The times they are a-changin’
Internet addiction is the flip side of the much-loved internet coin. More and more people find themselves feeling irritated when not online and they might even be unable to normally go on with their lives if there is no internet connection available. I belong to this generation that can clearly remember the excitement of getting a prepaid internet card and listening to the creepy sounds of a modem trying to achieve a dial-up connection. Back then you could make a filter coffee until the new tab would load. Fun times. We were patient back then. We did not really mind. Internet was still a baby and we got to see it grow to what it is today.
The times are a-changin’ of course, and today everyone and their mother have a smart phone in their pocket, that gives them the option to be online 24/7. Even my not-so-smart phone allowed me to check my mails while at my grandparents’ village, high up on the mountains, in the middle of nowhere last summer. Convenient? Sure. Scary? If you ask me, definitely. I find it particularly intimidating that the internet “follows” us wherever we go and it takes a great deal of discipline to stay away from it.
Are you addicted?
The reason that I chose to write this article is the fact that more often than not I feel that surfing online is taking over my free time. Sometimes I will be reading interesting articles but much of the time I am just refreshing my facebook or tumblr and hoping to read a new fun status update or discover a cute cat photo. Pinterest takes quite a big part of my online-time as well. The issue is that even though I might be browsing through thousands of creative ideas online, I am not doing anything creative myself. It takes quite some effort to shut down my laptop, in order to focus and read a book. I notice that I lose my focus very easily and I have observed that I might be reading articles on three different tabs at the same time, switching between them. I used to be quite proud of my ability to concentrate and focus, but especially when I am tired or I have to write an article that I do not find particularly fulfilling, an internet procrastination wave drowns me instantly.
Especially if you are working online, the way I am, you might find that it is even harder to get your work done on time. Surely, the amount of information online is amazing, but this makes it even harder to stop reading around when you have found the information you are looking for. If I have to write about the health benefits of beans, it is very easy to start reading a more general article about legumes and then one about bean varieties and then another one about an extinct bean variety and then another one about how modern agriculture leads to extinction of certain varieties of plants and so on. Especially if you are naturally curious the way I am, it can be a total disaster.
Apart from my difficulty to work efficiently, another sign that I had that my internet use might not be exactly normal was the fact that on a few instances I felt irritated that I had to go out and meet new people, instead of being able to keep surfing. I started wondering if I am becoming addicted to the internet or antisocial or both and which is the cause and which is the result. More on that later. So I decided to do an online test. I thought that if the results showed that I am addicted, I should do more research on the subject and seek help. I chose this one. I got a score of 41 and my results read “You are an average online user. You may surf the Web a bit too long at times, but you have control over your usage”.
How does internet addiction affect our lives?
Even though my tests showed that I am not addicted, I have to admit that I am not at all happy with the way I use the internet. I use it for my work and that is acceptable. I also use it to watch movies, which is also OK. I also use it to listen to music. That might sound harmless, but it is not because I do not focus to the music. I listen to music while I am surfing. I am overloading my mind with information and I am straining my eyes -not to mention my back, with my unacceptable posture- while I could be using just my ears and be away from the laptop. I am also using the internet to fight boredom. I used to use books for that. Or I used to draw and craft things. I am still doing it, but only at about 20% of how much I used to do it.
I am also using internet to find solutions to problems. I am not talking about “how to tie a nautical knot” instructions. I have googled things that I am really not proud of, considering how to handle issues in human relationships. In “the old days” if I was worried about my relationship with a friend/relative/lover, I would ask them what is going on and discuss it (or have a nice, heated fight and get it out of my system). I find that nowadays, especially the people who were born in the ’90s or later, will ask an online community “do you think that the boy in my chemistry class likes me?” instead of asking the boy directly or at least their friends who know them and the said boy. I am not against meeting people and making friends online, but I feel that the physical aspect of human relationships is also very important and should not be disregarded. I am not a touchy- feely kind of person, but still I have found it quite comforting when my friends hugged me at times when I was miserable and I love hugging them when we are all happy, celebrating a success or we have just missed each other too much. Trust me. I have had that and I also have skype-coffees with friends. Not the same.
Now, I might be old/wise/disciplined enough to be able to control my internet time, even though it has become my main source of fun, inspiration, relaxation and income. But there are people out there who get a score of 80 or more on the test I mentioned before. If you find that you cannot be calm if you are not logged in your mail/facebook/tumblr/twitter, then you might be really addicted. Internet addiction can compromise your performance at work and it can also hurt your relationships with others. Working parents who are internet addicts might find themselves going straight to the laptop once they are back home, in order to catch up with their virtual lives, therefore not spending enough time with their kids. Teenagers and even adults who are addicted in online gaming might wake up one day only to realize that their classmates are married and divorced while they have been too busy with their quest and fueling their body with junk food.
Why do we get addicted in the first place and how to deal with it.
Well, the internet is a magical place. There are hundreds of pages that are addressed to all sorts of different groups of people. There is something for everyone and everyone feels welcome. If you are obsessed with white butterflies with an even number of dots on their wings, chances are that not many people in your city share your passion. Thankfully, there is a relevant forum online, with people all over the world, who never get tired of talking about white butterflies and their dots. This is an aspect of the internet that I find fascinating and not particularly harmful, as long as you do not spend your whole day on such fora. Of course, if you are a minor or you have minors in your family, it is advisable to be extra cautious about the fora that you or your children join. Education is a much greater weapon than fear. Let me give you an example. Telling your daughter that she should never talk with strangers online will be much less effective in protecting her from being contacted by a pedophile than telling her that pedophiles are out there and explain her which behaviors are suspicious. Do not count on locking sites that look dangerous to you. New ones pop-up every day and kids and teenagers are notorious for their hacking abilities. E-du-ca-te. Children are young humans. They are not stupid. Do not treat them as such.
