7 Ways the Internet Has Been Used for Good

It seems like every day you hear a new story about cyber-bullying, phishing or a new computer virus. But when good people get together on the web, it’s amazing what they can achieve.

1. Preventing Suicides

While you probably have heard stories about cyber-bullies pushing someone to commit suicide, there are also tons of stories about depressed people deciding not to kill themselves after talking to someone online whom they never even met. Unfortunately, we don’t hear about these cases nearly as often.

Despite all the trash talking in online gaming sessions, there is also a real sense of camaraderie and friendship. In one case, a teenager from Ontario called the police after one of his gaming buddies in Texas said he was thinking of ending it all. An officer came to the Ontario boy’s house and talked to the other teen over Xbox Live until he was able to earn the trust of the suicidal boy. Eventually, he convinced the teen in Texas to let him speak to his father, who reported that he had no idea his son was feeling that way and would do whatever it took to help his son get through this difficult time.

These sorts of incidents aren’t limited to gaming sessions though; one woman in Australia saved an English man’s life after seeing a post where the man said he would kill himself within the next 15 minutes. She spoke to him online for a while, gaining his trust until he gave his phone number to her. She then got one of her friends living in England to call the suicidal man and talk to him until the man felt comfortable sharing his location. When the police showed up at the depressed man’s house, he already had a phone cord wrapped around his neck, but had not yet tried to end it all. Police praised the actions of the Australian woman and her friend, pointing out that the young man probably wouldn’t have made it if the two hadn’t acted so quickly and diligently.

Even actress Demi Moore has been credited with saving someone’s life thanks to the net. When a woman Tweeted to Demi that she was going to kill herself, Moore tried to talk her into changing her mind. Meanwhile, the celebrity’s followers contacted the police in the area of the Twitterer and they were able to get to her home before she did anything drastic.

There are major online communities developed to help people in need. Reddit’s Suicide Watch has over 10,000 subscribers, many of whom offer valuable advice and help for those looking to end it all. And the “It Gets Better” project has helped thousands of students who have been bullied due to their sexual orientation.

[Images courtesy of Samantha Marx's Flickr stream and David Shankbone.]

2. Saving Lives

Internet users have also saved the lives of those who didn’t want to kill themselves, but couldn’t get themselves out of a dangerous situation. In January 2011, Robert Chambers, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, was gaming on his computer when his toaster caught on fire and smoke quickly started filling his home. Since he was unable to move quickly due to his condition, getting to the phone to call 911 was not an option, so instead he shared his address and asked others in a chat room to call for help for him. People from around the U.S. called his local fire department and it wasn’t long before Robert was saved.

In a similar story, Wales resident Peter Casaru, who suffers from spinal problems, found himself paralyzed one morning. With his cell phone battery dead, his only option was to ask for help online. After dragging himself across the room, and without being able to see the keyboard since he didn't have his glasses, he was still able to post an update on Facebook asking for someone to call the medics. Almost immediately, his friends and family responded and just before Casaru passed out from pain, the ambulance arrived to take him to a hospital.

[911 poster image courtesy of Tricia Wang's Flickr stream.]

3. Helping Victims of Crime -- While It Happens

Sometimes crime victims have found the net to be the best way to ask for help as well. In late 2011, a woman and her one-year-old were being held prisoner by her ex-husband. While she was unable to use the phone during the entire ordeal, she was able to post a plea for help on Facebook. A woman who had never met the abused mother saw the post and called the authorities, who found the victim and her child severely beaten, but alive, after four days of starvation and torture. Their tormentor was quickly arrested and charged with aggravated kidnapping, aggravated assault, domestic violence, child abuse, forcible sodomy, animal cruelty and more.

Just this month, a South African carjacking victim who was locked in his trunk by the thieves was saved thanks to Twitter. While the police in the area are anything but reliable, the man knew he was at an advantage since he had his cell phone in the trunk with him. He texted his girlfriend, who then put the information out on Twitter, where it was picked up by a roadblock notification service with over 110,000 followers including a number of private security firms. Soon enough, the car was located and the man was saved before he suffered any serious physical abuse.

[Crime scene tape image courtesy of Brandon Anderson's Flickr stream.]

4. Helping Crime Victims After the Fact

Internet users have also come through to help crime victims recover after they have been victimized. For example, when a young girl had her 300-pound TARDIS replica stolen from her own front yard, Redditors donated enough money to get a new box built, complete with a chain and security camera to ensure it isn’t stolen again.

