Why Too Much Digital Is a Problem and What You Can Do about It
Maybe it’s a sign of the times that just outside of Seattle there’s an addiction recovery center catering only to adults who can’t stop texting, gaming, surfing, or otherwise using their internet-enabled devices. The Restart Center is one of many such treatment facilities popping up to help people overcome “internet addiction disorder,” or IAD. Yes, this condition has a term with its very own acronym.
If you can look up from the flickering pixels for a few minutes, you’ll notice pretty much everyone is using a smartphone, tablet, laptop, gaming console or internet-ready TV. Surveys show that our compulsion to connect results in use of mobile devices while driving, during funerals, when visiting the restroom, and even during sex.
Though not yet an officially recognized condition in the United States, there’s plenty of evidence that IAD is a growing problem. Studies estimate that 1 in 10 internet users are addicted, meaning they can’t stop the behavior even though it’s harmful. And overuse is harmful. It turns out that too much internet will break your brain.
Researchers in Sweden found that frequent and intense use of internet-ready devices decreases sleep, increases stress and makes it more likely you’ll get depressed. Another study suggests that long-term internet addiction damages your brain, and brain scans of internet addicts revealed brain damage similar to that caused by alcohol and cocaine addiction. Too much internet rewires your brain in bad ways, sapping you of life and increasing the odds you’ll suffer from some other chronic dysfunction down the road. Ouch.
Like substance addictions (drugs, alcohol, cigarettes) or other behavioral addictions (gambling, sex, shopping), internet addiction triggers a short-term reduction in anxiety and a boost of pleasure. So much of what we do online provides immediate reward, fast feedback, and constant stimulation. The internet can become consuming because it’s so darn engaging.
Engagement is not a bad thing; in fact, it’s one of the five measurable elements of human flourishing. We are designed for engagement, to lose our sense of everything else while focused on one task or activity. Like an athlete who’s “in the zone,” a mechanic solving an engine problem, or an artist lost in her creative process, each of us needs regularly to get so super-absorbed in some skillful pursuit that we lose track of time and self and everything else. The sweet spot for engagement comes when our level of skill matches or nearly matches the challenge before us. If the challenge exceeds our skill, we grow anxious. If the challenge is too low, we get bored. When skill and challenge are about the same, we are fully engaged. Positive psychologists call this kind of full engagement “flow,” and it’s usually good for us.
Humans are predisposed for internet addiction because we long for engagement. But the internet engages us for little real reward. Like eating a tasty food with no nutritional value, the buzz you feel from getting a high score, scanning social media posts or reading a tweet isn’t connected to any real benefit. Not only that, but technology steals time and attention from other pursuits that are more worthwhile and much more life-giving than surfing, texting, and snapchatting (whatever that is).
Given the addictive nature of the internet, how do you overcome the addictive nature of the internet? It turns out you fight engagement with engagement. The professionals who treat IAD prescribe turning off your devices and engaging in something recreational, social, and/or spiritual. They advise going for hike, bowling with friends, having a dinner date, catching a movie, or developing a hobby. The advice for addicts applies to the heavy user, too. BTW, you are reading a blog so you’re a heavy user of the internet.
Jesus once mentioned how casting a demon out can leave a person empty and set them up as the perfect target for more demons. Empty people long for some kind of engagement and will settle for the internet when there are better options available. Too much internet usage may signal a deeper problem: emptiness.
What about you? What are you missing out on because of too much internet? How have you seen heavy internet usage affect you and/or those around you? What better options for engagement do you have?