to escape, I simply sit down and watch this video. Sometimes only once, sometimes on repeat, depending on the day. The beauty of it all keeps my stress at bay and reminds me not only that home is never far away, but that the whole world is at my fingertips waiting to be explored, and not just from the Internet.
— Kristen Sevick

Pregnancy announcements

Pregnancy announcements have recently exploded in popularity, garnering millions of views per video. They are are packed with emotion and addictive to watch. Unlike marriage proposals, pregnancy announcements are much shorter, more excitement-filled, and all equally satisfying. The reactions of the family are often extravagant — earphones are highly recommended if watching in public — but considering how much I screamed and jumped when I found out I was getting a little brother, they are accurate. These are my feel-good videos when I need a boost at the end of a long day.
— Linh Nguyen

Haul videos

Consumerism is my lifelong problematic fave. Since my formative pre-teen years, my undying love of fashion has spurred many zealous shopping sprees, as well as a thirst for stylish online content. Haul videos represent the YouTube manifestation of this particular guilty pleasure. They showcase the minute details of the videographer’s recent fashion finds. Vloggers walk the viewer through each piece they purchased on their recent splurge, often organizing them by season and store and even modeling them to demonstrate how they might look with different outfits.

The magic of haul videos, for me, is their accessibility. They condense hours of shopping into easily digestible video segments, allowing the viewers to relive the experience without ever leaving their homes. They are also a source of inspiration; I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen an outfit I liked in a haul and tried to recreate it from my own closet, free of charge. And for those of us who can’t afford to spend $500 on a pair of coveted shoes that will match with nothing in our closets, the best vloggers also create segments that are more financially feasible, including hauls from big-box stores like Target, or thrift stores like Value Village and Goodwill.
— Teodora Pasca

An Unhealthy Dose of Dot Com

Internet addiction is difficult to define; it’s also dangerous

An Unhealthy Dose of Dot Com

Hypertabs is The Varsity‘s online features subsection about all things Internet. Our goal is to explore the depths of the online world and understand how it shapes our habits and affects our communities. You can read the other articles included in this project here.


Twice a year, I find myself checking my e-mail a bit more than usual. In December and January, I check Outlook incessantly expecting messages from professors informing the class that final marks are available online; and in April and May, the confirmation of summer prospects drive my anxious inbox refreshing.

I am fully aware of how ridiculous this neurotic activity is; checking my email will not make anything happen any faster. Interestingly, it occurred to me recently that my compulsive behaviour has only been made possible by the birth of Web 2.0 – a new term coined to define the transition from what was previous a mostly ‘passive’ interaction with the Internet to the interactive and user-generated experience brought about by innovations like social media. The recent over-development of the ‘refresh-impulse’ has enabled, if not aggravated users’ impatience and neuroticism online, and it leads us to wonder: is this obsessive behaviour innate, or are we simply victims of the Internet?

In this country, much like almost everywhere else in the world, the Internet has reached a critical ubiquity. In fact, Canada leads the world in sites visited and time spent per person on the Internet. As students, we use it for research, communication, and, of course, procrastination. Sometimes this can go beyond just spending half an hour too long scrolling through Twitter. Whether it’s gaming, social media, pornography, or e-mail, the Internet is a space where addictive behaviour can flourish.

Digital Damage

Hyacinth*, a first-year life science student, likes to watch videos on the Internet as a way to take a break from studying. Sometimes, the break becomes a binge. “Part of me thinks it is good for stress relieving, the other part tells me that is bull crap, sleeping more is better for that. I wake up [for a] test the next day feeling tired and fucked up. Never again… or so I think.”

Internet addiction is not based solely on how long one uses the Internet, it is also influenced by the extent to which the Internet disrupts daily routines, relationships and health. James, a fourth-year engineering student, regrets his overuse of the Internet. “Surfing the Internet is all I did after I came home from [high] school… As a result, I have very few useful skills and competencies today. I’m starting to change that now, but I’ll never get that time back,” he explains.

