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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Internet Addiction?

As I said yesterday, I am increasingly going to indulge myself on this blog by posting about what simply takes my fancy. Today I have two posts on the state of play of the eurozone and Italian economies on this blog (and here) for those with a special interest in economic matters.

But what really interests me today is the Stanford report on internet addiction which has gotten so much coverage in recent days.

I have posted a substantial extract about the report below. What I would say is that this research is at one and the same time both very much to the point, and essentially missing some very important aspects of the situation.

What do I mean? Well I think that the starting point for how I would look at all of this would be the idea of the 'online person'. Clearly the online person is going to have a very different type of behaviour, and maybe a very different set of objectives in life from the offline one.

But obviously there are many different types of online people. There are those who spend their time visiting gambling sites or participating in porn-related chats, and there are those who are doing something else, those who are using the www as some sort of collective brain, and memory, and developing new forms of communication which actually serve to enhance and enrich their lives. Unless and untill you start to make this kind of distinction, my feeling is you aren't going to get anywhere in terms of classifying what is happening.

When I read the following para, I couldn't help thinking about myself:

"a small but growing number of Internet users are starting to visit their doctors for help with unhealthy attachments to cyberspace. He said these patients' strong drive to compulsively use the Internet to check e-mail, make blog entries or visit Web sites or chat rooms, is not unlike what sufferers of substance abuse or impulse-control disorders experience: a repetitive, intrusive and irresistible urge to perform an act that may be pleasurable in the moment but that can lead to significant problems on the personal and professional levels."

Is this a description of me, I thought? Certainly the "compulsively use the Internet to check e-mail, make blog entries or visit Web sites" sort of rang a bell. But what does compulsively mean here?

Obviously intensive internet use changes the nature of your inter-personal relations. We get used to regular communication with people who we have never actually met, and possibly whose voice we have never even heard.

All of this poses important new challenges in our personal lives. And I think we need to find balance. I have personally found this to be a topic I have had to work on, since, at the end of the day, I hate all extremes.

But this study focuses on just one dimension of the problem, that of the online people. But what about the others, the 'offline people', just how are they getting on? How are they handling their absence from the internet? Do they feel confident about the future?

My feeling riding around the metro in Barcelona and looking at the expressions on all those faces is that this is far from obvious, yet the very existence of the internet, by its mere presence, has of course transformed their lives too. So those of us who are very much 'in' on the latest wave of internet exploration (the WWW4 people) can find plenty of food for thought about how to equilibrate their lives in this report, but the others, the people who are still struggling to get up to speed with WWW1, should be given pause for reflection too. Just exactly where are they now headed?

Stanford Study Seeks To Define Whether Internet Addiction Is A Problem

Is spending too much time online a prevalent and damaging condition, or simply a bad habit among a select few? Stanford University School of Medicine researchers have taken an important step toward resolving the debate over whether compulsive use of the Internet merits a medical diagnosis.

In a first-of-its-kind, telephone-based study, the researchers found that more than one out of eight Americans exhibited at least one possible sign of problematic Internet use. The findings follow results from previous, less rigorous studies that found a significant number of the population could be suffering from some form of Internet addiction.

Aboujaoude, clinical assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of Stanford's Impulse Control Disorders Clinic, said that a small but growing number of Internet users are starting to visit their doctors for help with unhealthy attachments to cyberspace. He said these patients' strong drive to compulsively use the Internet to check e-mail, make blog entries or visit Web sites or chat rooms, is not unlike what sufferers of substance abuse or impulse-control disorders experience: a repetitive, intrusive and irresistible urge to perform an act that may be pleasurable in the moment but that can lead to significant problems on the personal and professional levels.

According to preliminary research, the typical affected individual is a single, college-educated, white male in his 30s, who spends approximately 30 hours a week on non-essential computer use. While some may hear this profile and assume that a person's Internet "addiction" might actually be an extreme fondness for pornography, Aboujaoude stressed that pornography sites are just one part of the problem.

