Up until 36 hours ago or so, I was poolside and gadget-free, having previously decided that I would go without e-mailing, blogging, tweeting, checking Facebook and/or online shopping (the latter perhaps being the biggest sacrifice) during my five-day family vacation. Breaking from the Internet wasn’t that difficult and was actually quite liberating. And talk about interesting timing: Upon my return to the office I came across the cover of the current Newsweek, which screams the question, “Is the Web Driving Us Mad?”
In the piece, writer Tony Dokoupil explores the dangers of excessive Internet use, arguing that “the current incarnation of the Internet – portable, social, accelerated, and all-pervasive – may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic.” He discusses findings from the first batch of “good, peer-reviewed research” in this area and, invoking an image that will stay with me for some time, notes that UCLA psychiatrist Peter Whybrow, MD, likens the computer to “electronic cocaine.”
Of course, not everyone who enjoys screentime will develop a problem – I unplugged during my vacation so I could better relax, not because the Internet was making me feel depressed and anxious – and the story Dokoupil leads with (about a web uber-user who develops “reactive psychosis”) is quite extreme. But, as pointed out by Elias Aboujaoude, MD, (who showed in 2006 that more than one out of eight Americans exhibited at least one sign of problematic Internet use), developing an unhealthy attachment to the Internet is not all that uncommon:
“There’s just something about the medium that’s addictive,” says… Aboujaoude, a psychiatrist at Stanford University School of Medicine, where he directs the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Clinic and Impulse Control Disorders Clinic. “I’ve seen plenty of patients who have no history of addictive behavior – or substance abuse of any kind – become addicted via the Internet and these other technologies.”
This is an issue as important and unprecedented as climate change. We could create the most wonderful world for our kids but that’s not going to happen if we’re in denial and people sleepwalk into these technologies and end up glassy-eyed zombies.