FAIRFAX, VIRGINIA - Most critiques of online activity and social media are neither rigorous nor helpful — by which I mean, they do not adequately explain why spending so much time online might be problematic and, if it is, what to do about it. Allow me to offer a tentative hypothesis and solution.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who is also a Nobel laureate in economics, has written and co-written a number of papers on happiness in which he distinguishes between enjoying the moment and having an overall sense of satisfaction with one’s life. As it turns out, these two variables often diverge quite dramatically.
For instance, you might enjoy getting rip-roaring drunk one night with your friends. But looking back on that experience may not help you feel you lived a better and richer life; you might wish you had spent the time working for charity instead. Alternatively, raising children may be highly rewarding in the long run, but moment-by-moment it probably increases stress and maybe even subtracts from any feelings of immediate happiness. (Haven’t you heard the joke, “The best thing about having kids is having a night away from the kids”?)
Humans have been making trade-offs between these different kinds of rewards for generations. Of course, we don’t always get it right.
What’s new is this: Online life and social media have radically shifted the relative costs across rewards. It is now far easier to pursue immediate happiness, compared to the available options in, say, 1986. Emails, TikTok videos, the latest witty (or outraged) tweets, whatever your favorite online avocation may be — all are just a keystroke, click or swipe away. And as economists would predict, people are indeed seeking and finding far more momentary pleasures.
Consider the time I spend on Twitter. I can take a peek and have some fun pretty much anytime I want, and for free. Yet never do I think that I will someday look back and reminisce about all that time I spent scrolling through tweets.
In contrast, I look back fondly on my time in high school, and how my friends used to ride bikes to each other’s homes to hang out and listen to record albums. I’m no longer sure how much fun it was at the time, or even if that matters — the glorious memories are in place. The same is true for the good travel experiences I have had, even (especially?) if at the time they were quite stressful or simply involved a lot of tedious legwork.
My tentative conclusion from all this: Online life is inducing us to invest less in our memories and long-term sense of satisfaction. It is pretty obvious from human behavior that, right now, the internet is doing more to boost short-term pleasures.
The more negative take would be that online life is obscuring our understanding of our own lives. I do not go that far. After all, humans make analogous choices about balancing short- and long-term happiness when they have one child rather than four, or when they sit on an exercise bike rather than get on a plane to Paris. Those aren’t the wrong decisions for everybody.
I would also point out that it is possible to use the internet to make fond memories or improve our long-term sense of satisfaction. It may help us find the right romantic partner (cue to those four children) or plan that memorable vacation.
Too often I hear critics describe online behavior in terms of “addiction.” Yet addiction has a fairly well-defined set of medical and clinical meanings, and they do not always transfer readily to the technology context. I don’t, for instance, observe many people trying to throw away their smartphones, the way many people try to quit alcohol or cigarettes. At the same time, many people who want to quit parts of the internet, such as blogging or Twitter, seem to be able to do so without going through withdrawal.
All this said, it’s hard to argue that the internet hasn’t made things worse for human beings who are already inclined to seek too much immediate reward. The internet feeds this tendency. It’s probably also true that people with richer long-term memories provide external benefits to society as a whole, for example by passing down wisdom or inspiration.
There is so much talk about regulating or controlling the internet. Dare I suggest an alternative approach? Use public policy to help shift the balance of ease back toward life satisfaction and the formation of longer-term memories. Make it cheaper and easier to have and raise children. Use the education system to support more study trips abroad. Think about how to ease the pursuit of long-term life satisfaction.
There are plenty of human imperfections behind our online choices. As we respond, why not accentuate the positive — and keep the freedom to choose?
Tyler Cowen, a Bloomberg columnist, is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.”