Increased levels of Internet usage cause mental and physical symptoms

Craving a sloppy milkshake and a greasy burger, Lindsey Gaff anticipated a trip to The Grill all week.  The local burger joint is a staple of the Athens community, and as a junior at the University of Georgia, she felt it was her obligation to frequent the unique restaurant.

Hours before meeting her friends, she received a text message that they were meeting at Panera instead.  Forced to submit to healthy soups and organic sandwiches instead, she inquired why they had changed locations.

“Simple. They have WiFi.”

Gaff’s encounter epitomizes how people make consumer decisions based on technological dependence.  Though jokes about Internet addiction have existed for over a decade, researchers now see mental and physical symptoms associated with excessive Internet usage.

According to the New York Times, “The insight may not sound revelatory to anyone who has joked about the “crackberry” lifestyle…but hearing it from leaders at many of Silicon Valley’s most influential companies, who profit from people spending more time online, can sound like auto executives selling muscle cars while warning about the dangers of fast acceleration.”

Top executives from Google, Facebook, and Twitter gather annually at conferences to discuss how to find balance in the digital age.

Soren Gordhamer organizes Wisdom 2.0, one such conference.  Gordhamer said, “We’re done with this honeymoon phase and now we’re in this phase that says, ‘Wow, what have we done?’”

For many people, Gordhamer raises a key question: What effects could increased Internet dependence cause?

A study by the Educational Psychology Review found that the “Internet itself is not addictive, but that some specific Internet applications contribute to the development of pathological Internet use.”

Internet applications with interactive purposes are the most dangerous.  As users scroll mindlessly through Facebook or Twitter, they disengage from the world.

Interactive applications are most popular with college students.  The study found that the average person spends 6.75 hours per month on-line, whereas the average college student devotes 51.6 hours per month to Internet usage.

Many students admitted to spending more than 3 consecutive hours on-line twice in the previous week.

Students who registered as excessive Internet users also reported that they get less than 4 hours of sleep due to online activity, look for alternative ways to get access to the Internet and use online activity to feel better when experiencing depression.

Megan Ernst experienced such feelings of loss when her technological devices depleted of power.  “All of my technology just died.  I feel so alone,” the second-year student lamented in class.

These effects on health and wellbeing seep into other aspects of life, including work and leisure.

According to Harry E. Owens, Athens Director of Human Resources, “Young adults’ dependence on technology is apparent.  Increasingly, they are unable to hold a conversation, and they want everything on the Internet.”

As students’ time on the Internet increases, they begin ordering books online rather than visiting local bookstores.  Instead of wasting gas on a trip to a nearby restaurant, students use food delivery services and place orders online.

This new consumer behavior is troubling for towns like Athens, Ga., where college students are one of the primary consumers.

Athens native Lee Mason remembers how downtown Athens really grew up around the university.   He recalled how when the mall migrated to the west end of Athens, downtown became “a haunt of the town.”

“Small businesses and students really got downtown thriving again.  Athens wouldn’t be what it is without all of the students,” Mason said.

Currently, there are no conventional restaurants in downtown Athens that offer free WiFi (Internet access).  Crowded coffee shops capitalize on students’ dependence on WiFi, while local restaurants focus on traditional dining times.

By incorporating Internet usage into the dining experience, restaurants could expand their clientele.

Some restaurants, like Pauley’s, use technology to increase efficiency by taking orders via iPad.

As thousands of students cycle through Athens every few years, businesses need to adopt new technological models in order to stay relevant.

Anton Troianovski of The Wall Street Journal noted how McDonald’s and Starbucks combined offer 19,000 WiFi-equipped restaurants in comparison to a mere 15,000 WiFi-enabled public libraries nationwide.

As Internet dependence increases, WiFi hotspot developers like Henry Kurkowski see restaurants offering free WiFi as “quid pro quo.”  In other words, consumers expect WiFi from businesses as an exchange of goods and services.

Kurkowski says, “The bottom line is that WiFi puts butts in seats…Wi-Fi as an amenity is proven to boost business from college students, mobile business people and meeting planners.”

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