From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

November 26, 1999*: admit we are powerless over the web

The next big study on the question of internet addiction may be just around the corner, but at present it's not an issue that's making many headlines. And that means that this is a good time for me to add my take on the subject. An article I clipped from HaAretz from late August (that I've been moving from pile to pile ever since) tells of a plan of the European Community to deal with web-addicts free of charge. I expected to see more on this topic, but perhaps it's become a non-topic for others besides myself.

What basically seems to be the problem? As is too well known, many people have a tendency to lose control over their lives. They don't seem to be able to stop destructive behaviors, even though they know that those behaviors are counter-productive to the achievement of their goals in life. Traditionally there have been a few well known and predictable avenues for these destructive behaviors. Some people drink, some use drugs, some gamble away their family savings. These behaviors are known as addictions.
From the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:
Main Entry: ad·dic·tion
Pronunciation: &-'dik-sh&n, a-
Function: noun
Date: 1599
1 : the quality or state of being addicted <addiction to reading>
2 : compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol)
characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; broadly : persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful

Not all addictions are necessarily self-destructive. Smoking has been proven to lead to cancer, so it should be included on the self-destructive side, but though caffeine may not be particularly healthy, it's not really all that bad. Withdrawal is an important aspect of addiction, and the burden of proof is on the user who always claims that he or she can stop whenever he or she wants. Making the claim is one thing, but actually doing so is difficult if not impossible, and is often accompanied by those "well-defined physiological symptoms".

But the broader definition, "persistent compulsive use" opens up the possibilities for many more types of addictions. Television, of course, is a favorite. There are people who can't get themselves up off the couch to go to sleep because they can't restrain themselves from watching even the most banal of sit-coms. Work is also high up on the list, though western culture can't seem to decide whether being a work-aholic is really such a bad thing. Computer games seems to be a wonderful source of addiction. And, from about as soon as it became a popular mass phenomenon, the internet. Stories abound: about the housewife who doesn't perform her familial duties because she's too busy in the chat room (Hey, I've even got a comic precisely about that!), about children who can't function at school because they're up all night surfing the web, about the developer who can't attend to his work because he can't break away from sex sites. Are these stories only apocryphal, or do they have some basis in statistical fact?

Certainly there are real cases out there. Without a doubt there are people who find that they unwillingly get caught in an all-encompassing web (sorry, it was unavoidable) that constrains them and limits their ability to function as they did previously. But the instances that are actually documented are quite limited, and when you read about them you get the feeling that the web-addict was bound to get caught by something addictive. Still, you never know, you may really be addicted and not know it.

Maybe it goes this way with all possible addictions: Non-users can't understand how people get involved in a particular substance abuse, while users can't understand what people see as so bad about it. But that's being a bit too simplistic, even for me. After all, it's clear that for numerous drugs it's not simply a matter of which side of the fence you're on. It's rather easy to show how people's lives become dysfunctional through their use. But simplistic or not, this actually seems to be the case with "internet addiction".

Are there people for whom internet usage has become a compulsive activity which they can't break free of? Undoubtedly yes, but certainly not to the extent we read about in the popular press. Most users integrate that use into their daily lives, and they do so over an extended period of time that usually includes at least one period of excessive use. I used to read the daily newspaper excessively, but can't seem to squeeze the time for continuing to do that into my daily schedule. Did I succeed in breaking a newspaper addiction? No, I simply adjusted to a change in that schedule, even if I still yearn for more ink on my fingers. And even were I to continue my excessive newspaper reading, few would identify this as an addiction. But the European Economic Community identifies excessive internet users as ill, while other excesses are apparently part of our mainstream culture. My guess? In another year, it will be a non-topic, precisely because by then everyone will be hooked (which is, perhaps, why I'm rushing to write about it now).

But just what is it that people get addicted to when this non-addiction occurs? Is it the instant gratification of seeing a web page materialize before your eyes? Is it the satisfaction of being able to converse almost instantaneously with people around the world? A December, 1997 study suggests that it's something much simpler: information. Dr. Mark Griffiths reports that the active ingredient in internet addiction is actually information, and that we're seeing the rise of a generation of info-junkies. Griffiths suggests that our society, and especially the workplace, places ever-increasing demands on people to find more and more (and perhaps even better?) information. He tells us that this leads to stress, and even to physical/chemical reactions in people that are similar to the symptoms of more traditional addictions.

In a democratic society we tend to say that the public has both a right and a need to know. Anti-democratic forces might be able to upgrade their traditional response ("no, it doesn't need to know") with a more upscale, with the times, response: "you should thank us - we're simply protecting you from becoming addicted to information." The problem is, of course, that it's hard to feel thankful toward someone who's protecting you from something which you're far from convinced even exists.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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