Boiling Frogs, Family Time, and Internet Usage

frogWhich of the following best describes your view of the Internet?

1) It is basically a good thing.
2) It is basically a bad thing.
3) It is neutral…neither good nor bad.
4) It all depends upon how you use it.


5) It is, in the words of Neil Postman, a Faustian bargain…a mixed bag, and it is often hard to determine whether it is good or bad until after the fact.

If you read this blog long enough, you’ll find that I’m a #5. And I’ll be honest that I read #5 into pretty much everything. I’m skeptical of complaints that the digital world is making us the dumbest generation ever, and I’m equally skeptical that it is the solution to all of our problems. It is a mixed bag. To illustrate the point, allow me to direct our attention to a report published this week by the USC Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future, Family Time Decreases with Internet Use. Here is a quote from the first line of the article:

“More and more of America’s Internet-connected households report erosion of face-to-face family time, increased feelings of being ignored by family members using the Web, and growing concerns that children are spending too much time online.”

I’m pretty sure that this was not the intended outcome for most families and Internet users. I doubt that the typical husband or wife sat down at the computer one day and declared, “I would like to spend less time with my family and more time browsing the web for random information.” Yet, that is what took places in some of our homes. I’m sure that you’ve heard the story of a researcher who explained how to boil a live frog. From the great digital author Wi Ki Pedia,

“The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability of people to react to important changes that occur gradually.”

It doesn’t really work, but it is a nice story that helps us to think about a phenomenon that is real. It is called “creeping normalcy.” It is the idea that a group or individual learns to tolerate or even embrace something if it is introduced gradually. If one had tried to introduce the same thing right up front, it would have been rejected. Is this part of what has taken place in some of our families? Imagine a modern day household that has been changed by increased Internet use. The husband is sitting in the living room, scanning the last few hours of tweets. The wife is in the next room doing some late night work online. One kid is on yet another computer, touching base with friends on Facebook. The other kid is playing a video game with a dozen people around the world. Keep the camera rolling for a few hours, days, weeks, and we see a similar evening cycle. Is that really something that most families would have embraced overnight?

So, is the Internet 1) good, 2) bad, 3) neutral, 4) all depends upon how you use it, or 5) a mixed bag? The most common answer that I get to this question is #4. However, doesn’t #4 assume that we first recognize the good and bad and then make a careful conscious choice about how to use it? Is it really that simple to recognize the good and bad? Is that really how family time decreases with Internet usage?