It is no secret that the internet has become ingrained in everyday human life. It is also no secret that voices consistently emerge from every corner of the internet to argue its effects on human cognition and interaction. A large amount of these arguments center around the idea that the internet is hindering the mind’s ability to effectively communicate or process information. Even Adam Gopnik discusses “the power of stupidity” when exposed to the World Wide Web in his New Yorker article “The Information” (Gopnik, 2011). However, there seems to be a lack of discussion surrounding the possibility that the internet could be hindering not only intelligence and cognition but also passion, and the willingness to act on this passion. Within the context of this paper, passion refers to someone’s autonomously developed interests and desires in how they* spend their free time, as well as what they decide to pursue as skills or career goals.
In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell suggested that it takes ten thousand hours of experience to master a certain task (Gladwell, 2008). From languages to instruments to sports, anything achievable begins with practice, and modern society loves to train for the game of social networking. In 2015, a study by the non-profit group Common Sense Media showed that teenagers aged thirteen to eighteen spend an average of nine hours on their internet wired, mobile phones daily (Tsukayama, 2015). That equals about 3,285 hours per year. At that rate, it would take today’s teens just a little over three years to reach the ten thousand hour threshold, or “the magic number of greatness” in regard to their phone (Gladwell, 2008). In turn, that means that in three years, any member of the internet accessing teen age group could become an expert on all things World Wide Web.
It may seem that this could be a positive development for the future of media and technology because of access to things like online master classes and a multitude of different thought processes; however, consider for a moment that not all modern teens are passionate about technology. Some may be interested in art, some in history, and some in nothing at all yet. Gladwell also addressed this thought and suggested that successful people are “products of particular places and environments” (Gladwell, 2008). If young people are conditioned to spend their youth into young adulthood on technological devices, they are also being conditioned to find success in the areas of technology and the internet, whether or not their passions actually lie in those sectors. In this sense, passion in career interests is becoming pre programmed in the minds of upcoming generations. As Mark H. Maxwell puts it: “Social media has become a distraction and an inhibitor in the creative development process” (Maxwell, 2018 — italics are his). Because teens are distracted on the internet for approximately nine hours a day, they are missing out on time that could be dedicated to discovering and cultivating their other — possibly more pertinent — passions.
Furthermore, of all the sites and platforms on the internet, thirty percent of those nine hours of screen time is spent on social networking sites (Young, 2017). Not only are young people being consistently pulled into user interface after user interface, but they are also being bombarded with images and manifestations of other lives that either align with or rival their own aspirations. Because of this, young people on social media are almost forced to compare themselves to others who are active on these networking sites. I have found that two things can result from such consistent comparisons. First, social media users are so caught up in their time on social networking sites and seeing what others are doing that they spend critical hours evaluating their lives against filtered versions of others, when they could be using this time to discover their own passions or personal interests. Second, since thirty percent of their ten thousand expert-making hours are spent scrolling through others’ lives, they might develop imposed ideas of what their passions should be.
Take social media influencers for example; there is a modern craze surrounding the ability to gain overnight internet fame, have seemingly no job, and travel the world. This has become the golden standard on social media, feeding unrealistic aspirations to young men and women who spend nine hours a day ingesting other people’s online existences, perceiving them as actual reality, and cultivating false passions that these users-turned-influencers impose on them. During modern generations’ imperative developmental years, “social networking has become a deceptive and broken substitute for time-honoring (often isolated), passionate work in developing craft and expertise” (Maxwell, 2018 — italics are his). Instead of spending time exploring their future possibilities, young people are taking falsified realities at face value.
While there is a population of influencers that capitalize on their perceived lack of responsibilities to sell a lifestyle, there are other obsession-based influencers who use common internet interests as a means of capturing user attention. For example, an article by Kozinets et al explores the prevalent network of food bloggers on social media and how their ability to occupy a large audience is changing consumer behavior. The authors provide many excerpts from interviews conducted during their research period. One of these interviews features a food blogger whose “participation in the [online food] network subjected her to a dynamic and disciplining locus of interests that ebb and flow…mainly into familiar conditioned social and institutional patterns” (Kozinets et al, 2017). While using the internet in this way could ideally provide an outlet for creative expression and foster a user’s adoration for a subject such as food, Kozinets et al argue that the hive mind will eventually regulate the kinds of creativity a user is allowed to express. The more a user becomes involved in an online community as a blogger or an influencer, the more the user will be conditioned to create content focused on the greater community’s interests, forcing them to abandon their own passions in order to garner online acceptance.
Comparatively, users who follow blogger accounts without necessarily curating their own content are also being conditioned to like what other users deem appropriate because they are constantly consuming the carefully honed common interests of the internet at large. Kozinets et al then go on to explore the idea that it is not just the users who are moderating content, it is also the technology itself. “It is the software, hardware, data, and meanings of…social media and communication technologies” that produce the cycle of expressing and repressing desire over time, suggesting that not only are online communities regulating passion in interests, but the act of engaging with technology itself is also proving to force users into predetermined passion silos (Kozinets et al, 2017).
A third example of influencer imposed interests stems from market actors such as professional athletes, leaders, and celebrities who use their success as a means of influencing the social networking public. For example, sporting goods giant Nike has taken advantage of influencer fame in order to promote many products. In 2017, Nike sought out Dan and Lincoln Markham, the father-son duo behind the YouTube channel “What’s Inside?” with 6 million subscribers. The channel features videos in which the Markhams open both popular and obscure market items, such as iPhones and car engines, by cutting them down the middle. Just before the release of Nike’s 2017 Air Vapormax, the channel posted a video featuring that exact shoe. Nike has also previously partnered with professional soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo to promote the brand’s CR7 Mercurial soccer cleats, as well as professional dancer and actress Megan Batoon to showcase personalized running coaches (Mediakix Team, 2018).