"Not surprisingly, online pornography and, to some degree, online gambling, have received the most attention - but users are as likely to use other sites, including chat rooms, shopping venues and special-interest Web sites," he said. "Our survey did not track what specific Internet venues were the most frequented by respondents, but other studies, and our clinical experience, indicate that pornography is just one area of excessive Internet use."

Aboujaoude said he found most concerning the numbers of people who hid their nonessential Internet use or used the Internet to escape a negative mood, much in the same way that alcoholics might. "In a sense, they're using the Internet to 'self-medicate,'" he said. "And obviously something is wrong when people go out of their way to hide their Internet activity."

While the numbers indicate that a subset of people might have a problem with Internet use, Aboujaoude stressed that it's premature to say whether people in the sample actually have a clinical disorder. "We're not saying this is a diagnosis - we still need to learn a lot more," he said. "But this study was a necessary first step toward possibly identifying something clinically significant."

Aboujaoude said the next step is to conduct comprehensive clinical interviews on a large sample of people to better identify clinically relevant markers for problematic Internet use, and to better understand whether this phenomenon constitutes an independent psychological disorder.

Final Point: I have, as I said given quite a lot of thought to all of this in recent months. I have taken to walking more, and to reducing my calorie intake to try to counterbalance the more sedentary lifestyle I have these days. I have also got myself a laptop and 3g wireless connection so I can go and work in the park - being indoors to long simply isn't good. And I also take more frequent, and more systematic complete breaks from the computer. Like this afternoon, when I am finishing up at 4:00 to go and see Copying Beethoven, and then to hear an Italian singer called Monica Pinto who is an exponent of what is known as Spakka Napoli (or traditional popular music from Naples). This is what I mean by 'balance'.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Imre Nagy and Pál Maléter

The papers are full these days of commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising. This is something quite personal for me, not due to any involvement on my part, but due to the fact that the events which took place in Hungary in 1956 and the Sharpville shooting in South Africa in 1960 (and the winds of change speech from Harold Macmillan which follwed this) probably marked my childhood more than any other events I can remember.

I was eight at the time of the uprising, and I can still remember rushing home from school and turning on the old (almost steam) B&W TV we had to try and discover what had been happening. Pál Maléter was my first real hero in life, and I would like to take this opportunity to remember him, and Imre Nagy, and all those who died in those tragic days and their aftermath.

Such a waste.

As they say: at the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.

Hungary's reluctant rebel

By Christopher Condon

The story of Nagy explodes any simplistic reading of '56. Born to a peasant family in 1896, he discovered Bolshevism while a prisoner of war in Russia during the first world war. He worked in the communist underground in Hungary before moving to Moscow in 1930. Much evidence suggests

he survived Josef Stalin's purges because he was an agent of the Soviet secret police.

Back in Hungary after the second world war, Nagy took various government posts, before and after the Communists seized total power in 1947. His loyalty to the party and his personal convictions became increasingly contradictory. As prime minister from 1953-55, he released political prisoners and loosened the Stalinist terror of his predecessor, Matyas Rakosi. This made him popular. But he never protested when colleagues were marked for dismissal, imprisonment or execution. Moreover, until 1956, any compromise to one-party rule was, to Nagy, unthinkable.

That revolutionaries, between their street battles with Soviet tanks, would turn to Nagy for leadership seems, at first, bizarre. They wanted independence from Moscow, the evacuation of Soviet troops from Hungary and free elections. But many historians insist that most of those fighting also favoured something resembling reformed socialism or social democracy. This made Nagy a logical ally.

He proved, however, a poor leader during the crisis. During the crucial period in which the Kremlin considered its options, he bumbled along indecisively. Badly out of step with events in the street, he was unable to moderate the rebels' demands or to persuade the Soviets against the maximum response.

