The term "cyberaddiction" was coined back in the mid-nineties. But in the age of iPhones and Facebook, aren't we all addicted to the internet?
Things are easier said than done, or so the old adage goes, and we couldn't agree more. That's why we do The GOOD 30-Day Challenge (#30DaysofGOOD), a monthly attempt to live better. Our challenge for August? Get off the internet at 8.
When the GOOD editors decided that our August challenge would be to unplug at 8 p.m., I knew I would fail miserably. I usually don't stop working until 7:30 p.m., and even when I leave the house, I can't stop myself from stealing a look at my Blackberry. I often read my Twitter feed when I'm walking down the street. Even relaxation sometimes requires an online connection, like when I'm streaming a movie on Netflix or catching up on the week's memes. I've gotten yelled at by my significant other to "stop emailing." In the middle of the night, I find myself glancing at my phone just to make sure the world isn't ending.
I often chalk these habits up to my job. Every journalist I know struggles to stay on top of the ever-accumulating layers of daily news and commentary, from the wonkiest policy blogs to the silliest hashtags on Twitter. If you miss even one day, you can feel eerily behind. Sometimes even my most compulsive phone-and-Internet behavior (texting while driving, staying up too late on a school night for a Mad Men marathon) feels justified because of the career I've chosen—and in some cases, because of the personality I happen to have. But I do wonder if my life would be better without so much screen time.
Am I addicted to the internet? I decided to consult an expert.
"What makes things addictive is if they interfere with life in some major way," Dr. Kimberly Young assures me. "If you're on the Internet for 12 to 15 hours a day for professional reasons, and your relationships are fine, and you're not getting arrested, you probably don't have much of an addiction."
Young was one of the first doctors to explore "cyber-addiction," a condition that developed almost as soon as the World Wide Web took off. Young and a few other doctors realized that obsessive gamers and gamblers, voracious online porn consumers, and compulsive chat roomers displayed the same qualities as alcoholics and drug addicts. Nowadays, treating this condition is a flourishing business, with internet-addict support groups and forums, not to mention psychiatrists nationwide who specialize in the disorder. In 2009, Seattle opened its first ever internet-addiction treatment center.
Back in the 1990s, Young devised a basic test for internet addiction that she still uses, with questions ranging from the innocuous ("How often do you find that you stay online longer than you intended?") to the deeply depressing ("How often do you fear that life without the Internet would be boring, empty, and joyless?"). The options for each are "Rarely," "Occasionally," "Frequently," "Often," and "Always."
When I took this test, I scored in the "average online user" range—but just barely. I thought about Young's caveat about whether my relationships were okay, and I remembered the many times my husband has censured me for looking at my Blackberry during dinner, during the movies, during plays. I wasn't sure whether that counted as "affecting my relationship," or if it was just a part of life now that the internet is in the palm of our hands.
And some of the questions seemed anachronistic in the age of smartphones and wireless connections. For instance: "How often do you lose sleep due to late-night log-ins?" I reasoned I lost a few minutes a night, but there's a rather large difference between glancing over at your phone on the endtable and enduring a full minute of dial-up fuzz back in 1998. Let's face it: Back then, internet addiction required a lot more commitment.
"The reasons behind internet addiction have not changed," says Dr. Dave Greenfield, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut and another early practitioner of cyber-addiction therapy. "What's changed is how easy it is to access and how socially desirable it is, how useful it is."
Greenfield has another test alongside the one for cyber-addiction: the internet abuse test. He likens an internet abuser—say, someone who walks in front of traffic while staring at their iPhone or constantly checks Facebook at work—with someone who gets behind the wheel while drunk. Just because we're reckless doesn't mean we're addicted.
"Of course it's easier nowadays to be an internet abuser," he says. "Our standards have changed." It took more time and effort to get online in 1995, and social networks were only invented around eight years ago. "It's the way people hang out now, and no one should be accused of hanging out with their friends too much."
Greenfield's clients usually fit into four basic categories: They're in legal trouble, they're suffering academically, they're gamers, or they're addicted to internet porn. He suggests the internet is our collective sweet tooth, and that we should try to make rules to help ourselves consume it in moderation.
"Like...unplug at eight?" I ventured.
He thinks a minute. "Sure," he says. "That sounds about right."