A Peek into the Dark: The Internet and Addiction

Here is my latest bit of reasearch.  I hope you find it interesting!

A Peek into the Dark: The Internet and Addiction

Barbara Gaddy

 

The impact that technology is having on how we acquire and use knowledge today is becoming a concern to academics and lay people alike.  The alterations in educational methods and learning ability due to the expansion of technology is being studied and written about in magazines, journals and books.  These concerns legitimately begin with our children.  Because of the way information is being supplied through technological advances such as computer availability in classrooms, libraries and homes, the methods and abilities of children to read, absorb and retain information is being examined.  Marjorie Kehe is concerned that children are not learning to read carefully, therefore are unable to think deeply about what they read and are incapable of retaining the knowledge they seek through reading.  She argues that “for many of today’s readers – young ones in particular – reading has come to mean a rapid skim across a sea of websites, text messages, and e-mails” (Kehe, 2010, p. 1).  Recommendations to combat this situation include teaching children to read slowly and thoughtfully by reading out loud.  Parents can and should encourage this practice in their children by reading out loud to them, early and often. In addition to parental encouragement, most school and public libraries offer children’s programs that include and encourage book reading from very young patrons to older children and even into adulthood.

The collection and processing of information to the human brain is metaphorically like water across a landscape.  As water floods across a landscape, it gathers in channels, eventually scoring out streams and rivers leading to ever-larger collections of water. This collection of water is analogous to the collection of knowledge in the human brain.  Information trickles through neural circuits or pathways in the brain like water in a channel on land.  As knowledge is added, it follows the established neural circuit, deepening understanding and widening the base, allowing even more knowledge to flow through the neural pathway, to collect in the ever-enlarging pool of memory.   In his Wired Magazine article, Nicholas Carr explains that our ability to collect and retain information is like using a thimble to fill a bathtub, a little at a time and we are able to incorporate new ideas easily into our base of knowledge, too much at once, thimble overflows and almost nothing is retained (Carr, 2010).

There is evidence that over-reliance on technology can have negative effects on the way humans think. Creating dependency on technology may alter our ability to think for ourselves.  In his June 6, 2010 Washington Post article, Nicholas Carr explains that while technology may make our lives easier, too much dependence on technology alters the physical landscape of our brains.  Carr points to the late 1990’s study of the London taxi drivers that indicated the drivers had enlarged hippocampi.  The hippocampus is presumed to be used for both map and memory storage.  Carr is concerned with the “signs that our growing reliance on automated GPS direction could end up altering the circuitry in our brains” (Carr, 2010, p. 1). He notes additional studies that indicate that over-reliance on devices, such as GPS, put us in danger of shrinking the hippocampus, thereby risking brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

In his Wired Magazine article, Carr points to a 2007 study conducted by Gary Small, professor of psychiatry at UCLA.  Small’s study determined that internet use increases brain activity, even for those who use the internet for relatively short periods of time.  However, Small was quick to qualify his finding by noting that an increase is not necessarily an improvement when he states that digital technology is “rapidly and profoundly altering our brains” (as cited in Carr, 2010).  Carr states that internet use does not promote thoughtful reading, deep thinking and long-term learning.  Rather, internet users suffer from weakened comprehension due to constantly disrupted concentration.  The methods we use to collect knowledge affect the way our brains work.  Carr states that “the depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory, the scratch pad of consciousness, to long-term memory, the mind’s filing system” (Carr, 2010, p. 3).  The consistent use of the internet interrupts concentration, grabs the user’s attention but does not allow for retention of information or incorporation of information into the user’s memory.  The consequences are that users consistently use a different set of neural circuits in the brain that are devoted to skimming while ignoring those used for deep thinking and reading.  Although there is essentially nothing wrong with the quick absorption of information, a habit of skimming in favor of reading may eventually damage our ability for the deep thought and reading that is necessary for higher education, much like a stream that dries up for lack of water.  The neural circuits needed for slow, thoughtful reading shrink from lack of use.  These studies lead to concerns about what is being termed Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD).  This phenomenon is similar to gambling addiction in that it provides a temporary feeling of euphoria to the internet user without the physical dangers of drugs or alcohol.  In her article on IAD, Jennifer Ferris contends that “the effects that the addiction can have on every aspect of the person’s life are just as devastating as those of alcoholism” (Ferris, n.d. p.2).

Most people use the internet as it was designed, as the tool for study, information retrieval and social networking.  Although use of the internet will have no detrimental effect on the lives of the majority, some people will find themselves overly attracted to the internet, gaining dependence on the euphoric stimulation provided by the internet that may not be present in their normal lives.  Kraut, et al., examine this “dark side” of the internet and explain:

One of the biggest problems with computers and the Internet is that people can become highly compulsive and addictive in their use of them.  Internet and computer addiction poses serious social implications for a world glued to computer screens.  There’s a risk of increased social isolation and withdrawal, a possible increase in depression, family separation, marital problems, and reduced job performance (as cited in Greenfield, 1999, p. 8).

Unlike alcohol or drug addiction that involves a physically consumed substance, IAD is a psychological addiction, reminiscent of a gambling addiction, in that it involves psychological changes that affect the social aspects of the addict’s life.  In addition, without intervention, an addict may be unable to resist the lure of the internet.  A 2004 study by Yahoo! Inc. and OMD revealed the extent of withdrawal symptoms suffered by internet users when deprived of the internet over a two week period.  The study found that the internet affected the emotions, cognitive abilities and behavior of the study participants.  When divested of the internet, study participants felt deprived and both socially and professionally isolated.  Study participants “experienced withdrawal and feelings of loss, frustration and disconnectedness when cut off from the online world” (Yahoo! Media Relations, 2004).