TARDIS fans aren’t the only ones feeling the love of the net. After the London riots last year, Aaron Biber, an 89-year-old barber, was sure he would have to shut down his shop since he couldn’t afford to replace everything that had been stolen or smashed in the ruckus. But his story touched the world and soon enough, a campaign to Keep Aaron Cutting spread across the net and raised $56,000 to help the barber get back on his feet. The donations were far more than Biber needed, so he, in turn, donated the rest to a local youth center.

Early this year, shocking photos were posted on Reddit showing an African man who had his face sliced open by a machete while trying to protect an orphanage from local thugs. The forum poster asked readers to chip in a total of $2,000 so the orphanage could afford a security wall. Within only 24 hours, the charity received 40 times that amount, $80,000. With all the extra cash, the orphanage was able to provide the children with bunk beds and start a fund to purchase the land where the facility is located so they will no longer have to rent the property.

Even when crimes haven’t been committed, Reddit has stepped in to help victims of cruelty that may not be illegal, but is certainly wrong. Perhaps one of the most heart-melting stories in this vein was that of Kathleen Edward. The seven-year-old and her family were viciously taunted by her next door neighbors after they discovered Kathleen had Huntington’s Disease. When the girl’s story was posted on Reddit, readers quickly started working to raise funds to give Kathleen a spending spree at a local toy store owned by a user of the site. Eventually, the girl received $19,000 worth of credit at the store, with any unused balance donated towards local children’s hospitals. As for her tormentors, 4chan went after them, posting all of their personal information on line and harassing the family until they formally apologized to Kathleen and her family.

5. Holding Animal Abusers Accountable

While 4chan might be known for their love of gruesome and sickening videos and photos, they certainly have a soft spot for innocent people and creatures being victimized. When someone posted a video on YouTube showing a boy beating up a house cat, members of 4chan tracked down the wrongdoer and reported him to the authorities, resulting in the cat, Dusty, quickly being removed from the home.

Similarly, the group was up in arms when a video came out showing a woman throwing a cat into a trash bin. The owners of the cat posted the video to the net to find out the woman’s identity. Soon enough, she was identified. People were so angry at her, she eventually went to the police, telling them she worried about her safety. Even so, she was eventually convicted under the Animal Welfare Act and had to pay $2200.

6. Catching Child Predators

While everyone may have a different opinion on Anonymous, pretty much everyone can agree that child porn is a bad thing. That’s why, although their other hacks were criticized, no one seemed to have a problem with the hacker group going after child pornography sites and their hosting services. At one point, the group even leaked stolen user info on over 1,100 pedophiles from one site and invited the FBI and Interpol to follow up on the info for leads.

Alt.Hackers.Malicious have also taken on child predators, even breaking into NAMBLA’s servers and disseminating membership information that led directly to the arrests and convictions of several criminals.

Of course, hackers aren’t the only ones fighting pedophiles around the globe. Perverted Justice is a group you are probably already familiar with, even if you’ve never heard the name. That’s because they’re the group responsible for all those Dateline pedophile stings. Unlike the hacker attacks on child pornography, members of Perverted Justice actually pose as children and talk to older men who are trying to solicit minors for sex. They then lure in the predator, helping law enforcement officers score an easy arrest while collecting ample evidence in the process.

7. Saving Weddings

Not all good deeds need to be so serious. Regular readers might recall the article I posted last month about the couple whose wedding was saved by Twitter donations after their wedding planner disappeared with their entire deposit. As it turns out, that’s not the only wedding that’s been saved by the internet. When one Redditor put up a post about how the owner of the mansion he had booked for his venue backed out of the deal only three weeks before the big day, other readers put out all kinds of suggestions. Eventually, he decided to host the wedding at a field at a nearby farm, as suggested by another Redditor, leaving the poster with enough savings to provide his guests with ample free booze, as well as two bouncy houses.
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Of course, between online charities, Kickstarter, free education lessons, support groups and other great programs, the examples above are only a few of the many ways people online have shown themselves to be altruistic. Have any of you ever joined a great cause online or been the recipient of such kindness?

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Undersea Internet Cables Could Be Key to the Future of Earthquake Detection
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iStock

Considering that 70 percent of the planet is covered by oceans, we don't have all that many underwater earthquake sensors. Though there's plenty of seismic activity that happens out in the middle of the ocean, most detection equipment is located on land, with the exception of a few offshore sensor projects in Japan, the U.S., and Canada.

