Wanna Be Happy? Use the Internet

May 13, 2024

dinosaur30a_thumbThis essay is the work of a dinobaby. Unlike some folks, no smart software improved my native ineptness.

The glory days of the Internet have faded. Social media, AI-generated baloney, and brain numbing TikTok-esque short videos — Outstanding ways to be happy. What about endless online scams, phishing, and smishing, deep fake voices to grandma from grandchildren needing money — Yes, guaranteed uplifts to sagging spirits.


The idea of a payoff in a coffee shop is silly. Who would compromise academic standards for a latte and a pile of cash. Absolutely no one involved in academic pursuits. Good enough, MSFT Copilot. Good enough.

When I read two of the “real” news stories about how the Internet manufactures happiness, I asked myself, “Exactly what’s with this study?” The PR push to say happy things about online reminded me of the OII or Oxford Internet Institute and some of its other cheerleading. And what is the OII? It is an outfit which receives some university support, funds from private industry, and foundation cash; for example, the Shirley Institute.

In my opinion, it is often difficult to figure out if the “research” is wonky due to its methodology, the desire to keep some sources of funding writing checks, or a nifty way to influence policies in the UK and elsewhere. The magic of the “Oxford” brand gives the outfit some cachet for those who want to collect conference name tags to bedeck their office coat hangers.

The OII is back in the content marketing game. I read the BBC’s “Internet Access Linked to Higher Wellbeing, Study Finds” and the Guardian’s “Internet Use Is Associated with Greater Wellbeing, Global Study Finds.” Both articles are generated from the same PR-type verbiage. But the weirdness of the assertion is undermined by this statement from the BBC’s rewrite of the OII’s PR:

The study was not able to prove cause and effect, but the team found measures of life satisfaction were 8.5% higher for those who had internet access. Nor did the study look at the length of time people spent using the internet or what they used it for, while some factors that could explain associations may not have be considered.

The Oxford brand and the big numbers about a massive sample size cannot hide one awkward fact: There is little evidence that happiness drips from Internet use. Convenience? Yep. Entertainment? Yep. Crime? Yep. Self-harm, drug use or experimentation, meme amplification. Yep, yep, yep.

Several questions arise:

  1. Why is the message “online is good” suddenly big news? If anything, the idea runs counter to the significant efforts to contain access to potentially harmful online content in the UK and elsewhere. Gee, I wonder if the companies facing some type of sanctions are helping out the good old OII?
  2. What’s up with Oxford University itself? Doesn’t it have more substantive research to publicize? Perhaps Oxford should  emulate the “Naked Scientist” podcast or lobby to get Melvin Bragg to report about more factual matters? Does Oxford have an identity crisis?
  3. And the BBC and the Guardian! Have the editors lost the plot? Don’t these professionals have first hand knowledge about the impact of online on children and young adults? Don’t they try to talk to their kids or grandkids at the dinner table when the youthful progeny of “real” news people are using their mobile phones?

I like facts which push back against received assumptions. But online is helping out those who use it needs a bit more precision, clearer thinking, and less tenuous cause-and-effect hoo-hah in my opinion.

Stephen E Arnold, May 13, 2024


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