Internet addiction: a trend piece

One woman and her family fight the demons of Facebook and Twitter the best way they know how -- with heroin

By Drew Grant
Published March 28, 2011 12:28PM (EDT)
Are we "plugged in"...or tuned out?
Are we "plugged in"...or tuned out?

"One evening this week, my husband and I had a discussion that mirrors others we've had over the past few years. 'Sometimes, it's like you're here and you're not here,' Joe said to me. 'Your mind and soul are in cyberspace, and all we're left with is the husk.'"

-- Katherine Rosman, "When Twittering Gets in the Way of Real Life," Wall Street Journal, March 27, 2011, only the latest in a long line of Internet addiction stories. We add ours to the pile, below.

During breakfast the other morning, I was shooting off a quick email to a colleague about how rough it was coming up with new 2.0 ideas for tech stories, when I happened to look up and see something deeply disturbing.

My husband was on his Blackberry, scrolling through last night's basketball scores for his March Madness pool. Next to him, my son was playing Angry Birds on his iPad, while his sister never took her eyes off her iPhone as she deftly reached for the milk and poured it over her cereal. None of us had said a word since we had sat down for "family breakfast." When had we become so addicted ... to the Internet??

I emailed my family with the subject line, "Hey guys, what's up? Lets say we put down our gadgets for a couple minutes and talk about our day!" Our WiFi connection is sort of bad in our kitchen, so it wasn't surprising that I didn't get a response till later that afternoon at my desk, when my husband emailed me on my Macbook. "Re: Hey guys ... Hi honey, what is this? R U still angry @ me 4 coming in late last night? Lets Skype after dinner." My kids never sent a response, though later that day my son sent me a very funny video of a turkey skateboarding on YouTube.

Have we become so plugged in to the constant feedback loop created by the Internet that we've forgotten how to communicate "IRL" (In Real Life)? I posed that question to my self-selected friend groups on Twitter and Facebook, and was surprised at the response. Four of my friends from college wanted to know if this was going to be in the newspaper, and if so, could I help get the word out about their new blog? (Nope! Sorry guys!) A guy I dated briefly before I met my husband wrote me a very friendly, off-topic email that lead me to look up his LinkedIn profile and discover he was still working for his father at the construction company in Utah. (Thank God I didn't buy his line of going back to law school when we were still dating!) Ten people "Liked" my question on Facebook. Clearly, my breakfast musing tapped into a universal human experience.

I turned to the literature: I had heard some good tweets about Nicholas Carr's book "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains." Being the mommy blogger (ew, don't call me that!) that I am, I haven't had time to order the book yet, but here's what an Amazon reviewer had to say:

The Shallows is an expansion of Carr's 2007 article in The Atlantic, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" The question with a book of this derivation is always: does it achieve more than the article did, or is it just a puffed up excuse to gain from the notoriety of the original piece, now freely available on the Internet? To that question, I answer that it is indeed more than... Read the full review ›

I had planned to check out Carr's article from The Atlantic, but when I Googled "Carr technology" I ended up with another "game changer" by David Carr of the New York Times, about how a vacation in the Bahamas helped him stay "unplugged" for six days.  And thanks to a Psychology Today article that my shrink forwarded me during our last session, I learned that our obsession with the Internet is not unlike being addicted to drugs, thanks to an increased dopamine "rush" we get while doing anything from shopping on Ebay to answering email.

According to most of these articles I was reading, this digital addiction was serious business, except nobody was talking about it because our "society" had deemed it acceptable to be online all day! Well, I might not have been able to afford a trip to the Bahamas, but it was time for my family to take a vacation of its own ... from the Internet!

I told the household that night at dinner that we were going to be trying an experiment to help us communicate face to face ... instead of Facebook to Facebook. Armed with my knowledge of dopamine receptors and their effects on our brain's pleasure centers (and some other stuff on Wikipedia I checked out!) I devised a plan to keep my family mentally and physically occupied whenever that addictive urge to check the Internet took over. Though they grumbled at first, I'm proud to say my family now spends whole hours making eye contact with one another -- that is, whenever we're not staring off into space or getting the shakes. And I'm happy to report we've sold all of our phones, laptops, and other gadgets, as well as stopping payment on our residential wireless plan along with the electricity and gas. Who needs it? My family works together as a team now: whether it's knocking off a convenience store in order to score some cash for our next hit of sweet China White, or taking turns scamming the local Methadone clinic into giving us double our allotted dosage to keep the invisible spiders away, I know that there is nothing distracting us from our common goal.

Sure, some critics might say that substituting heroin for the Internet is only a temporary solution, and that pretty soon we'd have bought back all our electronics, reclaimed our home, and gone back to our over-stimulated lives on the world wide web. These doubters ask me (hypothetically, of course, since I haven't checked my email in a month and no one knows where to find us) how long I can honestly expect my family to stay off the digital -- and physical! -- grid. "Well hey," I respond to the voices in my head, "No one is asking us to be perfect, just to move on because it's illegal to set up camp under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway."

But I'm a realist, and I know every good thing has got to end, and that includes this amazingly pure high we're on right now that makes us feel like God is giving us one big hug. (I'd like to see Twitter make my eyes roll back in my head from sheer joy!) I'm sure one day soon I'll look up again to realize that we're back to our old "habits": the kids glued onto the computer 24/7, my husband and I communicating only with our smartphones. But for right now, I'm relishing our little break from the data dump, and when I look around me I'm satisfied to see the only microchips that fight for my family's attention are the ones we find at the bottom of the crumpled bag of Doritos that has been pulled out of the trash.

Drew Grant

Drew Grant is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @videodrew.

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