Nike is just one of many major consumer market players who is using both modern social media’s influence and its effect on young people to their advantage. If a social media user follows one of these professionals — or influencers — online, it can also be assumed that the user follows the professional’s accomplishments in real life, be it on the soccer field or on stage. Therefore, these personalities are consistently in front of impressionable young people, whether they are online or not. However, with professionals’ online presences becoming a means of corporate advertising, the internet is aiding major brands and companies in imposing their values on users. It then follows that the internet is distracting youth from developing their own passionate interests not only through the constant presentation of influencer ideals, but also through the organizations that are partnering with these influencers to add yet another layer of imposed interests.
Another challenge that internet users face is the act of deciphering when something is actually an advertisement. In the age of influencer marketing, it is common for advertisements to take the following format: a person with a large following films themself recommending a product to their followers or posts a photo and states the same recommendation in the caption. While this is great exposure for brands and budding influencers, I argue that it is more harmful on young users who are trying to develop autonomous thoughts in order to explore their own personal passions. According to a Marketing Week study, “a third of brands admit to deliberately not disclosing influencer marketing as sponsored content” (Tesseras, et al.). That means that impressionable internet users see a majority of advertisements during their time online that they do not even realize are advertisements. Therefore, these ads from the people that young users admire become messages that are relayed as truth, and then absorbed as examples of things these users feel they should be interested in or passionate about.
When upcoming generations accept their online environment as truth, they also accept it as the future of interaction. By placing the basis of interaction in fleeting, second-long moments (as is the nature of the internet), they move further and further away from what Georgetown professor Cal Newport refers to as deep work, “a combination of working for extended periods of time with full concentration on a single task free from distraction” (qtd in Maxwell, 2018). If children are deprived of such concentration during their habit forming years, they will likely miss out on the opportunity to complete deep work in regard to their individual aspirations, causing the internet to play a key role in their lack of autonomously discovered passion.
This concept also holds true into the later years of their lives. Loh, Kee, and Kanai discovered that if children are exposed to the internet at too young an age, they will develop a dependency on internet behavioral practices that can then alter their cognitive abilities for years to come. They argue that the internet, since its conception, has drastically changed human cognition, specifically in people who have grown up with the internet always present in their lives: Digital Natives. Their study finds that these Digital Natives are more drawn toward “shallow” means of processing behavior, meaning that they have a tendency to shift their attention at a much faster rate than those whose cognition developed before the internet gained popularity. In this case, such behavior is so detrimental to cognitive development that the Natives have higher addiction tendencies as a result of internet use that promotes instant gratification; therefore, this supports the idea that young people who spend too much time on the internet will have difficulty focusing on exploring their own passions both in adolescence and into adulthood.
While I discuss many ways in which the internet can hinder passion development, it is also important to acknowledge some of the benefits that may come out of internet use. Daun-Barnett, Nathan, and Das present an interesting argument regarding the internet and higher education. In their research, the authors find that college search tools and similar online tools that aid students in making informed decisions about where to attend college “are likely to serve many students well” in that they provide many resources and information to those who can access them (Daun-Barnett, Nathan, and Das, 2013). It is possible for these tools to provide a corner of the internet that helps — rather than hinders — young people in fostering their passions and goals. Since these online resources provide more information on college choices, they also provide young people with opportunities to find colleges at which to discover their passions, as attending college is commonly viewed as an inherently self-discovery process. The same could be said for other institutions that are discoverable via online means. For example, internet users can sign up for art classes, dance lessons, gym sessions, and the like online, but the process of acting on a passion still takes place offline, making the internet only so useful in the autonomous passion discovery process.
Unfortunately, young people are not the only demographic to be affected by an internet induced lack of passion. The working age adult is also at risk. At a typical nine to five job, eight hours a day are intended to be spent working. Here, working is defined as a series of actions that contribute to the greater good of a company or organization’s goals. Unless that company or organization is hoping to study the attention span of adults, it is doubtful that surfing the web for random articles or short video clips relates to the work that is supposed to be completed during the eight hour workday. Be that as it may, working adults are still known to lose track of time on the internet, attempting to find distractions from their responsibilities. As Fast Company writer Aaron Shapiro pontificates, his readers probably view his articles “during [their] workday as a distraction from whatever it is [they’re] supposed to be focusing on” (Shapiro, 2011).
With the internet at the helm of their workday, adults are likely unable to devote all of their dedicated work hours to actually working. Not only does this take them away from their work — which is potentially their passion — but it also prevents those in undesirable work positions from spending time finding their true passion. In fact, a recent study conducted by United Kingdom based company VoucherCloud.com found that only three hours out of an eight hour day are spent working productively, with 65% of the 1,989 UK office workers surveyed saying they do not feel they could complete a workday without distractions (Invitation Digital Ltd., 2016). Therefore, the amount of attention that the internet garners from its users can be harmful to both young impressionable minds and matured, lethargic minds.
Ultimately, the internet and its many outlets within prove to be distractions to many people during their school or work day. Whether they are spending time online perusing the carefully curated lives of others or searching for a way out of their mindless tasks of the day, young and old generations alike are wasting precious passion planning time on the internet. Social media, articles, and videos are all capturing the minds of millions of people who could find themselves in happier more purposeful lives should they simply log off. In writer and critic Bidisha’s words, “We are the species with the genius to create something as wondrous as the internet in the first place. Surely we have enough self-control to stay away from Facebook” (qtd in Naughton, 2010).
* I understand that proper grammatical form is to use the personal pronouns “he/his” and “she/hers” in this context; however, I have chosen to use the typically plural pronoun “they/their” to promote gender inclusivity. I follow this practice throughout my paper, where appropriate.
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