According to a growing band of American technology leaders and psychologists the notion of the addictive power of digital gadgets is gaining sway. Although the idea of a clinical disorder of internet addiction was first mooted in the 90s and is now regularly treated by doctors on both sides of the Atlantic, attention is shifting from compulsive surfing to the effects of the all-pervasive demands that our phones, laptops, tablets and computers are making on us.
In China, Taiwan and Korea, internet addiction is accepted as a genuine psychiatric problem with dedicated treatment centres for teenagers who are considered to have serious problems with their web use. Next year, America’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the authority on mental illness, could include “internet use disorder” in its official listings.
In February, leaders of the largest social media companies will gather in San Francisco for the Wisdom 2.0 conference. The theme for the conference, attended by some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names, is finding balance in the digital age. Richard Fernandez, Google’s development director, has called it “quite possibly the most important gathering of our times”.
Fernandez plays a key role in Google’s “mindfulness” movement. Aimed at teaching employees the risks of becoming overly engaged with their devices and to improve their concentration levels and ability to focus, he says teaching people to occasionally disconnect is vital. “Consumers need to have an internal compass where they’re able to balance the capabilities that technology offers them for work with the qualities of the lives they live offline,” he says.
Newsweek recently held up the case of Jason Russell, the film-maker behind the Kony 2012 video. Russell’s film went viral, bringing him fame as 70 million people watched it. After spending days online with little sleep, Russell had a psychotic breakdown – all digitally documented via social media on his Twitter and YouTube accounts. His wife said he had been diagnosed as having “reactive psychosis”, which doctors had linked to his extreme internet exposure.
It was an illustration, that the web was making some of us more depressed, anxious and prone to attention deficit disorders than ever before. “The first good peer-reviewed research is emerging and the picture is much gloomier than the trumpet blasts of web utopians have allowed.
Psychologists are deeply worried about the effects digital relationships are having on real ones. Facebook is working on plans to curb anonymous “stalking” by allowing users to see who has visited any group of which they are a member – with the possibility in future of extending that to allow people to see who has looked at their page.
Checking Facebook to see what the ex is doing becomes addictive, according to some psychologists who say the checking could quickly decline into obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Stuart Crabb, a director at Facebook, said people needed to be aware of the effect that time online has on relationships and performance.
However, some doubt the notion of technology addiction, pointing instead to the rising demands of the workplace, where employees are working longer hours and then going home still tethered to devices pinging them emails and messages. Are we addicted to gadgets or indentured to work? Much of our compulsive connectedness… is a symptom of a greater problem, not the problem itself. and stepping away from the internet, regularly is a good idea.
New research also suggests that the Internet can make us lonely and depressed—and may even create more extreme forms of mental illness and make you behave very strangely indeed, take Jason Russell for example.He used to be a half-hearted Web presence. His YouTube account was dead, and his Facebook and Twitter pages were a trickle of kid pictures and home-garden updates. The Web wasn’t made “to keep track of how much people like us,” he thought, and when his own tech habits made him feel like “a genius, an addict, or a megalomaniac,” he unplugged for days, believing, as the humorist Andy Borowitz put it in a tweet that Russell tagged as a favorite, “it’s important to turn off our computers and do things in the real world.”
However Russell has struggled to turn off anything recently after He forwarded a link to “Kony 2012,” his deeply personal Web documentary about the African warlord Joseph Kony. The idea was to use social media to make Kony famous as the first step to stopping his crimes. And it seemed to work: the film hurtled through cyberspace, clocking more than 70 million views in less than a week. But something happened to Russell in the process. The same digital tools that supported his mission seemed to tear at his psyche, exposing him to nonstop kudos and criticisms, and ending his arm’s-length relationship with new media.
He slept two hours in the first four days, producing a swirl of bizarre Twitter updates. He sent a link to “I Met the Walrus,” a short animated interview with John Lennon, urging followers to “start training your mind.” He sent a picture of his tattoo, TIMSHEL, a biblical word about man’s choice between good and evil. At one point he uploaded and commented on a digital photo of a text
message from his mother. At another he compared his life to the mind-bending movie Inception, “a dream inside a dream.”
On the eighth day of his strange, 21st-century vortex, he sent a final tweet—a quote from Martin Luther King Jr
“If you can’t fly, then run, if you can’t run, then walk, if you can’t walk, then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward”—and walked back into the real world.
Afterward Russell was diagnosed with “reactive psychosis,” a form of temporary insanity. It had nothing to do with drugs or alcohol, his wife, Danica, stressed in a blog post, and everything to do with the machine that kept Russell connected even as he was breaking apart. “Though new to us,” Danica continued, “doctors say this is a common experience,” given Russell’s “sudden
transition from relative anonymity to worldwide attention—both raves and ridicules.” More than four months later, Jason is out of the hospital, his company says, but he is still in recovery. His wife took a “month of silence” on Twitter and Jason’s social-media accounts remain unused.