Are you addicted to the internet?

17th Oct 2004

My name is Blair and I'm an internet addict. I realise I'm addicted but I no longer have control over my actions... please help!

Only joking... or am I?

What would you think if I was serious? This isn't a real cry for help (honest). I don't regard my enthusiasm for the internet (or more specifically web design) as a serious problem because I'm aware that it's a problem... albeit a small problem that I have under control. I can stop/cut-back whenever I want/need to. I recognise the symptoms and know where to draw the line. If you're now asking yourself if you're addicted to the internet, you may also be reassuring yourself that at least it's not as serious as, say, heroin addiction... but is it?

Ok, I don't want to get too heavy here; this is meant as a thoughtful look at how web designers, software coders, digital artists and other internet users manage to cope with their own personal addiction to their computer use. With limited first-hand experience of any serious type of addiction other than my own enthusiasm for running I'm no expert in the field but here's my thoughts anyway.

Warning  Internet Use Kills

A few years ago I used to do an awful lot of running: I went out training every night; I was away at the weekends racing; I planned holidays round races; I tried to get my partner to start running (even though her knees couldn't stand the pounding from the pavements); I changed my diet to improve my fitness, endurance, stamina and overall speed... basically running took over my life. Only incessant injury made me realise I was addicted to running. When I got injured I would be furious with myself for being so careless. All that fitness I'd spent months building up would be gone in a matter of weeks. I used to worry about my health and weight-gain because I wasn't exercising. I used to get so upset when I couldn't go out for a run it started to affect my day-to-day life. I would be irritable, edgy, tired, snappy... not a terribly nice guy to be around. Where once I satisfied this cerebral craving for stimulation or a focus by going out for a run I was left feeling empty and bored. Sometimes an injury left me out of action for 3 or 4 months at a time. (You may be asking how I managed to keep injuring myself? Well, it wasn't bad training per se, it was more to do with the type of running I partook in: hill running. And with hill running came uncertain terrain, which made for tricky descents and turned ankles). I didn't realise I was in a void that needed filled at the time but maybe that's why I took to web design so readily; it gave me the opportunity to maniacally focus my attention on something again (and I wasn't likely to twist my ankle sitting at a computer!).

Unaware of what I was getting myself into, I never once considered the long-term effects of "taking up internet use". Can you imagine the Government Health Warning slapped onto the side of computers like a cigarette pack? I suspect most smokers didn't consider the effects of nicotine addiction before they took their first few puffs. Addiction isn't immediately apparent... and the symptoms don't immediately sing and dance for your attention. Importantly though, the effects of addiction will eventually eat into your life causing lots of problems to yourself and others around you... yes, this includes being addicted to the internet.

When did I realise I had a problem with my computer use? Was it sitting for more than 12 hours in front of a computer screen without a break? Was it my incessant yawning and stretching at work due to having 6 hours of sleep a night for the previous two weeks? Was it the act of turning on the computer first thing in the morning to check my site stats/email etc.? Was it continually working on the latest "re-design" of my personal site? Was it when I heard myself saying "Just another ten minutes fixing this bloody foobar... then I'll go to bed". Was it the effects of burning eye syndrome? Was it when my girlfriend threatened to leave me? Only kidding, that last one never happened... but I pre-empted it and made sure matters never reached that stage.

Of course you may experience other symptoms. You could go days without speaking to another human being... your only human contact being through the internet? The only physical exercise you partake in is walking to the kitchen to make some coffee? The only books you buy are from Amazon (or another online book retailer) and are usually internet/computer related? You spend time at (your paid) work thinking about and working on your own personal projects? (naughty!). Your lack of active routine has lead to unbalanced sleeping and eating patterns? Lack of fresh air/daylight has promoted skin trouble/spots? You are suffering mental exhaustion from hours and hours of staring at a computer screen? Deep vain thrombosis/backache/general aches and pains due to poor posture, poor ergonomics? Repetitive strain injury... sore wrist/shoulder from mouse control? Blurred or loss of vision (burning eye syndrome)?

Based on the above, if you considered the possible differences between heroin addiction and internet addiction and still reckon that the internet seems the lesser evil perhaps you need to consider online activities like chat rooms, shopping, gambling... blogging! The negative elements of internet addiction will manifest just like those associated with heroin addiction. When you reach this stage it's probably too late... you need some professional help (ha ha, sorry Dunstan!). Dr Millen recommends you try to spot the tell-tale signs before it's too late. Here's a brief eight-item questionnaire from the Net Addict website. Consider yourself addicted to the interent if you answer yes to five or more.

  1. Do you feel preoccupied with the internet (think about previous on-line activity or anticipate next on-line session)?
  2. Do you feel the need to use the internet with increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction?
  3. Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop internet use?
  4. Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop internet use?Do you feel restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop internet use?Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop internet use?
  5. Do you stay on-line longer than originally intended?
  6. Have you jeopardized or risked the loss of significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunity because of the internet?
  7. Have you lied to family members, therapist, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the internet?
  8. Do you uses the internet as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a dysphoric mood (e.g., feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression)?

Serious stuff eh?

You could probably answer yes to a few of these and correctly state that you have absolutely no internet addiction at all. A differentiation between normal and pathological internet use exists but only a fine line seperates the two. Maybe your job requirements leave you with no option but to sit in front of a computer for long periods of time; if so make sure you follow these useful Health and Safety guidelines, paying particular attention to the "breaks and exercises" section.

Some further reading
Maki made a useful post about how to avoid web (or blogging) burnout. Wired ran an article earlier this year on blogging burnout. Marginal Revolution provides some personal experience of blogging.