Who Will Treat My Internet Addiction?
I started seeing a therapist again. I’m part of the population that my psychiatrist husband calls “the worried well”: a functioning human with “typical” anxieties (like worrying about the collapse of our world). Besides the pandemic, climate crisis and other global catastrophes, I’ve also faced some personal losses. There are no shortages of concerns to cover in therapy, but when our most recent Zoom session started, I risked revealing myself to be a disturbed individual who does not have her shit together.
“I think I’m addicted to the internet,” I said to the screen. “Like really addicted.”
In embarrassing detail, I gave my therapist an account of some of my habits, like compulsively snooping on an old friend and then creeping on her whole family. By compulsively, I meant I bookended my day with this activity.
“She’s been posting these shocking ideas,” I said, hoping to justify my obsession. “And I want to know where she’s getting them from. I think it’s her sister…” My cheeks flushed red while I waited for her response.
“Oh, that’s normal,” she said gently. “I think you might be being a little hard on yourself.”
“I sleep with my phone,” I said.
“I watched the entire season of The White Lotus in one sitting.”
“Oh, that was so good!”
We smiled at each other.
“You’re addicted too, aren’t you?”
She laughed. “I think we all are.”
The DSM-V divides addiction into substance use disorder and process/behavioural addictions, like gambling or sex. Though internet gaming and porn addiction have made it into the latter category of the DSM-V, general internet use and social media have not. The criteria below are for substance use disorders. For effect, I’ve replaced the word “substance” with “internet.”
1. Taking the internet in larger amounts or for longer than you’re meant to.
2. Wanting to cut down or stop using the internet but not managing to.
3. Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from the use of the internet.
4. Cravings and urges to use the internet.
5. Not managing to do what you should at work, home, or school because of internet use.
6. Continuing to use [the internet], even when it causes problems in relationships.
7. Giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of internet use.
8. Using the internet again and again, even when it puts you in danger.
9. Continuing to use, even when you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by the internet.
10. Needing more of the internet to get the effect you want — tolerance.
11. Development of withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved by taking more of the internet.
Only two of these criteria need to be met for a patient to have a problem worth investigating. I meet all of them. Clearly, I have an issue.
I am addicted to everything on the internet. I click my way through my curiosities wherever they lead me: real estate listings, recipes and streaming. Climate news, vacation fantasies and plant recognition. Online courses and online shopping. Weather, yoga, and podcasts. Facebook marketplace, The New Yorker, and doom. I start doing something and then sometime later (what is time, anyway? Maybe I’ll google that) I’ll emerge with no memory of what I just did. I pick up my phone for no reason. Just touching it soothes me. Eventually, I might buy some bedsheets. In my internet world, all roads lead to linen.
My husband — an addiction psychiatrist — said, “Well, at least you aren’t doing heroin. At least you bring fresh ideas to the dinner table.”
He, like my therapist, also said I might be being a little hard on myself. He, like my therapist, might also be addicted. I asked him if he could hook me up with one of his colleagues, someone who’ll take this a little more seriously.
“No one I know is treating surfing the web.”
I decided to take it into my own hands and do a “digital detox.” I planned an entire weekend away from all screens — no phone, no computer, no television. It took me two weeks to emotionally work up to it. In preparation, I grabbed a book from the library called Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World to read during my descent into darkness. I gathered other provisions. A journal. A pen. A bag of mixed nuts. I made a point of texting friends and family as though the year was 1850 and I was leaving on a ‘round the world voyage.
My brother texted back. “I’m getting anxious just thinking about it. Feeling a little nauseous right now.”
I told him I was scared.
“No shit,” he said.
He told me he’d call my landline to see how I was doing. Until then, he texted, “Our thoughts are with you.”
If owning a landline doesn’t give it away, I predate the internet by a few decades. I was a fresh-faced COBOL computer programmer in 1990. That same year, I attended an IBM conference about the future of the world wide web. The conference had different stations highlighting developments coming out of MIT. One station projected images of a pair of running shoes from different angles. The presenter explained that one day soon, we’d be able to buy things from the comfort of our own homes. He excitedly said that we’d be able to look at a store’s entire online inventory — just like we were at a mall. We all oohed and aahed as we contemplated the future.
But the shoe store of our then imagination wasn’t some overseas warehouse. It was a local Aldo’s or whatever. We imagined they’d have two ways of selling their shoes: on the web and in person. We didn’t picture Amazon or Ali Baba or Wayfair or the death of mom-and-pop shops.
I was a young cog in the wheel and wasn’t asking big questions. No one I knew was talking about the impact this new technology would have on society. We didn’t even ask if we wanted it. Our questions were: What else can it do? How long before we live in the future? We were motivated by convenience and a blind desire for innovation. Progress was everything — that much was obvious.
Naively, I couldn’t have imagined the greed this new opportunity would inspire. The internet of the 1990s was a wide-open field of possibility. Many of us were excited about the prospect of building a global community and envisioned the internet paving the way to a more egalitarian society. It didn’t quite happen that way. White men quickly colonized the terrain. Driven by their own profit agenda, they took full advantage of their timing and position. Had the foundation not been laid by them, the internet could have been entirely different, but now they have the wheel.
In October 2021, Mark Zuckerburg announced he had changed the company name of Facebook to Meta. In an 11-minute video, he enthusiastically laid out the future and cheerfully suggested that it makes perfect sense for us to move straight into our computers. Soon we’ll all travel to the bright and colourful Metaverse where we can become a new person, buy a new house and get that land we’ve been dreaming of. Within days of his announcement, many companies began offering outrageously expensive avatars and NFT’s (non-fungible tokens, whatever that means) to decorate our virtual houses. If I’m not careful, I might soon be buying bedsheets for my simulated bedroom.