Internet is also cheap. With the financial crisis striking Europe and the US quite hard, many young people are unemployed and cannot afford going out to lunches, dinners, coffees and bars to socialize. Instead, they can talk with others online, watch movies for free and kill their time by scrolling down the facebook timeline and reading what their more fortunate friends are doing with their lives. This is a very scary phenomenon for me. Coming from a country where human relations are a very important part of our culture, it is sad seeing that people stay indoors, in front of a screen, instead of going outside to physically meet and greet other people. I understand that going out and not being able to spend as much as one would like can cause discomfort and feelings of misery and deprivation. But Greeks, Italians, Spanish, Portuguese have a long tradition of hospitality and making use of the outdoors as a meeting space. Blessed with such great climate, people should be able to enjoy sitting with their company on their own home’s balcony and share a bottle of wine. Of course, when this is done out of necessity instead out of choice, you cannot fully enjoy it. It takes a mentality shift to reevaluate the things that really matter in life. And in my opinion human companionship will always be much more nurturing than any amount of hours online, no matter how interesting what you read is.
The sense of accomplishment that many people get when they see their twitter followers number rise or more and more likes under a facebook post they made is another reason people get addicted to the internet. It is usually people with low self-esteem that get obsessed about how people respond to their posts. Provocative status updates are often used as a way to attract more views and more often than not people seek attention rather than interaction. If you notice that you are refreshing your website constantly and agonizing over the amount of views, you might want to reflect a bit upon your life. Do you really need the attention of people that you do not even know? And if you do, why is that? When was the last time you accomplished something offline? If your self-esteem is low due to your passiveness, you can work towards focusing and accomplishing real-life goals. If your addiction to internet fame is just an expression of vanity, your friends or a therapist can take the responsibility of a wake-up call.
Anonymity is another aspect of the internet that gets users hooked. No matter how much of a failure you feel in real life, online you can be a super hero. You can carefully construct a persona for yourself and approach people whom you would never dare to approach in real life. Shy teenagers, people with self-image issues, closeted gay people, abused people etc can all express their thought, worries, fears, fantasies without exposing their identity. This can be very liberating but also very dangerous. Imagine being a woman who is being abused by her partner. You can go online and using a nickname talk with abused women all over the world and share your experiences. Sounds liberating, right? The thing is what you will choose to do with this power. Let’s look at two possible scenarios. One: you gather strength and get empowered by the stories of abuse survivors that you meet online. They give you great advice on where to find a good lawyer and how you can leave your partner. You find the strength and do it! Now, let’s look at scenario number two: you talk with other victims of abuse daily and you realize that your partner might be beating you up, but this other lady got threatened with a gun by her partner so you are relatively lucky and you should not make such a fuss about it. Or you get frightened that your partner might threaten you with a gun too, if you take action against him. So you vent online and do nothing to improve your real life. To put it simply, it is crucial to use the safety that anonymity gives you in order to grow and evolve and not in order to just let some steam off. You also need to keep in mind that many people hide behind anonymity because they do not want to get in trouble with the law. From relatively harmless souls, like music pirates, to complete psychopaths, anyone could be hiding behind a cute or impressive nickname.
Using your own name in your online activities can actually be a good way to minimize your internet use. You know that your boss will google you at some point. If you vow to use your own name in whatever you do online, you are less likely to make a youtube channel and upload cat videos or an instagram account and upload pictures of your feet. If you are not proud enough of something to publish it with your own name, just don’t. You will be surprised how much this little trick will help reduce your online activity and especially your online procrastination.
A good way to deal with your internet addiction is to introduce internet-free time slots during the day. You can start out small with an offline hour after dinner. And as you become more brave, you can introduce internet-free weekends. You might think now that this is unthinkable, because your boss might mail you Saturday night and she will fire you if you do not reply immediately. This is rarely the case though. You will be surprised to realize that the more you start respecting your time, the more your social environment will start respecting it too. Just make it clear to the people you work with on Friday evening that you will check your mail again Sunday evening. An out-of-internet automatic reply is also a great idea.
Last but not least, make someone you love responsible to keep you offline certain parts of the day. Surely, you will dislike and hate that person a little bit. This is why it is important that you choose someone you really love, because after you behave like a five-year old and whine, you will remember that they do it for your own good. You can even ask them to lock some pages, like facebook, during your working hours and ask them to unlock them after you finish work. You might think that no-one would want you to hate them so there will be no volunteers for the task. You will be amazed to find out though that your girlfriend will gladly help you stay offline and get your work done, so that you do not have to work more at home and be free to spend time with her.
When to request professional help.
If you realize that your work, personal relationships, sleep and health start to suffer due to the fact that you are always online and never have time for anything else, do consult a mental health specialist. In many cases a few sessions with a psychologist help the addict realize the issue and it can be solved with a bit of guidance. There are cases though when the addict might need to stay in a detox facility, as weird as that might sound. People who are addicted to substances such as drugs, cigarettes and alcohol are more prone to internet addiction and so are ex-addicts. As the mental part of addiction is the hardest one to overcome, in many cases ex-addicts who are no longer using substances might get addicted to the internet. Is you or someone you love are facing such challenges, do inform the mental healthcare professional about it. Depending on where you live, your health insurance might cover part or all of the treatment costs to overcome an internet addiction.