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What happens when the Internet goes down?

The unexpected and unintended consequences of being disconnected

Last Updated 3/1/18
by Jami Barnett, Ph.D. ConsumerAffairs Research Team

What goes up when the Internet goes down?

Being connected has changed how we spend our time and interact with other people. At ConsumerAffairs, we investigated some of the interesting ways people have reacted to real-world Internet outages.

  • Insights

The use of cash goes up

Over 80% of consumer spending in the U.S. is cashless, because people use debit or credit cards. In an Arizona town where the Internet was unexpectedly cut off for 12 hours, grocery stores were only letting people who showed cash at the door, because most card approvals are run over the Internet. What made it even crazier was the banks also had to close as they couldn’t process information. This meant local ATMs were not functioning. In this disconnected environment, cash was king.

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People relearn the art of conversation

In 2014, a psychologist led a study of an Internet and device free camp for teenagers for a week. In just five days, campers tested significantly better than a control group for reading facial expressions of actors in movies. Scientists theorized that the time away from devices helped them pay attention to human expressions and build a better sense of empathy. Without connected phones or tablets, the teenagers had an extra 5 hours a day of interacting with people. In other studies in labs and natural settings, the mere presence of a connected device led to much lighter conversation topics with participants using shorter sentences.

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Government intervention can have unintended consequences


Sometimes the Internet gets shut down deliberately by governments and their agencies - and we aren’t just talking about foreign countries. Recently, the BART system (Bay Area Rapid Transit) blocked mobile cellphone usage to stop protesters from coordinating actions to stop trains. Perhaps one of the most infamous Internet blocking stories comes from Egypt, when in 2011 the government wanted to stop the rising tide of mass protests to overthrow the government. In that case the action by the government had the reverse effect of stopping rebellion. In the new vacuum of information, people left their homes and went out into the streets to gain the latest news. The surging crowds made people realize how real the discontent was and at that point large crowd behavior dynamics took over.

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Non-digital love connections are made

When a natural disaster wipes out connectivity, data suggests a baby boom won’t be far behind...nine months behind, to be precise.

Psychologists call it a perfect bonding scenario. In fact, there is an entire field of study called adult attachment theory that addresses, among other things, how feelings of security impact romantic relationships. In New Jersey, Monmouth Medical Center and Jersey Shore Medical Center reported double digit increases in births nine months after Hurricane Sandy. Nine months after Cyclone Yasi hit Australia in February 2011, one hospital reported a 50% increase in births. Scientists are divided though. Because serious stress - including surviving a natural disaster - can negatively impact fertility, some researchers say that these reported birth rate increases should be attributed to other factors.

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Blocking sites at work causes cell phone use to go up


It is estimated that nearly half of all companies block some or all access to the Internet and a range of sites. Smartphones are much harder for employers to regulate, however.

The simple act of being interrupted by a personal Facebook message can derail focus and productivity for up to 23 minutes. On the other hand, some researchers contend there is a restorative aspect to a cyber break, providing a positive boost to productivity and creativity. In a fascinating twist, psychologists note that the willpower it takes to delay gratification and stay away from the sites and social networks they like to visit throughout the day depletes energy and can ultimately harm productivity. However, if an entire team agrees to abstain from leisure surfing for a certain time period, productivity increases.

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Insights

So, what do Americans think about being constantly connected? In a recent survey of attitudes towards the Internet some interesting facts emerged.

60%

Most Americans would jump at the chance to travel to a place with zero connectivity for a week. Nearly 60% of Americans told us they are ready to check out.

2x

Americans are twice as worried about not being able to work as they are about losing contact with loved ones. We’ll chalk this one up to good ol’ fashioned American work ethic.

24%

Most people believe that employees spend 1- 2 hours per day leisurely surfing the web at work, but they may be overestimating. According to a recent salary.com survey, only 24% said they wasted more than an hour a day on online searches.

56%

56% of people said that If they were the boss, they would restrict access to social media at work. No word on whether they would also check smartphones at the door.

Source: ConsumerAffairs survey of >500 Internet users.
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Jami Barnett, Ph.D., is an experienced researcher, and she believes consumers have a right to clear and honest information about products. In her role at ConsumerAffairs, she thoroughly researches products and companies by interviewing experts, reviewing research studies, reading governmental regulations and investigating customer service responses. Her work gives consumers the information they need to make smart purchasing decisions.

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