Writer

The Internet is ruining the universe. (Again).

Last week, the most forwarded example of such a grab-your-smelling-salts warning came in the form of Newsweek’s “iCrazy” cover. It featured a traumatized technophile under the headline “Panic. Depression. Psychosis. How Connection Addiction is Rewiring our Brains.” If you didn’t buy a copy, you might have been forwarded a link, probably by a smug uncle, probably under the smug subject line, “This is why I’m not on Facebook!!!”

If you missed that article, you might have seen another example of the fretting: “Good Morning America” explored the cyberstalking of celebrities, pegged to a Los Angeles ingenue whose inbox became a landfill for a loony fan’s delusional threats. (The Internet: Sullying the notoriously pure Hollywood ingenue experience).

The Newsweek story in particular was a fascinating study, comprehensively rounding up the latest research by the greatest experts on how the Web is totally messing with us.

Still. I have questions.

(Harry Campbell for The Washington Post)

The Internet might be short-circuiting our minds — but is it scrambling us more than television did 60 years ago? More than automobiles? More than books?

We now have sophisticated brain-scanning capabilities that weren’t available to test the impact of those earlier inventions. But treating the Internet as if it were a singular, unique e-drug — the way that many hand-wringing news reports are wont to do — seems strange. Presumably, new technologies have always transformed our brains, in ways big and small. Otherwise we’d still be clubbing our dinner to death with big rocks rather than buying it, dead, from Safeway.

Last year, I wrote a piece comparing the fanatical way Twitter was treated in the news in 2011 with the fanatical way the telephone was treated in the news more than a century ago. Are we doomed to become hysterical doomsayers with every technological advance, to cower in front of fire before realizing that we could use it to cook our bison?

Or, as Lindy West noted in Jezebel, in response to Newsweek’s article, “I’m pretty sure this is the 76th draft of this study, and the original was called ‘The Internet Is Like Tincture of Laudanum.’ ”

Again and again, we confuse technology with human behavior.

The Newsweek article opened with recounting the story of Jason Russell, the “Kony 2012” filmmaker who famously had a breakdown after his video about the Ugandan dictator went viral. But Russell wasn’t suffering from the Internet, he was suffering from sudden fame.

In 2011, an apocalyptic study declared that Facebook was making us depressed: The onslaught of peppy, braggy, barfy status updates could lead users to believe everyone else was happier than they were. But what’s depressing isn’t Facebook — it’s when acquaintances act barfy. That’s not unique to the online world, as anyone who has ever opened a Christmas letter, attended a reunion or shmoozed at a networking event can attest.

All of which isn’t to say that the Internet hasn’t accelerated, enhanced or magnified certain human behaviors. To claim that would be silly and stupid. But it enhances them the way that eggs and flour enhance peanut butter in peanut butter cookie batter. You can blend it, bake it and chemically change it, but the nuts are still there. (We are the nuts, in case this overwrought baking metaphor has burned to a crisp. We are the nuts.)

Incidentally, a new study in the Journal of Adolescent Health was released last week. It found that college students did not seem to become more depressed after using Facebook. Some of them did appear depressed, but there was no correlation between their Internet usage and their sadness.

Why were they depressed? The study didn’t say. Maybe because of genetics. Maybe because of finals. Maybe because human brains are, and will continue to be, more complex than we can yet understand, even with the aid of all the technology in the world.