I grew up watching trees. The wind and I wrote poetry together. I read books before I went to sleep and lived most of my life out in the world doing tangible things with real people. I didn’t get my first smartphone until I was forty years old, but now I could lie in bed all day and swipe any twenty-year-old under the table.
Though China recently mandated significant internet restrictions for citizens under eighteen, Western society is not responding to this problem. We’re not much talking about it at all. A common reason people seek help for addiction is that enough people in their lives bring it to their attention. No one’s complaining about my habit, not even my husband, the shrink. I think he did about ten years ago but then got with the program. If everyone’s an addict, who’s sober enough to treat us?
I gorged on the internet the week leading up to my detox, not unlike a food addict who will stop only when they get to the bottom of the chip bag. But there is no bottom of the internet. Like the universe, it’s expanding, and the rate of expansion is accelerating. According to the World Economic Forum, “Each day on Earth we generate 500 million tweets, 294 billion emails and 4 million gigabytes of Facebook data.” In early 2020, they reported that the number of bytes in the digital world was 40 times more than the number of stars in the observable universe. I could devote the rest of my life to scrolling and only see a tiny fraction of what’s on it.
While I was gorging on it, it was also gorging on me. In his book, Ten Arguments for Deleting your Socal Media Accounts Right Now, Jaron Lanier writes, “Algorithms gorge on data about you, every second. What kinds of links do you click on? What videos do you watch all the way through? How quickly are you moving from one thing to the next. Where are you when you do these things? Who are you connecting with in person and online?” He says that algorithms follow our every online move; they track our behaviours while simultaneously trying to modify them. And I thought I was being intrusive.
On the first day of my detox, I pulled out my provisions and started reading Digital Minimalism. With no distractions to speak of, I read it in one sitting. The author, Cal Newport, suggests we back up the bus and consciously choose how we will allow technology into our lives based on our values. When unchecked and unexamined, many of us will find that our internet use is of low value. Could he mean creeping on people we don’t really like?
We may even realize how bad our problem is and consider extreme measures like throwing the phone under a truck. I’ve had that exact fantasy but then I wouldn’t be able to pay a bill, take a call or a photo, or listen to music. My phone even starts my vehicle. To draw once again a parallel between technology and food addiction — we require these things. I can no longer function in the modern world without a phone or computer. As true as that may be, Newport says that doesn’t mean we’re obligated to tether ourselves to our devices 24/7. All this technology came on so fast and furious that we didn’t take a moment to determine how we, as individuals, want to use it. We just got swept up in the wave.
Before we impulsively throw all our tech under a truck, Newport suggests that we take a month (!) to examine our values and use our devices only when essential. He asks us to list our favourite offline activities and reminds us that our digital devices were designed to be addictive and ultimately guide us to buy something we don’t need. (Which raises the perennial question: how many bedsheets are too many?) He asks us to consider higher-value uses for apps like YouTube. We can scroll through videos that spark our outrage and send us down a rabbit hole or use them to learn how to play an instrument or even build a house.
After reading the book, I made a quick list of everything I did before the internet took me over: writing, hiking, and playing guitar. I thought of the handwritten letters and care packages I’d mail to friends, and the pages I’d fill with schlock poetry and meticulous doodles. Before I slept with my phone, I’d wake up and enjoy peaceful mornings. I’d sink into the eastern light that poured into the kitchen, savour a fresh cup of hot coffee and watch the steam dance with the sunrise. I used to draw and paint. I’d often spend weekends at art galleries and museums, a far cry from sleeping-walking through life doom-scrolling, shopping and checking social media.
When I asked myself how I wanted to spend my days post-detox, the answers were simple: pay better attention and stick with my projects and creative impulses. I’d like to read the unread books sitting on my bookshelf, nurture my local community and watch the trees in my yard. I felt a longing to start and end my days differently. It’s been years since those goals have seemed so obvious and achievable. Is this what sobriety feels like?
When my brother called to check in on how I was doing, I was elated. I said I felt a sense of hope and freedom. I wanted to tell him to rip the iPad out of his son’s hands before it’s too late. My husband laughed and said I was in the Pink Cloud — an early stage of recovery where the addict feels life’s range of possibilities.
After those first 48 hours, I didn’t want to turn my devices back on. When I did, I was both relieved and embarrassed to see that I hadn’t missed much: some text messages and a bunch of junk mail — nothing to warrant my level of devotion.
It’s been a couple of months and I’m still working it out. I took an entire month off most of the internet and now check social media every few days instead of every few hours. My mornings are slowly being restored to pre-internet times. I’ve dumbed down my smartphone by removing all social media, games and hiding the browser. I won’t stream anything until after dinner. My husband and I found a high-value use for YouTube and saved the landfill and our bank account by finding a DYI fix for our broken dishwasher (the problem was mice, thanks YouTube!). We implemented a new rule in the house: no phones in the bedroom. I’ve resurrected my dream journal but still watch way too much content.
I willingly plugged myself in to be used by surveillance capitalism and justified my use because I felt the power of having the world at my fingertips. I accept, I clicked again and again and carelessly surrendered my right to use it judiciously. Without some restraint, this “power” drains me of my willpower to live with intention. Annie Dillard writes, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” It may be a long road to recovery, but I’ll be damned if my life amounts to senselessly staring at screens.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.
Lanier, J. (2018). Ten Arguments for Deleting uour Social Media Accounts Right Now. Henry Holt and Company.
Newport, C. (2019) Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. Portfolio.