A recent ABC News article by Andrew Colton considers a five point checklist from the University of Florida to help users determine if they are developing an Internet addiction.  Users should ask themselves if: (1) they spend more time online than intended, (2) they are neglecting other responsibilities, (3) they can easily cut back their online time, (4) their Internet use is negatively affecting their personal relationships, and (5) they suffer from anxiety when they are offline.  Researchers also explain that addicts will use the internet ten times more often for non-essential items, such as gaming, than essential use and are likely to spend more than 30 hours a week on the Internet. (Colton, 2010). 

It is interesting to note, however, that studies indicate that IAD can be formed while the internet user is new to the media.  Internet use often begins as a hobby.  Marcia Duran explains that “just like any other hobby however some of its users start to spend an extended amount of time in it, which can lead to an addiction of the pastime” (Duran, 2003, p.1).  IAD sufferers generally go through the usual stages of any addiction.  Enchantment is first, followed by disillusionment, then, if they are aware of their own tendencies and deal with those inclinations, balance.  John Grohol explains that these stages are “reached at a different period by everyone and the phases can still be recycled if the individual finds another interesting new activity” (as cited in Duran, 2003).  For example, a student might learn to use the internet in school and have access to computers in the classroom or library but not have a computer at home.  Over time, perhaps his parents, with the student’s encouragement, decide that the student would benefit from having a computer of his or her own.  Feeling that the student will be able to save time and do a better job at school by being able to do his or her research at home, the parents buy a computer for their child.  Initially, the student uses the computer for school work but soon finds that there is much more to explore on the internet without the restrictions that apply to computers owned by the school or library.  As he or she explores the internet, interest grows.  Eventually, the student may become interested in online gaming and obtains his or her first game card.  This game card allows the student to enter a fascinating fantasy world that is not only brighter and appears to be more interesting that real life, but the student is the hero of the game.  Over time, the student spends more and more time playing the game.  A disconnect from reality may form and soon the student begins to neglect his or her friends, family, school work, and other activities.  The student has developed a psychological addiction to the internet. 

Obviously, awareness and prevention are the best options.  Internet users, particularly those who are prone to such addiction, should be aware of their own levels of involvement and adjust their use as needed to prevent IAD.  However, if the user does find himself too deeply involved, Greenfield provides a list of thirteen actions the user can take in order to reclaim his or her life.  The user should: (1) consider taking a break from the internet, (2) develop other interests, (3) exercise, (4) watch less television, (5) talk to his family and friends about his over-use of the internet, (6) try therapy or counseling to help deal with the addiction, (7) consider joining a support group, (8) consider other addition support groups if there is no specific group for IAD in the area, (9) reach out to other people to make new friends, (10) shorten time spent on the internet, (11) be aware of  moods in connection with internet use, (12) become aware of what triggers desires to go online, and (13) consider using spirituality to support their efforts to control the addiction (Greenfield, 1999).

Conclusion

In conclusion, there are, and probably will continue to be, some unintended consequences of the growth in importance of technology in our society.  It is easy to see that, with all its brilliance, brightness and flash, the internet is an extremely attractive tool.  For millions of people, the internet is simply a tool.  For others, it may become something far more insidious.  The internet itself may or may not be addictive to any one individual.  The determining factor of how much importance the internet holds in our individual lives depends solely on how each of us reacts to and uses the internet.  Greenfield explains that “the issue is not whether the Internet is good or bad.  The issue is your use, or pattern of behavior, with the Net (Greenfield, 1999. p. 9).  In the end, each of us has to deal with the internet in our own way.  Every internet user should focus his or her efforts on understand how the internet affects them and quickly address any negative issues or patterns.  Self awareness and discipline are the keys to safe and productive use of the internet.  The end goal is to retain our balance while getting the best possible use of all that technology has now or will have to offer.

References

Carr, Nicholas. (2010). Are Google maps and GPS bad for our brains?  The Washington Post. Retrieved from:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/04/AR20100060402030.html

Carr, Nicholas. (2010). Author Nicholas Carr: The web shatters focus, rewires brain. Wired Magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/05/ff_nicholas_carr/

Colton, A. (2010, August 8). How to spot internet addiction.  ABC News.  Retrieved from: http://abcnews.go.com/Technologystory?id=97558

Duran, M.G. (2003, December 14). Internet Addiction Disorder. AllPsych Journal. Retrieved from: http://allphych.com/journal/internetaddiction.html

Ferris, J. R. (n.d.). Internet Addiction Disorder: Causes, Symptoms, and Consequences. Retrieved from: http://www.files.chem.vt.edu/chem-dept/dessy/honors/papers/ferris.html

Greenfield, D.N. (1999). Virtual addiction, help for netheads, cyberfreaks, and those who love them. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Kehe, M. (2010). Should your child be learning the art of slow reading? Retrieved from: http://www.csmonitor.com/layout/set/print/content/view/print/309565

Yahoo! Media Relations. (2004). Yahoo! and OMD reveal study depicting life without the internet. Retrieved from: http://docs.yahoo.com/docs/pr/release1183.html

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About Barbara Gaddy

I'm an Income Property Acquistion Specialist. I guide and train new and inexperienced investors in acquiring and managing income property in order to create long-term, passive income. I also hold a Master's Degree in Library and Information Science and an Honors BA in English and American Literature. I have a business blog here: http://barbaraworks4u.blogspot.com/. This is my personal blog. I hope you enjoy it.
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