“If I study, I need Internet. It is hard not to be distracted while doing real work, it is always there luring me,” admits Hyacinth. “When I open my laptop for studying, I have this procedure [in my] memory that makes me open [Google Chrome] and click reddit, since I have been doing it so often.”

Wasting time is not the only problem. Over dependence on the Internet is routinely linked to health concerns including: obesity, headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, changes in sleeping patterns and shrinking of brain tissue. While all those symptoms are undesirable, the last one seems the most frightening.

The shrinking of brain tissue is connected to online gaming addictions. In a study of university aged Chinese students with online gaming addictions, researchers found that gray matter in the brain’s cortex — where speech, memory, motor control and emotions are all processed — shrunk by as much as 10 to 20 per cent. The longer the behaviour persisted, the more tissue was lost.

Interestingly Karl Friston, a neuroscientist at University College London, says that brain tissue shrinkage is not necessarily a bad thing. He argues that it could be a result of the brain adjusting to a frequent habit and optimizing itself to perform certain tasks. For example, a study of taxi drivers found a similar shrinkage sometimes called densification, in brain tissue due to better developed spatial navigation skills. While this may not seem so dangerous, white matter in the brain — which links different regions –— was also shown to be affected by gaming addictions. Addicts’ brains often had reduced white matter, which adversely affected short term memory and decision making. Additionally, a German study found that people who used the Internet excessively exhibited gene mutations similar to those found in smokers.

While there is no question that excessive Internet use can be detrimental, experts in the world of psychology are divided on whether it constitutes an addiction — and if it is, what should be done about it. 

A Question of Legitimacy

In 1998, a psychologist named Kimberly Young developed the Internet Addiction Test (IAT), a set of 20 questions that ask participants to measure how often they use the internet on a scale of zero (never) to five (always). According to the test, the higher the score, the stronger the subject’s addiction, although it is not without its critcis. Dr. Young believes that problematic Internet use (PIU) – an accepted term for damaging Internet use — does constitute an addiction, and she is not alone. Dr. Ofer Zur, a licensed psychologist, agrees, and has documented what he understands as the stages of Internet addiction. Dr. Young’s test is still seen as the gold standard for measuring Internet addictions, though it is not without its critics.

Skpetics of Internet addiction include Dr. John Gohrol, the founder of Psych Central, a mental health social networking tool. Gohrol, who has described Internet addiction as a “fad disorder,” has lambasted research in the field for bias and inconsistency. Others have argued that, while PIU is an issue, it is not an addiction. They fear that calling PIU an addiction could lead to unnecessary medication and pathology of all behaviour relating to internet use. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) currently considers online gaming a disorder, but, citing a lack of research, excludes surfacing the web as a definable addiction. Internet addiction, because it is behavioural, is difficult to define. So far, gambling is the only behavioural disorder in the DSM-5; the rest are related to substance use.

Many experts believe that Internet addiction has little to do with the Internet itself. Some researchers see it as a symptom of social anxiety, depression, fear of missing out, and obsessive-compulsiveness. Dr. Bruce Ballon, an associate professor at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and director of the Internet addiction program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), identifies underlying psychiatric problems in his patients and tries to solve those, instead of addressing internet habits themselves.

Providing a different perspective, freelance writer Michael Shulson suggests that the Internet is designed for compulsive use. Many websites, especially publications born in the digital age – think Buzzfeed, Gawker, and Upworthy – making their money from page views and clicks. Writers, publishers and advertisers alike benefit from maximizing exposure to these web pages. These sites — often arbiters of the infamous and ubiquitous clickbait that clogs our social media feeds — depend on constant scrolling, link clicking and page sharing. In fact, strategies attempting to capitalize on this behaviour are becoming normalized. Nir Eyal, a consultant working with several Silicon Valley firms, wrote a book called Hooked, teaching web designers how to give their sites “narcotic-like properties.” Eyal does exhibit some discretion; he refuses to consult for pornography and gambling sites, and his book has a moral rubric to encourage ethical behaviour. Some readers of Hooked might take Eyal’s ethical suggestions seriously, while others will use his tips and tricks to manipulate and entice visitors into visiting their own sites.

