Leisure and the Internet
The availability and adoption of Internet technology has increased exponentially since its introduction in the 1960s. From its earliest conception as a galactic network of globally connected computers, the Internet has moved beyond the realm of science fiction to become the primary global communication medium. The United Nations Telecommunications Agency reported that by the end of 2010 the number of Internet users worldwide had mushroomed to over 2 billion, doubling in number since 2005 (see figure 19.1). Although the United States has historically maintained the most users on a per capita basis, the spatial reach and the Internet penetration rate continue to grow within developing countries where 1.2 billion users are located. China, now the largest Internet market in the world, has over 420 million users. In developing countries, rapid improvements to Internet infrastructure are expected to provide accessibility to a growing number of users. A number of countries, including Estonia, Finland, and Spain, have declared access to the Internet a legal right for citizens. Until now, no other communication device has been so readily adopted with such widespread sociocultural and economic implications.
How does the Internet influence contemporary leisure meanings, activities, and spaces? Today, traditional leisure activities and spaces such as sport fields, parks, cinemas, restaurants, and amusement parks exist alongside virtual ones (see the sidebar). Traditional leisure spaces and activities may be reproduced in online role-playing games (e.g., Star Wars Galaxies, World of Warcraft), which attract over 20 million players worldwide and contribute billions of dollars to the world economy (Castronova, 2005). The Internet has also provided a new public realm for the development of community. No longer is geography the primary mechanism. Virtual communities are bringing people together who share ideas, interests, and lifestyles. These virtual communities represent a space where many people spend their leisure time. For example, Facebook has over 750 million active users who spend 700 billion minutes per month on the website. Fifty percent of users log on to Facebook on a daily basis to communicate with their friends, family, coworkers, and communities. Individuals can share photographs and videos, update a personalized news feed, join groups of interest, and communicate through live chat and personal messages. Since its creation in 2004, Facebook has evolved into one of the most trafficked websites in the world. More than 70 percent of users live outside the United States.
Online shopping, while considered primarily a commercial transaction, is also a popular leisure activity. People are now turning to the Internet as the primary medium through which to plan leisure activities and purchase hotel rooms and airline travel. Others are using the Internet to buy books, video games, and movies. In America, Amazon.com is the number one Internet retailer. In 2009 a deep recession caused a drop in consumer spending worldwide, but in 2010 the online market recovered as consumer confidence to spend improved and people spent more of their time and money online. Online sales of the top 500 global retailers grew 18 percent to $150 billion in 2010 (from $127 billion in 2009). The U.S. Department of Commerce reported that e-commerce sales increased by 15 percent (to $165.4 billion) in 2010. Statistics Canada, the government agency equivalent to the U.S. Census Bureau, reported that online retail grew by 8 percent over 2009 sales. The magnitude of online shopping has transformed the retail landscape and the way that people engage in recreational retail.
Deviant leisure has also manifested in the virtual landscape. Like “normal” leisure, deviant leisure has been identified as a source of fun and enjoyment for some people. But the anonymity of the Internet together with the availability of shared-interest virtual communities provides opportunities for information exchange and behavior that may be in conflict with the social and moral values of Internet users and society in general. Concerns have also been raised about the sedentary nature of Internet use and its potential to affect health negatively. A recent study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research reports that leisure-time Internet and computer use was significantly associated with weight gain and obesity. Compared with those who do not use the Internet and computers, people with low Internet and computer use were 1.3 times more likely to be overweight and 1.4 times more likely to be obese, and people with high Internet and computer use were 1.5 times more likely to be overweight and 2.5 times more likely to be obese. So although Internet-based leisure activities fulfill positive functions (escape, relaxation, social interaction, sensory stimulation, active entertainment, and the development of self-identity), the reality is that negative functions may also be realized (Bryce, 2001).
The Internet has been responsible for the transformation of leisure and the rise of “e-leisure.” This significant transformation can’t be compared with the magnitude of change associated with previous technological influences on leisure and recreation (e.g., trains, commercial flights, and television). Leisure is an important component of people’s lives, and now more than ever, people have an abundance of leisure choices and venues—both physical and virtual. The challenge is that Internet access is limited in developing countries and rural areas where dial-up and broadband Internet penetration rates are low (though improving) and Internet service prices are high. But the falling cost of mobile services and smart phones will make Internet access through the cellular network an on-the-go reality for more people in more locations. The UN News Centre (2010) indicates that among the 5.3 billion mobile subscriptions in 2010, 3.8 billion were in the developing world. Growing numbers of people have access to mobile technologies, and the distribution of people with Internet access will certainly change across time and space in the near future. It will be fascinating to observe how smart phones transform the leisure landscape in the decades ahead.