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  • State of the Internet

Is the internet making us anxious?

By Georgia Evans

Every year CIRA commissions an annual survey exploring how Canadians use the internet and publishes the insights in a new edition of Canada’s Internet Factbook.

This year, CIRA is publishing a series of blog posts based on the findings of the 2023 Canada’s Internet Factbook survey. The blog that follows below is the second of four in the series.

What does it say about the state of the internet today that there’s an entire lexicon of terms devoted to describing the many dangers we might encounter while using it? Malware, cyberbullying, trolling, doxing, phishing, identity theft, ransomware, cyber predators—it’s a long and growing list.

Look, we all love the internet. But it’s clear that excessive (or obsessive) internet use comes with risks. We may joke about experiencing a bit of FOMO once in a while or own up to occasional bouts of late-night doomscrolling, but most of us are well aware that the harmful forces we routinely face online are real and have the potential to negatively impact our mental health.

In fact, there’s a growing body of scientific research that finds a correlation between the amount of time spent online a long list of problems, including obesity, chronic neck pain, disrupted sleep and increased feelings of anxiety and depression. Numerous studies have found the combination of excessive smartphone and social media use among children and adolescents to be particularly harmful to their mental health. Thankfully digital literacy organizations like MediaSmarts—which CIRA has funded in recent years— exist to help teach young people how to stay safe and look after themselves online, but, as the data shows, it’s a big job and we’re all going to have to do our part.

Despite what many Canadians may know about the downside of being constantly connected, they continue to spend a big chunk of their day online. They’re working, connecting with friends and family, pursuing their hobbies, doing their banking and reading the news. They’re also entertaining themselves, whether through streaming TV, movies and music, gaming or spending time on social platforms.

Half of Canadians say they spend 5 or more hours online per day. Of those, 13 per cent say they’re connected between seven and eight hours a day, while for another 10 per cent that number rises to between nine and 10 hours a day. Ontario residents lead the country in this category, with 27 per cent saying they’re connected to the internet for nine or more hours a day on average. At the other end of the spectrum, just five per cent of Canadians spend less than one hour of their day online. These numbers aren’t new or surprising; they’re consistent with the findings from our 2021 and 2022 Factbook surveys, following steady increases in online use from 2016 through 2020.

Online security is a major source of anxiety

One major area of concern for Canadians is anything that threatens their online security and privacy, such as malware, data leaks, phishing attacks and viruses. Just under a fifth (19 per cent) say they have been the victim of a successful cyberattack. Three quarters say they are concerned about malware, with 47 per cent describing themselves as somewhat concerned and 27 per cent saying they are very concerned. The overall level of concern related to security and privacy is up from 66 per cent in 2022.

Online harassment and cyberbullying are another key source of anxiety for Canadians. Overall, one-quarter of people surveyed have experienced or witnessed harassment when using the internet. This number is considerably higher (38 per cent) among those aged 18 to 34, which may be the result of more time spent online, particularly on social media.

About three in ten (31 per cent) say their fears about online harassment have made them reluctant to use social media or participate in any online discussions. Women (34 per cent) are more likely than men (28 per cent) to feel reluctant in this respect.

All of the above: social media is beneficial, addictive and toxic

When it comes to our attitudes about the pros and cons of Facebook and other social media platforms, nothing is clear cut. Most Canadians say that using social media is neutral (50 per cent) or beneficial (18 per cent) for their overall sense of well-being, while one-quarter (24 per cent) say it’s harmful. However, the proportion of people who find their time on social media to be beneficial has decreased over time, while the proportion that find it harmful has increased.

In terms of individual social media sites and apps, Canadians view some more favourably than others. One quarter of Canadians say that YouTube is the “most helpful.” And while Facebook is second in that category (15 per cent), it is also most likely to be selected as “addictive” (26 per cent) and “toxic” by Canadians by a wide margin (31 per cent compared to 13 per cent for Instagram). Which social media platform do Canadians consider to be the most positive? The survey results produced no consensus.

If a significant proportion of Canadians are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety related to their daily internet usage. The good news is that many are also taking positive steps to reduce its impact on their mental health. In the area of cybersecurity and privacy, for example, about one third of Canadians (34 per cent) report using tools or services to increase their privacy and security online. Canadians are also educating themselves about the many threats they face from fraudsters, with about two thirds (67 per cent) say they are confident in their ability to detect online scams.

Another important trend finds that Canadians are beginning to recognize the benefits of taking a break from the internet altogether, even if only for a day are two. People are more likely to have taken at least a one-day break from the internet in the last 12 months (54 per cent) compared to 2022 (41 per cent). The most likely reasons Canadians are taking breaks is to avoid wasting time (48 per cent) and to relax (41 per cent).

Based on the trends uncovered in our Factbook research over the last several years, it’s unlikely many of us will see a dip in our reliance on the internet anytime soon. But as we become aware of more and better strategies and tools for protecting ourselves against the many hazards lurking out there, we’ll be much better able to mitigate the negative impacts and keep our internet anxiety in check.

About the author
Georgia Evans

Georgia is a Policy & Advocacy Analyst at CIRA and is very passionate about internet governance and digital policy.