“Is the Internet Driving Us Mad?”: Attempting a Sane Response

It’s Newsweek’s turn. Perhaps feeling a bit of title envy, the magazine has shamelessly ripped off The Atlantic’s formula with a new cover story alternatively titled “Is the Internet Driving Us Mad?” or “Is the Internet Making Us Crazy?”

You can probably guess what follows already. Start with a rather dramatic and telltale anecdote — in this case Jason Russell’s “reactive psychosis” in the wake of his “Kony 2012” fame — and proceed to cite a number of studies and further anecdotes painting a worrisome picture that appears somehow correlated to heavy Internet use. You’re also likely to guess that Sherry Turkle is featured prominently. For the record, I intend no slight by that last observation, I rather appreciate Turkle’s work.

Before the day is out, this article will be “Liked” and tweeted thousands of times I’m sure. It will also be torn apart relentlessly and ridiculed. Unfortunately, the title will be responsible for both responses. A more measured title would likely have elicited a more sympathetic reading, but also less traffic.

There is much in the article that strikes an alarmist note and many of the anecdotes, while no doubt instances of real human suffering, seem to describe behaviors that are not characteristic of most people using the Internet. I’m also not one to go in for explanations that localize this or that behavior in this or that region of the brain. I’m not qualified to evaluate such conclusions, but they strike me as a tad reductionistic. That said, this does ring true:

“We may appear to be choosing to use this technology, but in fact we are being dragged to it by the potential of short-term rewards. Every ping could be social, sexual, or professional opportunity, and we get a mini-reward, a squirt of dopamine, for answering the bell. “These rewards serve as jolts of energy that recharge the compulsion engine, much like the frisson a gambler receives as a new card hits the table,” MIT media scholar Judith Donath recently told Scientific American. “Cumulatively, the effect is potent and hard to resist.”

Of course, it all hinges on correlation and causation. The article itself suggests as much right at the end. “So what do we do about it?” the author, Tony Dokoupil, asks. “Some would say nothing,” he continues, “since even the best research is tangled in the timeless conundrum of what comes first.” He adds:

“Does the medium break normal people with its unrelenting presence, endless distractions, and threat of public ridicule for missteps? Or does it attract broken souls?

But in a way, it doesn’t matter whether our digital intensity is causing mental illness, or simply encouraging it along, as long as people are suffering.”

Dokoupil concludes on a note of fateful optimism: “The Internet is still ours to shape. Our minds are in the balance.” In truth, whatever we make of the neuroscience involved, there is something to be said for the acknowledgement that we have choices to make about our relationship to the Internet.

After we cut through the hype and debates about causation, it would seem that there is a rather commonsensical way of approaching all of this.

If the article resonates with you because it seems to describe your experience, then it is probably worth taking it as a warning of sorts and an invitation to make some changes. So, for example, if you are sitting down to play video games for multiple hours without interruption and thus putting yourself in danger of developing a fatal blood clot … you may want to rethink your gaming habits.

If you are immediately reaching for your Internet device of choice before you have so much as opened your eyes in the morning, you may want to consider allowing yourself a little time before diving into the stream. Pour some coffee, have a nice breakfast. Give yourself a little time with your thoughts, or your loved ones. If you find that your thoughts are all incessantly begging you to get online and your loved one’s faces are turning disconcertingly into Facebook icons, then perhaps you have all the more reason to restore a little a balance to your Internet use.

If you take an honest inventory of your emotions and feelings, and you find that you’re anchoring a great deal of your self-worth on the replies you get to your status updates, tweets, or blog posts, then perhaps, just maybe, you might want to consider doing a little soul searching and re-prioritizing.

If “‘the computer is like electronic cocaine,’ fueling cycles of mania followed by depressive stretches” somehow resonates with your own experience, then it may be time to talk to your friends about getting a better grip on the way you’re ordering your life.

None of this is rocket science (or neuroscience). I’d like to think that most of us have a pretty good sense of when certain activities are tending toward the counterproductive and unhealthy end of the spectrum. There’s no need to get all apocalyptic about it, we can leave that to the media. Instead, take inventory of what is truly important — you know, the same old sappy but precious and indispensable stuff — and then ask yourself how your Internet use relates to these and take action accordingly. If you find that you are unable to implement the action you know you need to take, then certainly get some help.

2 thoughts on ““Is the Internet Driving Us Mad?”: Attempting a Sane Response

  1. Nicely said! Alarmist articles like this one are actually hampering our ability to think critically about technology and culture. I appreciate how you search out a middle way.

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