To get better earthquake data for tremors and quakes that happen far from existing sensors, a group of scientists in the UK, Italy, and Malta suggest turning to the internet. As Science News reports, the fiber-optic cables already laid down to carry communication between continents could be repurposed as seismic sensors with the help of lasers.

The new study, detailed in a recent issue of Science, proposes beaming a laser into one end of the optical fiber, then measuring how that light changes. When the cable is disturbed by seismic shaking, the light will change.

This method, which the researchers tested during earthquakes in Italy, New Zealand, Japan, and Mexico, would allow scientists to use data from multiple undersea cables to both detect and measure earthquake activity, including pinpointing the epicenter and estimating the magnitude. They were able to sense quakes in New Zealand and Japan from a land-based fiber-optic cable in England, and measure an earthquake in the Malta Sea from an undersea cable running between Malta and Sicily that was located more than 50 miles away from the epicenter.

A map of the world's undersea cable connections with a diagram of how lasers can measure their movement
Marra et al., Science (2018)

Seismic sensors installed on the sea floor are expensive, but they can save lives: During the deadly Japanese earthquake in 2011, the country's extensive early-warning system, including underwater sensors, was able to alert people in Tokyo of the quake 90 seconds before the shaking started.

Using existing cable links that run across the ocean floor would allow scientists to collect data on earthquakes that start in the middle of the ocean that are too weak to register on land-based seismic sensors. The fact that hundreds of thousands of miles of these cables already crisscross the globe makes this method far, far cheaper to implement than installing brand-new seismic sensors at the bottom of the ocean, giving scientists potential access to data on earthquake activity throughout the world, rather than only from the select places that already have offshore sensors installed.

The researchers haven't yet studied how the laser method works on the long fiber-optic cables that run between continents, so it's not ready for the big leagues yet. But eventually, it could help bolster tsunami detection, monitor earthquakes in remote areas like the Arctic, and more.

[h/t Science News]

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How Much Smartphone Use Is Too Much?
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Since the iPhone debuted in 2007, ushering in the age of the phone-as-computer, smartphone use has exploded worldwide, with an estimated 2.3 billion users last year. According to a 2016 Pew Research survey, 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone, and other recent stats have found that users are on their phones an average of more than five hours per day—almost double the rate in 2013. More people now use a mobile device to get online than they do a computer. This is especially true in regions where people may not be able to afford a personal computer but can buy a smartphone.

We love our smartphones perhaps a little too much, and the desire to unplug is growing among people who see 24/7 connectedness as damaging to their mental health. This week, Apple announced new iPhone features meant to curb our dependence on our devices, including a weekly "Report" app that shows your phone and app usage, as well as how many times you physically pick up your phone. (One small study by the consumer research firm Dscout found that we touch our phones more than 2600 times a day.) You can also set customized limits for overall phone usage with the "Screen Time" app.

Many of us feel anxiety at the very thought of being without their phone and the access it offers to the internet. Researchers have a term for it: nomophobia ("no mobile phone phobia"). So how much smartphone use is too much?

That turns out to be a surprisingly difficult question to answer. "Smartphone addiction" isn't an official medical diagnosis. Even the experts haven't decided how much is too much—or even whether smartphone addiction is real.

DEFINING ADDICTION

To understand what's going on, we have to first step back and define what addiction is. It's different from habits, which are subconsciously performed routines, and dependence, when repeated use of something causes withdrawals when you stop. You can be dependent on something without it ruining your life. Addiction is a mental disorder characterized by compulsive consumption despite serious adverse consequences.

Yet, our understanding of behavioral addictions—especially ones that don't involve ingesting mind-altering chemicals—is still evolving. Actions that result in psychological rewards, such as a crushing a castle in Clash Royale or getting a new ping from Instagram, can turn compulsive as our brains rewire to seek that payoff (just like our smartphones, our brains use electricity to operate, and circuits of neurons can restructure to skew toward rewards). For a minority of people, it seems those compulsions can turn to addictions.