In his trial two years later, Nagy refused to condemn the revolution or his actions. "He has a place as a Hungarian hero not because of his performance during the revolution," says Janos Rainer, director of Hungary's 1956 Institute. "His stubborn defence of the values of the revolution, that is the recollection that will dominate the view on Imre Nagy."

Nagy went to the gallows on June 16 1958, declaring he had "tried to save the honour and image of communism".

Odds and Ends

These days this blog is becoming a little bit more personalised and idiosynchratic in terms of the posts which appear. This, I suppose, is how I want it to be. If you want good macroeconomic assessment of just what is happening right now you could do a lot worse than follow young Claus Vistesen.

I am also doing plenty of economic posting, but most of it doesn't appear on this blog. At present I am trying to follow the Indian and the Italian economies, for reasons which I explain here. At present the Italian Economy Blog has livened-up considerably, and this week there have been posts about ageing, about pensions, about the budget and about industrial output and Fiat.

Also I am working with a group of very interesting economists on the Indian Economy blog, and these two posts (and this) I think are very interesting for anyone who wants to understand what is actually happening in India.

Also there is the demography matters blog, and Claus recently had a post related to the sustainability of pensions in the EU, while I had a piece this morning about a new proposal in the US to fully account for the liabilities incurred by the state in the future in terms of pensions, health and social security.

Anyway, while I am here, the FT this morning has an interesting article about the recent apparent improvement in EU productivity. At this point I will not venture very far into what I actually think, since in part I have not really decided. The problem is that the methodological and measurement issues are, in and of themselves, substantial in connection with this topic, and when you then add to this the politically contentious nature of the subject matter, well, what you normally end up with is a total mess, and one which spreads more confusion than light. Still, for what it is worth here is the opinion of the ECB:

Since the mid-1990s the eurozone has fallen significantly behind the US in labour productivity growth, helping explain its lacklustre overall economic performance. But ECB figures this month showed a significant improvement this year, with labour productivity growth reaching a six-year high in the second quarter.

The European Commission has cited the rise in productivity growth as evidence of a eurozone recovery, and suggested that its long-term growth prospects have been lifted. Joaquín Almunia, the EU monetary affairs commissioner, told the FT last month: “I have a feeling some improvements are taking place.” Eurozone economic growth overtook that of the US in the second quarter of this year, and is thought to have remained strong in the third quarter.

However, an ECB research paper concludes that the recent improvement in labour productivity growth “may be to a large extent a cyclical phenomenon” and warns that it may be some years before a “proper assessment” can be made.

Although the ECB says its research papers do not necessarily reflect the bank’s thinking, Jean-Claude Trichet, its president, highlighted the eurozone’s productivity deficit in a speech in Berlin last week.

The detailed ECB paper is generally scathing of eurozone productivity performance, highlighting in particular the failure of the eurozone – compared with the US – to harness the productivity benefits allowed by new technologies. It acknowledges growth prospects have been enhanced by measures that have increased the utilisation of labour, by reducing unemployment for instance. But it argues that the positive impact of such measures on the eurozone since the mid-1990s “was smaller than that of rising productivity growth in the US”.

The paper argues that a decline in labour productivity growth is spread across most of the 12 eurozone countries and is apparent whether measured per person or per hour worked – undermining arguments that Europe’s weaker economic performance results from its citizens’ preference for working fewer hours.

It says eurozone labour productivity (measured as real gross domestic product per hour worked) declined from an average annual growth rate of 2.1 per cent between 1990-1995 to just 1.2 per cent between 1996 and 2005. Over the same period, US labour productivity growth rose strongly, from 1.3 per cent to 2.1 per cent.

Incidentally, I myself had some pretty scathing remarks to make about Joaquim Almunia in this post, and I am not really surprsied to find him indulging his opinions in this thoroughly trivial and superficial fashion. Would that he knew something of what he was talking about. And would that we had Pedro Solbes back in Brussels, as I say at the end of the post: Of course Europe's loss is Spain's benefit, but that hardly seems to be the important point given the gravity of the issues involved.