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Symposium 2015

Virtual Library File - What Are We Not Doing When We’re Online?

The Challenge

Hardly any recent innovation has contributed as much as the Internet to making the world become globalized. With this new medium, information about nearly any topic can be distributed at high speed an ...

Hardly any recent innovation has contributed as much as the Internet to making the world become globalized. With this new medium, information about nearly any topic can be distributed at high speed and low cost, worldwide. This development most obviously has fostered international economic integration by lowering transaction costs. Moreover, it facilitates the transnational organization of political interests by providing efficient channels for mass communication. Eventually, new media might thus contribute to improving the provision of global public goods by equally spreading information on costs and benefits of related policy measures around the world, and helping to formulate demand accordingly.

However, the mere availability of new media does not necessarily guarantee an equal spread of information and better informed consumers, as a consequence. In fact, new media shift the costs of filtering information onto the user, and differences in the ability to do so may even increase the knowledge gap between the informed and the uninformed, within and between countries. If users find it too expensive to search and validate information from different sources, they might rely on biased information that match their preconceptions instead, potentially fostering ideological lock-ins. If individual costs of processing information are prohibitively high, consumers might even consume less information.

So, paradoxically, the new media may spread information globally, without improving the average consumers' deeper understanding of worldwide economic and political developments. While access to new media is the prerequisite for spreading information more equally, it is the new media consumers' patterns of usage that eventually determine whether progress in the information and communication technologies will result in more or less informed consumers.

As the title suggests, this paper assesses the opportunity costs of Internet use. More specifically, it shows that an increasing amount of leisiure time is being spent online -- which crowds out a number of other activities, as a consequence. Along that line, the paper sets out differences in the patterns of Internet use bewteen several population groups.