Psychologists have been treating internet addiction for almost as long as the internet has been around: Kimberly Young, a clinical psychologist and program director at St. Bonaventure University, founded the Center for Internet Addiction back in 1995. By 2013, addictive behavior connected to personal technology was common enough that in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the bible for mental disorder diagnoses, the American Psychiatric Association included "internet gaming disorder" as a condition "warranting further study." These days, thanks to an abundance of horror stories involving people who were glued to the internet until they died—and living gamers who are so engrossed in their games that they ignore paramedics removing dead gamers—internet rehabs are popping up all over the world.

But in virtually all of the medical literature published so far about internet addiction—including the WHO's forthcoming 11th edition of International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), whose "excessive use of the internet" is built around how much gaming interferes with daily life—there's no mention of smartphones.

According to Marc Potenza, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine, there's a reason for these omissions: Despite the official definitions included in the DSM-V and ICD-11, "there's debate regarding the use of those terms [internet addiction]. Both the ICD-11 group and the DSM-V group chose to focus on the behavior rather than the delivery device."

So while you may feel nomophobia when you can't find your internet "delivery device," the global psychiatric community thinks it's the internet itself that's the problem—not the phone in your hand.

THE REWARDS THAT COME FROM OUR PHONES

We are getting something from our phones, though, and it's not just access to the internet. Receiving a notification gives us a small dopamine burst, and we learn to associate that dose of pleasure with the smartphone. You may pull your phone from your pocket a dozen times an hour to check for notifications—even if you know they're not there because your phone would have, well, notified you.

It's not unusual for people to become attached to an action (checking the phone) rather than its reward (getting a notification). Sometimes smokers trying to quit feel the urge to chew or bite and need to replace cigarettes with gum or sunflower seeds. According to Stephanie Borgland, a neuroscientist and associate professor at University of Calgary, this is called a Pavlovian-instrumental transfer—a reference to Ivan Pavlov's experiments, in which he reinforced behavior in dogs through signals and rewards. Borgland tells Mental Floss that we can become compulsively attached to the cues of phone use. We cling to the physical stimuli our brains have linked to the reward.

There may be an evolutionary basis to this behavior. Like other primates, humans are social mammals, but we have dramatically higher levels of dopamine than our cousins. This neurotransmitter is associated with reward-motivated behavior. So when we get a notification on an app that tells us someone has engaged us in social interaction—which we naturally crave—it triggers our natural inclinations.

HOW TO CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (FOR YOUR PHONE)

The global psychiatric community may not be convinced our smartphones are a problem, and no one has died from checking Snapchat too often—or at least it hasn't been reported. But most of us would say that spending five hours a day on our smartphones is too much. So are there any guidelines?

At this stage of research into smartphone use, there are no specific time-limit recommendations, though some researchers are working on a smartphone addiction scale; one was proposed in a 2013 study in the journal PLOS One. Based on what's said to be coming out in the ICD-11, here's one simple guideline: Problematic smartphone use negatively interferes with your life. Some research suggests Facebook, Instagram, and even online gaming make us feel more isolated and less connected. The more we try to fill that hole by tapping away at our phones, the more we crave social interaction. "There are a number of factors that have been associated with these behaviors or conditions," says Potenza, who is developing tools to screen for and assess problematic internet use and has consulted with the WHO on these issues. "And arguably one of the most consistent ones is depression."

One way to assess whether your smartphone is a problem is noting how you react when you're cut off from it, according to the PLOS One study. The study proposed a "smartphone addiction scale" based on negative responses to being without a smartphone, among other criteria. What happens on a day when you accidentally leave it at home? Are you irritable or anxious? Do you feel isolated from friends or unsafe? Do you have trouble concentrating on work, school, or other important responsibilities, whether or not you have your phone?

While smartphones may not be truly addictive in a medical sense, learning how to use them in a more mindful, healthy manner couldn't hurt. Test yourself for nomophobia [PDF]—knowing how much time you spend online is the first step to identifying how that can be problematic. Block distracting sites or track usage via a timer or an app (beware third-party apps' privacy settings, however). Delete the apps that keep the phone in your hand even when you're not online, like games. If you're still struggling, you could ditch smartphones altogether and downgrade to a "dumb" phone or get a Light Phone, a cellular device "designed to be used as little as possible."

A recent WIRED feature argued that using the internet five hours per day isn't a personal failing so much as a reflection of the way many apps are purposely designed to keep you salivating for more. So perhaps the best measure is to leave your phone behind once in a while. Schedule a screen-free Sunday. Go for a walk in the woods. Meditate. Socialize instead of binging The Office again. Don’t worry—you’ll be fine.

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