Shulson’s theory that the Internet, as a platform, has addictive qualities, seems convincing. It has made bingeing easier and normal. Pornography and gambling can be addictive independent of the Internet, but it makes them easier to access. With the web, you don’t have to stop gambling when the casino closes, and money seems more disposable when it’s bet online. The Internet has created a space for millions of free porn videos and photos, eliminating the need to spend money on a dirty magazine or adult video. Netflix has led the charge on bingeing with its automatic progression from one video to the next. Facebook has followed suit, implementing a video feed that automatically plays several similar clips after watching one video. This phenomenon extends past entertainment and recreation, after all, the internet is always open, allowing impatient students like myself to check our email relentlessly, and ambitious executives to work far past office hours if they please.

Although definitions and designations are undecided, it seems conclusive that the Internet can foster destructive behaviour. Cures and solutions have so far manifested in several forms.

Regaining Ctrl

The fight against Internet addiction, traces its roots back to an area among the worst affected: East Asia. In as early as 2005, 40 per cent of Hong Kong’s youth were addicted to the Internet. In 2009, China had over 400 clinics that treated Internet addiction. South Korea implemented the radically unpopular and euphemistically named Cinderella law in 2011. South Koreans under the age of 16 are “Cinderella,” and the South Korean government serves as the Fairy Godmother, using “magic” to block Cinderella from accessing gaming websites after midnight. The law still applies, but it was eased in 2014.

Countries all over the world have followed East Asia’s example in the battle to curb Internet addiction. There are self-help software solutions like Freedom and Cold Turkey, which allow users to block certain websites at specific times, as well as institutions focused on therapy and rehabilitation. North American approaches usually cost tens of thousands of dollars for treatment. Notable Internet addiction recovery centres include reSTART, in the state of Washington, and Outback Therapeutic Expeditions in Utah, which, for a cool $25,000, provide therapy in the form of a digital detox. Canadian institutions are few, with only the Hôtel-Dieu Grace Healthcare centre in Windsor joining the efforts of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Unlike the costly American programs, Hôtel-Dieu Grace offers a free inpatient program for 21 days.

Life Behind a Screen

For students, social networks are nearly a necessity. They allow us to keep in touch with faraway friends, relax, read news, network, and collaborate with classmates. All of these factors  make it difficult to curb compulsive use. Even if one intends to visit Facebook only to post in a course group, there’s a good chance of being distraced by something unrelated. Anything from a headline to an embarrassing photo can be the beginning of an Internet binge: an indulgent but ultimately regretful spree of scrolling, hopping through hyperlinks and amassing an army of tabs, all to wonder where the time went at the end of it.

Many websites, including smaller social media sites, allow people to log in with Facebook or Twitter. Moreover, social media widgets encourage users to share content with their friends. So, not only does social media provide access to its native networks, it allows easy access to the rest of the Internet. It’s possible to ignore social media altogether, but its seductive convenience is too alluring for most.

In 2011, 86 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 18-34 had a social media profile. It makes sense: why would anyone forgo a digital world where you can talk to friends, read the news, watch videos, and publish your thoughts all in one place?

Hyacinth argues that interaction is easier on the Internet. “Clubs are fun, but their [hours are] usually inconvenient. It is easier to spend 30 minutes on Reddit while studying, than to go out and hang out with friends.” For all its benefits, it seems obvious that social media could never recreate the intimacy inherent to face-to-face contact. Cute emojis are no substitute for hugs and kisses, and online communication — where people toil over the perfect status update and carefully curate their profiles — strips users of authentic interaction. Hyacinth tells me that he will probably rely on the Internet less when he makes more friends, but I cannot help but wonder how  people can go about making more friends when they spend most of their spare time online. 

Internet addiction is clearly a difficult problem to solve. The Internet has made life easier in many ways, and has become a key component of our lives. This makes it both difficult to avoid, and even more difficult to identify where it transitions from being a part of life to controlling one’s life. It’s fluidity blurs work and play, socialness and anti-socialness. Smartphones, tablets and computers make it almost as omnipresent as the air we breathe. How do we manage? 

Perhaps our best hope is to Google it.

*Name changed at student’s request