How wired are we?

Global Internet usage passed the 1 billion mark in 2005. That's a lot of wired people.
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Are you depressed? Isolated? Having trouble at work or at school? Do you sacrifice sleep to spend more time online? If so, then you might be suffering from Internet addiction. While this impulse control disorder isn't yet listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of sorts for mental health professionals, more people complaining of symptoms of compulsive Internet use are showing up at mental health clinics. PCU, or pathological computer use, is a proposed diagnosis for the manual's upcoming edition [source: Busko, Tech Target]

While you may not be constantly connected to the Internet, which is what we mean when we say "wired," you obviously are not immune to its attraction or you wouldn't be reading this article. Official or not, the existence of an Internet-related mental disorder does highlight the pull of the online world and its viral spread around the globe. It also raises a good question: Just how wired are we?


Are you so attached to your computer that you panic if your e-mail is down for a few hours? Do you really need eHarmony to find that special someone? Can you remember the last time you licked a stamp?

In this article, you'll follow the rising use of the Internet for everything from buying a pair of shoes, to ordering pizza, to watching last night's episode of "Lost." Heck, you could even self-diagnose your own Internet addiction with the preponderance of online health information.

­The Internet has come a long way since it entered the scene in the 1990s. While Internet usage in the United States tends to be skewed more towards the affluent and well-educated, overall trends are starting to mimic the general population [source: Harris: Four]. In 1995, only 0.4 percent of the global population had Internet access -- just 16 million people. Ten years later, in 2005, global Internet use passed the 1 billion mark and more than 15 percent had access. As of March 2008, that number was approaching 1.4 billion, or more than 20 percent of the world's population [source: Internet World Stats].

What are all those people doing online? Because they're not all reading this article. Find out on the next page.


It's a wired world.

She looks happy. Maybe she just met her soul mate online.
Andersen Ross/Getty Images

These days, there's not much you can't do on the Internet. People date via their computers, shop, watch TV and send e-mails and instant messages. They also play video games, check sports scores and look for medical advice online. People can live a relatively comfortable life behind their computer screen.

Back in the old days, you might have met your future spouse through a coworker or at a college basketball game. Today, you're just as likely to meet him or her on one of the more than 800 online dating services that exist [source: Marsan]. You'd be in good company. More than 50 million people in the United States alone participate in online dating [Epstein]. In 2008, the online dating industry is expected to bring in $600 million, and hopefully snag you a beau along the way [source: Epstein].


Once you've found that lifelong partner, why not register for some wedding presents online? A survey of Internet users revealed that 875 million people worldwide shopped online in 2007, citing reasons like convenience, flexibility and better prices [source: Nielsen Company] And they're buying a lot more than wedding presents. Many retailers, from grocery stores and pizza parlors to clothing companies and hotel chains, offer online purchasing options, hoping to cash in on what was a $81 billion industry in 2005 and is expected to reach $144 billion by 2010 [source: Muse].

While you're doing the shopping for your wedding, go ahead and send the invitations. Don't waste hundreds of dollars on stamps; just send e-cards! Granted, wedding invitations may not be the ideal thing to send electronically, but more people are turning to e-mail as a major form of communication, both personally and professionally. A technology market research firm estimated that there were 1.2 billion e-mail users in 2007, and predicted that number would rise to 1.6 billion by 2011 [source: Brownlow]. In 2006, 183 billion e-mails were sent each day [source: Brownlow]. If you assume a 2006 world population of 6.5 billion, that averages out to 28 e-mails per person per day. That's a lot of emoticons.

E-mail is so ubiquitous that you may even get reminders about upcoming appointments with your doctor in your inbox. If you still go to the doctor, that is. A survey conducted in 2007 showed that 160 million U.S. adults, or 71 percent of the population, have searched online for health-related information [source: Harris]. That's not all good news though. The American Dietetic Association worries that the Internet has led to a disturbing spread of misinformation that can damage people's health. Some physicians, though, think that the abundance of information can have a positive impact if people supplement it with doctor visits [source: Chekal].

The Internet has had a significant impact in the workplace as well, serving as both blessing and curse. More than fifty percent of U.S. employees use a computer on the job, and 42 percent have Internet access, according to a report published by the U.S. Census Bureau [source: Day et al.]. Businesses that use the Internet often benefit from reduced operating costs, the ability to reach more customers and easier access to information. However, that same easy access to information often tempts employees, who send e-mails, check sports scores, shop and even play games online.

Not surprisingly, the spread of the Internet has markedly affected societies around the globe. Is the availability of so much information a good thing, or is it a disaster waiting to happen? Find out some of its effects next.


Wired Effects

It doesn't look like the Internet is bringing these two any closer together.
Pulp Photography/Getty Images

Numerous studies have investigated the impacts of Internet use on society. The Internet has a unique ability to open up doors, like enabling a man in the U.S. to trace his ancestry all the way back to Africa. It also has the ability to open up a huge can of worms -- just ask the Saudi Arabian man who was arrested for political commentary he posted on his blog [source: Ambah].

Many of the studies concerning Internet usage focus specifically on how it affects people's relationships. So far, these studies have failed to reach any conclusive finding. For each result, there seems to be a study that proves the opposite. While some argue that an increased use of the Internet can lead to social isolation and depression due to reduced personal interaction and communication, others say the Internet brings people closer by crossing barriers like distance and economic status.


Aside from the Internet's effect on relationships, it can also influence our safety and security. When anyone with access to a computer can Google "bomb-making" and have comprehensive instructions at his or her fingertips in seconds, it makes you think twice about the wisdom in making so much information freely accessible. Similarly, the abundance of classified and personal information stored on computer databases makes espionage and identify theft that much more possible. On the flip side, all those Web sites tracking your comings and goings can provide you with a 24/7 electronic alibi.

The Internet can do a lot of good as well. Online college courses have made college degrees more accessible to people who can't realistically attend classes, while nonprofit organizations have used Web sites to drum up support and raise millions of dollars.

Politics has even entered the fray. Political action committees fill inboxes with spam and candidates use the Internet to promote themselves. 2008 U.S. presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, for instance, reached millions of donors through his Internet ads and raised more than $91 million in the first two months of 2008 [source: Mosk]., a popular online political action committee, has raised millions for democratic candidates and may have been a force behind their sweep to power in 2006 [source: Garrett].

If Internet connectivity continues to spread at the rate it has over the last decade or so, it's not a stretch to picture a totally wired world in the near future. With technology bringing us ever more gadgets that can access the abundance of online information, it may only be a matter of time before your dog has his own BlackBerry collar.

In the end, whether that connectivity is positive or negative depends on who's doing the connecting, just like "how wired we are" depends a lot on who "we" are. If "we" are young, affluent, college-educated kids, we're probably pretty wired. But if "we" are elderly males who have never attended school and are living in Zimbabwe, we're probably not watching videos on YouTub.

For more online buzz, you can try some of the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links

  • Ambah, "Dissident Saudi Blogger Is Arrested." Washington Post Foreign Service. Jan.1, 2008. (May 6, 2008) dyn/content/article/2007/12/31/AR2007123101915.html
  • Brownlow, Mark. "Email and webmail statistics." Email Marketing Reports. April 2008. (May 2, 2008).
  • Busko, Marlene. "Internet Addiction: Fact or Fiction?" Medscape Today. March 11, 2008.
  • Chekal, Anne. "More Than Half of Americans Get Health Advice Online, Poll Finds." Associated Content. Oct. 2, 2007. (May 2, 2008) get_health.html?page=2
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