I’m writing this while 30,000 feet in the air on my way to a gorgeous island. And yet all I can think about is one thing:
This plane does not offer wifi.
Not for any good reason, either; I’m flying to Hawaii, where plenty of wifi-equipped planes do fly. They just, the flight attendant told me, haven’t gotten around to making this particular plane Internet accessible.
My jaw hung open far longer than I expected it to when she explained this to me. Shocked, I turned to the man in the seat next to me.
“Did you hear that?” I asked. “I mean, what are we supposed to do?”
He was very kind and agreed with me that this turn of events was indeed horrifying, even though he didn’t seem to have a laptop with him. I began semi frantically going through my carry-on: what did I even have with me? What would I do for the entire five-hour flight? And what if the airport didn’t have wifi when we landed? And the hotel? My mind churned with ever more terrifying possibilities.
This is how I used to feel about cocaine—though it was, of course, not appropriate to turn to a stranger back then to discuss the terror I felt at the concept of not being able to get my fix (though there weren’t many people around me once I got to this point anyway).
In both cases, it didn’t take me too long to get addicted. I remember when the Internet first started. I remember dial up. And I remember being outraged by the slowness of dial-up, which only seems notable now because I had barely gotten used to Internet speed at all back then. Yes, my outrage proceeded technological advancement. I wasn’t a full-blown addict at that point, though. I was capable of not checking my email for hours if I didn’t have access to it and I had plenty of other ways to comfort myself during awkward moments or times when I had to wait in line.
Of course I know I’m not alone with this and that smart phones supposedly did this to us. But really, didn’t I also do this to myself? I’m the one who keeps checking my email and Twitter responses, after all. I’ve been complicit in my behavioral addiction.
Social media got me in its grasp right away. Getting validation for photos and quips hit my endorphins in the best way I could imagine—so much so that I began essentially considering my iPhone a dopamine dispenser. When I felt lonely and should probably have been reaching out to a friend or at least examining why I felt that way, I instead got into the habit of trying to think of something clever to say and then immediately switching over to my @ responses on Twitter to see how a bunch of strangers responded. Did they think I was funny? Clever? Talented? Sometimes non-strangers—that is, friends—responded or Retweeted or Favorited me as well but if I’m going to be honest, the responses from strangers somehow meant just as much.
My relationship with Facebook is arguably even more dysfunctional. I used to be on a TV show that no one in my real life had ever even heard of but seemed to big with people who spent a lot of time online and I used to just accept everyone who sent me a Facebook request which means that I rather quickly hit the 5000 friend limit. I was then quickly inundated by chat requests from people I didn’t know. I would also meet people I’d want to add as Facebook friends but I couldn’t add because I’d hit my friend limit. And so I deleted all the people I didn’t know. That’s when I made a rather disturbing discovery: the people who didn’t know me cared a lot more about what I posted than the people who did. Photos, which had previously attracted up to 100 comments and likes suddenly only received a few; the quips I’d been convinced by the reactions I’d been getting were pretty cute even less.
But no matter; I could still find a way to make my relationship with Facebook dysfunctional.
I started using it in a manner many people, alas, seem to: as reading material as I poured through other people’s posts in order to, as people in recovery say, “compare and despair.” Everyone I knew, it seemed, had a book being made into a movie, a perfect husband and even more perfect child or the best friends in the world. Even though I understood that Facebook life wasn’t entirely reflective of real life, I still allowed myself to either seethe with jealousy or, far more commonly, use what other people seemed to be achieving as an emotional sledgehammer to beat myself up.
I’d love to tell you that this has all changed—that I realized in order to live a life that fully embraces recovery, I had to at least make an effort to try not to escape myself through things outside myself. But that would be an outrageous lie. I make no effort whatsoever to try to make my relationship with the Internet healthy. I don’t even bother shaming myself if I eat a meal in front of the computer. Plenty of times, when I’m out with people, I spend a decent amount of time wondering when would be too soon to check my phone. I used to get up do a 20-minute meditation first thing every morning but a few years ago, I started making sure that 20 minutes started just after I checked my phone to “make sure there aren’t any emergencies.” And I feel incredibly proud of myself if I manage to leave the phone in the car when I go on a hike.
Just what the eventual impact of my Internet addiction is going to be, I have no idea. Even the experts have a tough time coming up with a consensus on this whole issue. There are, after all, 18 different Internet addiction tests out there. Here’s what I know: this addiction sure feels a lot less shameful and dangerous than my coke addiction did. But also my already short attention span is growing ever shorter as a result of my behavior and true serenity comes from being in the moment and not from checking out.
People growing up today, of course, have it much worse. Brains don’t finish developing until the mid-twenties so kids who are handed iPads before they can speak and given iPhones in grammar school grow accustomed to checking out during their formative years. How alarming this really is hasn’t been determined yet but there are studies aplenty that link social media and Internet use to an array of different issues—among them eating disorders and low self-esteem. One study reported that one in five high school students are hyper texters (meaning they text 120 times a day or more) and one in nine are hyper networkers (meaning they spend three or more hours a day on Facebook or other social networking sites) and that hyper texters are more likely to binge drink or do drugs. But is a parent really supposed to worry because there’s “an apparent link” between a teen’s relationship with a cell phone and her potential relationship with heroin?
Really, to me, the whole Internet addiction playing field is a bit of a mess. While there’s a 12-step program out there for this, I’ve heard that when you can find a meeting, no one shows up. Sure, there are treatment centers attempting to corner the market on Internet/gaming addiction but does that mean treatment is necessary or even a good idea? As a compelling new piece on Scientific American asks, “What’s to be done with an agony you’re not sure you should feel?” The writer adds, “The agonies of an established illness like alcohol addiction are well known—the looming grief or helplessness, a steady sinking into a deep and widening chasm. But what about those who seem to have an unlisted addiction, like excessive gaming? Is that even a thing?”
Here’s what I think: Maybe, just maybe, my Internet addiction is okay. Sure, unplugging for a day or a weekend is probably a good idea—one I may even be willing to explore soon. I have no doubt that my life would be more serene if I had a more manageable relationship with the Internet. But, for now anyway, I’m going to allow myself to indulge. In other words, if a bottom is coming, I haven’t hit it yet. In this case, digging doesn’t feel so bad.
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