Internet use is widespread and growing. Current studies indicate that 149 million people are online worldwide, and that the number is increasing at a rate of 12% per month. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 22.2% of the 76 million American computer users aged 3 and older use the Internet, and one fifth of children with home computers were using them to access the Internet as of 1997. Today, that number is undoubtedly higher. The Internet affects family life, politics, business, education, and social life in a variety of ways, both potentially beneficial and harmful.
Technology-driven school reform is still relatively new, and yet it is already present in all aspects of education. Supporters claim that the Internet will help propel students into the future and increase their understanding of the world. According to Gillan, the impact of technology is limitless to society, and society now demands that students develop the ability to operate in a technological environment. So much of the planet is becoming connected through the Internet that online protocol has become an important part of technology-based education. Donald J. Leu, Jr., Rachel A. Karchmer, and Deborah Leu of Syracuse University have written that access to the Internet allows all teachers to benefit from learning what occurs in other classrooms around the globe. They point to the example of teachers and children at the Fahan School in Tasmania, who developed online resources that led to connections with schools in Malang, East Java, the International School in the Netherlands, and many others. The Internet offers central sites for Internet project descriptions, central sites for stories of teachers’ experiences, and mailing lists or listservs.
Some teachers and researchers, however, question the benefit of Internet use among children and young adults. A national survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center in Washington found that most parents in computer households fear the Internet’s influence on their children, because the Internet exposes them to so much information and so many other Internet users. At a large university in New York, the dropout rate among freshman newcomers rose dramatically as the school’s investment in computers and Internet access increased. Administrators learned that 43% of the dropouts were staying up all night on the Internet. No one has proved definitively that the Internet is either “good” or “bad” for children and young people. A recent study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University, called HomeNet, suggests that if parents limit and monitor their children’s Internet use, and if educators carefully incorporate Internet technology into their lesson plans, most children will benefit from the technology.
In all of the spheres mentioned above, the Internet alters the balance of power. The members of society who are traditionally powerful—celebrities, professional criminals, the wealthy, and so on—are given that power through their titles. They are much less powerful on the Internet. Rather, skilled computer users have much more power on the Internet because of their knowledge of its mechanics, not because of a position they have been granted. People whose authority comes from their position do not necessarily lose power, but now, anyone can achieve a powerful position through knowledge of computers. Certain traits that determine social standing in the “real world”—physical appearance, style, confidence and charm in social situations—do not matter on the Internet. The traditional “cool” people may be mocked on the Internet, but they can also be the targets of more serious injury, such as net crime and pranks.
Government And Economics
The Internet has affected the business world in many ways. More employees can now avoid the increasingly stressful workplace, the commute to and from work, and the polluted air of big cities by working at home. Some businesses are starting to allow their employees to work at home for 2 to 4 days per week and send their work via e-mail or through direct connection to their company’s intranet. Employees can take breaks when they wish, save money on childcare and gas, and set their own hours. This system primarily works for computer-oriented jobs, however, and it can discourage productivity. It may also increase stress for a worker who has many responsibilities at home in addition to his or her job.
The relationship between businesses and consumers is also changing. By selling items over the Internet, companies save money by employing fewer people, eliminating the cost of land and real estate, and reducing administrative costs. Consumers benefit from lower prices and the convenience of shopping at home. Still, because less staff is needed to run Internet sites, the workforce suffers as a result of online shopping. People who shop online do not leave their homes to socialize, get necessary exercise, or help their local economy. The Internet has become a vital tool for businesses like the real estate industry, according to a California Association of Realtors survey. Online information about real estate helps consumers educate themselves better and save money.
Government agencies have also been able to save money by making more information available to citizens online. Developing countries have not been able to take advantage of the Internet as extensively as developed countries, however. In a study published in 2003, the World Library and Information Congress found that in some ways the Internet builds “barriers which seriously widen the gaps among the people in the world and even among people within a country.” The WLIC states that developing countries should establish IT plans and policies that help educate people about the Internet. Governments that can take advantage of the Internet have the ability to address issues such as unemployment, by creating new jobs in information technology and by keeping better statistics about the unemployment rate; health, by setting up health information systems and using telemedicine in remote areas; commerce, by accessing information about the import and export of products and by developing and marketing new products; and tourism, by strengthening international tourism and reducing the cost of advertising.
Social And Family Life
A study of Internet users conducted in 2000 by Norman Nie showed that people who spend more than 5 hours a week online are spending less time with family and friends and more time doing work at home. The Center for Internet Studies found that 29% of Internet users report using the Internet to “alter their mood or escape on a regular basis.” According to a college listserv survey regarding the effect of technology on personal relationships and communication, the most frequently mentioned potential problem was electronic communication in the forms of e-mail, discussion groups, and chat rooms. Many of the people surveyed described a feeling of isolation related to Internet use. The lack of face-to-face contact was cited as a contributing factor to feelings of alienation and loneliness. Another study suggests that a small but significant number of people blame excessive online use for the breakup of a marriage.
While there is no official psychological or psychiatric illness called Internet addiction, some psychologists believe that compulsive Internet use is a prevalent problem. Online surveys vary, estimating the number of Internet users showing addictive behavior at anywhere from 6% to 80%. Symptoms of an addiction may include: using the computer for pleasure, gratification, or stress relief; feeling irritable or out of control or depressed when not using the computer; spending increasing amounts of time and money on hardware, software, magazines, and computer-related activities; and neglecting work, school, or family obligations.
The Nie study also concluded, however, that the Internet is still used mostly as a helpful information resource. Only 25% of Internet users report actually buying something on the Internet. Only 10% of users report that they trade stocks, participate in auctions, or bank online. Most users see the Internet as a positive addition to their lives as a whole, but it is important to realize that time spent on the Internet is time taken away from family and friends.
The Internet is a useful tool and a force in society that is not yet fully understood. While it provides indisputable benefits for schools, businesses, and individuals, it causes difficulties for some individuals and populations. Social isolation, Internet addiction, and the vast amount of information available to children are some of the main concerns. Also, developing countries have not yet been able to access all the Internet has to offer, and they suffer a disadvantage compared with the developed world. Most people use the Internet to make their lives easier and to find helpful information. These are the major benefits of the Internet that should be encouraged and distributed throughout the world.
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