17/11/2015 05:36 GMT | Updated 14/11/2016 05:12 GMT

Internet Trolls and Uncivil Disagreement

In 1998, The Guardian announced that "Addiction to internet 'is an illness'." Today in China there are currently over 400 rehabilitation camps for Internet addiction (wangyin) with China boasting more online video game users than the population of the United States. And more and more studies show that there is a growing trend among many people to spend more time online than going out in real life, also reflected by increased depression scores. Anyone who has been on any number of media websites to discuss social or political affairs will have had the experience (or many experiences) of being piled on and shouted down for merely stating an opinion about x or y subject that went counter to the Facebook or Twitter discussion. Having a different point of view in the bygone days of coffee shop rendez-vous while sustaining vigorous debate used to be a good thing. Today having a different point of view means that the unusual individual is a bigot, a foe, a murderer, and a general traitor to the "established" group think on any number of subjects. Take your pick.

A couple of years ago when I discussed with a good friend of mine in upstate New York, a practicing psychiatrist, my love/hate relationship with the Internet due to the growing body of Internet abuse, citing a few recent cases, I theorised that people's lack of participation in real life was causing great mental health issues, not least of which was a growing inability to distinguish the real from the imaginary. My friend's response to me was this: "Oh, tell me about it. Now when I see patients and they talk about their new boyfriend or girlfriend, I actually have to stop and ask them: 'Have you ever met this person in real life?" I realised then that many people had already gone down the rabbit hole and I wondered what we could do to return to IRL (in real life), or if that was even possible at this point.

Back in the early 1990s when university faculty and students were being given Internet access codes with which to dial in, the biggest concern for the Internet user was making sure to buy the fastest modem available on the market. Today there are numerous considerations when contemplating Internet use from your home: VPN (virtual private network) software to mask your IP, choosing your ISP, and VPS (virtual private server) hosting, just to name a few examples. One's alacrity online is a direct reflection today of one's intellectual acumen and ability to amass more followers, more quickly. In fact, "more" is the operative world in Internet speak which deftly divides the world into more this and less that. Discussions take this similarly divisive tone when a mere difference of opinion results in the subject being aggressed to the point of threats and name calling. And then there is the problem of merely being female and online which has an entire galaxy of aggression aimed at females for participating in gamer culture (just ask Anita Sarkeesian about this), for speaking out about women's rights, or for simply disagreeing that gender is not somatic.

As I interact online over myriad topics related to politics and culture, I have to be mindful of the various trolls online almost as if they are dangerous drivers on the road who might not only hit me by accident, but who would willingly run me down. The vitriol is thick online and depending on the discussion topic, the language invoked can be frighteningly crude even if the aggressor is not physically within reach. There are even organisations whose mandate is to support victims of online abuse such as Crash Override Network and Online Abuse Prevention Initiative. While the growing use of the Internet demonstrates an increase in Internet addiction and prescription drug use, we must wonder what the line is between use and abuse, between a healthy communicative employment of the Internet and actual addiction. For many of the tests for Internet addiction would reveal most people as being somewhat to heavily addicted to the Internet. The more difficult question to answer is what is the solution when use and abuse of the Internet go hand in hand, justified as "communication" in a world where nuance is being lost to the undertow of individual desire.