Are We Losing the "Digital" in Digital Natives?

Oct 03, 2013

This past week, I thought very seriously about canceling my cable. This isn't a very novel idea, I realize, a good amount of you reading this probably don't have cable at all, but for me, this was a big step. I know that many people survive without TV, many even thrive without it, but I've never not had television in my life. I grew up in a household where there was a TV in every bedroom (say what you will, but my parents were great caretakers). Even in college I had a cable hookup in my dorm room, and the first major purchase I ever made wasn't a car or was a TV. This past week, though, I sat down and actually read my cable bill, like really read every strange little additional fee, and was incredibly annoyed.

The first thing I did was calculate how much money I'd save a month from canceling cable, then how much I'd save a year. Close to $600. That's not chump change. With that amount of money in question, I decided to ask some friends what they do. Turns out, most of them don't have cable and just subscribe to Hulu Plus and Netflix to watch the shows they like most. This doesn't work all the time though-some shows just aren't on these sites. For those specific shows, they download illegal torrents. One of my friends told me I was crazy to even think about paying for cable. Another friend said she doesn't subscribe to Hulu or Netflix, she just has internet. And another friend divulged a shocking secret that I still haven't quite gotten over. She doesn't have cable OR internet at home. She has ... nothing.

Once I got over my initial surprise, my reaction was a very simple, "What?" She believes that since she spends all day working on a computer, she doesn't need any internet at home. "It's a time suck," she said. Of course, I had to ask what she'd do if she needed to look something up, like the news or traffic. She said she just didn't. My mind was blown.

She's not the only person who isn't a fan of the world wide web, though. According to recent studies by Pew Research, there are about 11 million people in the United States over the age of 18 that want nothing to do with the internet. And it's not just that these people aren't really aware of the power of the internet. "Fourteen percent of non-internet users used to be online. But the vast majority--92%--say they aren't interested in going online in the future." So, they've used the internet, they've seen the memes and the social media and all the small glories that I spend hours perusing through every day, and they just said, "Eh, not for me."

How could this be? When I moved a few weeks back, the very first thing I had set up, before my bed or even heat, was the internet. I can't even imagine what my life would be like right now if I didn't have the internet. And this even goes beyond entertainment--I use the internet on a daily basis to do my job, whether it is researching book ideas or looking for sales numbers. It's become such an integral part of my life, cutting it off would leave me something like a phantom limb.

I couldn't quite understand why anyone would do this to themselves, especially someone in my age group whose peers spend an incredible amount of time socializing via the internet. When I started researching why some people wouldn't want internet at all, I came across another study that stuck a cord. According to a study done by China's Beihang University, the internet makes us angry. Very angry. And this anger is contagious. After studying 700 million messages from Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-like social network, the researchers found that while joyful tweets had some influence on users, anger spread like wildfire. I wrote a little bit about this over the summer--how during the hot summer months, while everyone was posting beautiful pictures of their vacations, I was scrolling through my newsfeed stewing.

The fact that the internet is making us angrier doesn't surprise me really--just look at the vitriol on social media and news forums against Miley Cyrus. It does make me sad, though. When I was growing up, the internet was such a new,novel thing that it wasn't ugly yet. I remember that joy of logging on to AOL, hearing the dial-up kick in and feeling that balloon of joy burst in my stomach. Sure, people argued online then too, but I feel like it wasn't so malicious, so angry.

It makes me wonder what kind of society we are living in now, and if all my time on the internet is doing irrevocable damage to my psyche. Maybe when I yelled at a guy who cut me off in traffic the other day, it was because I just spent time reading through a series of angry, sometimes scary comments about Obamacare. Years ago violent TV was pinned as the cause for such depravity. Then video games took the top prize. Now, it's the internet, the same place I go to look at cute kitten memes and read funny, satirical news articles. Maybe my TV-less, internet-less friend has the right idea after all.

Maybe, but I'll let someone else figure that out. I like my TV shows and social media a little too much for such an experiment.