Scitech  Rethinking internet addiction

Can media act like a drug?

According to a test I took on the internet, I might be addicted to the internet. I scored 56 out of 100 – which, in the opinion of, means that I’m “experiencing occasional or frequent problems because of the internet,” and I really should “consider the full impact” of these problems on my life. So I decided to quit. The timing was perfect: I was moving into a new apartment; I would simply skip signing up for internet service. Easy as pie.

The move-in approached. I bought a radio, subscribed to two newspapers, three magazines, and rented seasons one through five of The Wire. I started reading a novel – Love in the Time of Cholera – set in Colombia a century before the internet was invented. I was like a heroin addict on a forced comedown stock piling methadone and vomit bags. And then I moved in.

When asked about our addictions, most of us cite the cups of coffee we drink each morning or the cigarettes one-fifth of us smoke each day. Some of us think about harder drugs – cocaine, crack, and heroin. Drugs are easy to label as addictive: when we stop taking them we feel bad. Daily coffee drinkers who suddenly quit experience headaches. Heroin addicts, losing the effect of the drug that comes to replace the natural painkillers in their brains – neurotransmitters that keep the clothes on our backs from making our skin crawl – experience physical pain. But what kind of withdrawal symptoms do we experience when we give up technology? Can we really be addicted to the internet?
In April, researchers at the University of Maryland asked two-hundred students to go 24 hours without media – no computers, cells phones, iPods, or televisions. At the end of the experiment, each student was asked to blog about their media-free day; they wrote more than 110,000 words, the equivalent of a four-hundred page book. When the researchers analyzed the posts they found that words like “craving,” “jittery,” and “anxious” were often repeated. “I got back from class around 5 p.m. frantically craving some technology,” wrote one student who ended up cheating – later that evening he checked his phone for texts.

Most of the Maryland students, in fact, couldn’t go 24 hours without checking their cell phones, Facebook profiles, or Twitter feeds. But unlike someone addicted to a drug, what the students missed during their technology comedown – what caused their drug-like withdrawal symptoms – were the connections to the outside world technology provides. Words like “friends,” “people,” and “lonely” also showed up frequently in the blog entries. Without being able to text or instant message, one student wrote, “I felt quite alone and secluded from my life.” Technology wasn’t acting like a drug – isolating people within a high. It was helping make connections. You can’t label someone an addict for missing their friends.

My experiment lasted two weeks. At home one afternoon, wanting to go see The Social Network with a friend and frustratingly realizing that I had absolutely no way to figure out where it was playing, I cracked – it was time to find a phonebook and call Bell. As of last Thursday, I now pay forty dollars a month so I can download movies, fire off e-mail, and tweet with my friends, all while writing this column from my living room. Fuck – if this is addiction, it’s bliss.