Unless you've been living under a rock somewhere for the last twenty to thirty years you've undoubtedly used, or at least heard of, some of the many life-altering benefits made available, courtesy of the World Wide Web. From emails to real-time instant messaging, research tools to news and information (often free of corporate sponsorship and interference), public access video content (such as YouTube) to live Internet broadcasts of entertainment and sporting events - the amount and variety of content available on the net is truly staggering. Its widespread availability to people worldwide, both as consumers and perhaps more importantly, creators, beyond doubt constitutes a global cultural revolution.
Unfortunately, not all aspects of this relatively young technology can be considered a positive social force. The same widespread availability and lack of government control that democratizes the Internet and promotes free speech and an exchange of ideas, also enables it to be used for negative or harmful content motivated solely by greed and in some extreme cases, even hatred. Pornography and gambling have flourished on the Internet and while the acceptability and availability of these common vices can be debated, no one in their right mind would defend such vile activities as those practiced by online predators and cyber-bullies.
Much like its electronic companion and predecessor, television, the web can be viewed as a delivery system for content both good and bad from which we make choices based upon our needs, interests, biases and inclinations. Thus, it is our choice of material that will determine the quality of content and whether our online experience ultimately has a beneficial or detrimental impact on our lives. Or so we might think.
Regretfully, Internet addiction is a serious and rapidly growing social phenomenon which has joined the ranks of other more common addictions, such as alcohol and drug use, as a leading abused substance. Some examples are obvious, such as the aforementioned cases of pornography and gambling that exist online. However, with these examples, the Internet may sometimes be viewed simply as a conduit for pre-existing addictions. Were the Internet not to exist, the addicts would likely feed their addiction via more conventional means. Many experts now agree that it is frequently the online experience itself, regardless of the type of content being viewed or activities being engaged in, that form the basis of the addiction. The enlightened Internet enthusiast may argue that while they spend a great deal of time online, they only partake in the best of what the web has to offer, favoring insightful political information and online debates over sites devoted to celebrity worship or videos of people injuring themselves performing ill-advised stunts. Certainly, they are correct in assuming that some content is not only better than other content, but is also probably better for you. Yet an addiction, by definition, is not characterized by the inherent value (or lack thereof) in the chosen substance, but by the degree to which users relinquish control of their life to it. Matters not if it's Shakespeare or carrots that form your addiction, if you find yourself unable to function with either, you probably have a problem.
As to how much is too much when it comes to the Internet, there are no absolute rules to follow. Each individual is different and of course, life circumstances warrant different levels of use. One can hardly dispute the value of someone who, due to their age, health or some other reason, is for the most part housebound and isolated and as a result, spends a great deal of time engaged in friendships forged online. The same can be said for people using the Internet to remain in contact with friends and family when separated by geography and/or circumstances. Many people now use the Internet extensively in their jobs. Should those same people be denied the pleasure of a chosen online activity in their off hours, simply because they've reached some arbitrary quota? Yet if we find ourselves willfully ignoring our real-world relationships in favor of cyber ones, or neglecting responsibilities that contribute to our survival and well-being because we simply cannot miss the latest bit of trivial gossip occurring in our favorite chatroom (for example), then it's probably time we admit we have a problem. The issue is not one of how much time we spend on the Internet, but one of how dependent we are on our time spent there.
In the final analysis, you and you alone are the ultimate judge and guardian of your cyber-self. What you spend your leisure time doing and how much time you devote to that activity is your call, as well it should be. However, caution should be employed - the old adage of, "If it feels good, do it!" may be gratifying but is not always recommended. When it comes to the web, "Everything in moderation…" while undoubtedly less fun, is probably the more sound advice.