Tech, Now + Beyond

Is the Internet our drug?

We need to find ways to cope with our incredible dependence on the web. Our health and our families depend on it.

Scrolling through our Instagram feed when we’re hanging out with friends, asking for the WiFi password when we’re at a new place, feeling like our we’re trapped in a torture chamber when our video takes twenty seconds to to buffer.

These are common struggles most if not all of us have had. And if you’re in college, even more so.

But not only is the struggle real, it’s an actual health problem. Problematic Internet Use (PIU) is now classified as a behavioral addiction with parallels to substance use disorder, also called drug use disorder. The substance, in this case, being the Internet.

For adolescents, lengthy Internet use is downright dangerous. In a study carried out in Taiwan, social behaviors were used as a predictive tool for Internet addiction, where hostility in boys and attention deficit disorder in girls being the most indicative behavior types for internet addiction. In Korea, adolescents who were Internet addicts have sleeping disorders from insomnia to excessive daytime sleeping to nightmares. Research conducted on teenagers in China linked self-injurious behavior to Internet addiction.

In December, researchers at UNC Chapel Hill studied 27 college students who spent more than 25 hours, not related to school or work, on the Internet per week. Between 80 and 100 percent of the students showed indications of PIU, displaying similar results to the research carried out in China, Taiwan and Korea: changes in sleeping patterns, irritable moods when the Internet is unavailable and difficulty to reduce usage. About 48 percent of the participants were grouped as Internet addicts; around 40 percent were considered potential addicts.

 

The Chapel Hill study also focused on generational use of the internet. The participants expressed their concern about the prolonged internet use for their younger relatives, who were as young as four years old. “He can play that for eight hours straight without moving,” one participant said about their cousin. “His eyes are really bad right now. He can’t control himself.” They also shared the hostility they experienced or witnessed with trying to reduce their relatives’ Internet use.

We were right. Those little kids are snotty-nosed and are way too young to have their own iPad.

The concerns are common: adolescents and children should be closely monitored when it comes to their Internet usage. But what about adults who are using the Internet for extended periods of time for school or work? Is the trade off social disorders for higher education?

The research also focused on the effect Internet use can have on relationships with family and friends. These are things we’ve all done. Going home to see the family you miss but ending up on your laptop the entire weekend; hanging out with friends or family but getting distracted by your phone, and then all of you end up on your phones and ignore each other. While there were some benefits to internet use — to maintain or strengthen family ties such as keeping connected through Skype chats or emails, for instance — the negative impacts were more.

With such a high proportion of young adults having PIU and their manifestations of that so common and part of everyday life for a lot of people, we need to find ways to either reduce or cope with high internet use.

So the next time you freak out about not having WiFi…maybe just put your phone away and see how long you can survive without it.