What If the Internet Really Isn't Social? What If It's the Opposite?

We have a relationship with the Internet that influences and, in some cases, drives our behaviors. Some would call it an addiction.

What did you do first this morning? Use the bathroom or check your phone for messages? Scroll through Facebook or let the dog out? Maybe you did both at the same time? When you get home from work, do you immediately turn on the Xbox? Do you ever get the PS4 “flu”?  Many of us are hooked on the information glut contained within our devices and relish the adrenaline rush our gaming consoles provide. So much so that while Internet addiction is not identified as a clinical disorder, the American Psychiatric Association has included Internet Gaming Disorder in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) as a condition warranting more clinical research.

Marketing agency Digital Clarity conducted a survey of 1,300 people in 2014 that examined the symptoms of net addiction in young adults. It found that almost 16 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds admitted to spending over 15 hours a day online. The survey looked at five signs of possible addiction:

+ spending hours online
+ becoming irritable when interrupted during web use
+ feeling guilty about how much time is spent online
+ isolation from family and friends due to excessive online activity
+ a sense of euphoria when online and panic when offline

Malissa Scott, a young student in the UK believes she suffers from Internet addiction. "I'm online for most of my waking hours and feel sick and depressed if I lose access to the web," she told the BBC. "I know it has spiraled out of control in the last 12 months and it has definitely affected my relationship with friends and family members."

To portray the hold that mobile devices have over us, photographer Eric Pickersgill released a series of photographs in October 2015 in which he removed all electronic devices. Dubbed Removed, Pickersgill says the inspiration for the project came from an observation he made one morning at a café:

“Family sitting next to me at Illium café in Troy, New York, is so disconnected from one another. Not much talking. Father and two daughters have their own phones out. Mom doesn’t have one or chooses to leave it put away. She stares out the window, sad and alone in the company of her closest family. Dad looks up every so often to announce some obscure piece of info he found online. Twice he goes on about a large fish that was caught. No one replies. I am saddened by the use of technology for interaction in exchange for not interacting. This has never happened before and I doubt we have scratched the surface of the social impact of this new experience. Mom has her phone out now.”

Video game addiction is equally prevalent. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014, a documentary entitled Web Junkie brought to the world’s attention the growing problem of Internet gaming addiction. The film follows the treatment of three teenagers in China, where over 400 institutions have opened to treat compulsive Internet use. Filmmaker Shosh Shlam told the AFP, “The children are dropping out from school; they're going to the Internet cafes day and night; they put a diaper on, not to miss one minute of the game."

“I was consumed by this never-ending, breathtaking, virtual universe,” said Ryan Van Cleave, author of Unplugged: My Journey Into the Dark World of Video Gaming. “It was as if an unseen digital umbilical cord was keeping me eternally wired to the game that demands my every waking moment. There was a constant yearning. When I wasn't gaming, it felt like a part of me was missing. There was a lack in my life. To play was to remove that lack, that sense of wrongness.“

Marc Potenza, a psychiatrist at Yale who primarily studies alcohol and drug addiction says that “some people have posited that the Internet is a vehicle and not a target of disorder.” That is, if you spend your time gambling online or shopping online, maybe you aren’t an Internet addict, but rather a gambling or shopping addict. In the video gaming example cited above, perhaps Van Cleave is addicted to the game and not the medium through which he plays it.

Either way, it’s clear that we have a relationship with the Internet that influences and, in some cases, drives our behaviors. “It can get really bad,” says Dr. Russ Hyken, author of The Parent Playbook. “I had a client who shaved his head so he could play more [video games] and avoid taking a shower and another client who urinated in a jug so he could play.”


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