Why Trying To Quit The Internet Is Like Trying To Quit Drugs

July 21, 2017

It’s truly an addiction…

When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is check my email.

I do it without even thinking, because my phone is already in my hand. That’s because I use an alarm clock app to wake me up; does anyone have an actual alarm clock anymore?

Being foggy and sleepy, it’s easy to mindlessly start tapping and swiping as my brain slowly comes back from whatever dream state it’s been in. I’ll open up Twitter and see what’s trending and look to see if anyone’s liked my latest Instagram post before I’m even aware of what I’m doing. But scrolling through email and social media on my phone almost always has the unfortunate side effect of making me feel depressed; even if I was feeling good about the day and ready to hop out of bed, by the time I’ve wasted 15 minutes online, my optimism has faded. I just want to roll over and go back to sleep.

Usually, the whole time I’ve been fooling around on my phone, I’ve been desperate to go to the bathroom. The thing that gets me out of bed is having to pee.

This is not my ideal way to start the day. Time and time again, I’ve vowed to kick my internet addiction – or at least, to stop spending my first waking moments staring at a screen. But somehow, I can’t seem to do it. So not only do I waste time online, I waste time berating myself for being weak-willed and unable to kick the habit.

Why do I do this to myself? Why can’t I quit the internet? A study published in the May 2017 issue of the journal Plos One might have an answer. Researchers found that people who had what they called “problematic internet use” (who, me?) actually showed the same symptoms as drug addicts when they try to go offline.

How much internet is too much?

quit the internet

For the purposes of this study, problematic internet users were self-identified; there wasn’t a threshold for how much screen time makes you a ‘problem user.’ But the differences in response between those who called themselves internet addicts and those who didn’t was significant: study participants who thought their internet use was problematic showed withdrawal symptoms, while those who didn’t think their internet use was a problem did not experience those symptoms.

Social psychologist Adam Alter, author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, defines addiction as “something you enjoy doing in the short term, that undermines your well-being in the long term – but that you do compulsively anyway.” Basically, if you think you’re an addict, you probably are. And let’s face it, staying in bed when my bladder is bursting and starting the day by scrolling social media, when I know it will make me feel like shit, probably means I’m addicted to the internet.

What are the symptoms?

quit the internet

In the study, 144 people were screened for blood pressure, heart rate, state of mood, and anxiety before and after being online for about two hours. People who said their internet usage was a problem showed increased heart rate and blood pressure just two minutes after logging off, as well as a decline in their mood and an uptick in anxiety. People who thought their internet usage was just fine had no such changes in their physical and mental state. These are, point out the researchers, some of the same symptoms experiences by people withdrawing from alcohol, marijuana, and opiates. Yikes.

So, it’s not a coincidence that spending too much time starting at screens and scrolling puts me in a crappy mood and makes me anxious – something that I, as an anxiety sufferer anyway – don’t really need help with. But can internet addiction be bad for me, long-term? The study’s authors say it could be. “The constant separation, re-connection, and separation, and resultant psychological and physiological stress that this may impart, may impact a range of physiological systems, increasing risks of physical disease, as well as psychological distress.”

Can we quit?

quit the internet

Cutting down on my screen time might make me feel similar to a drug addict in withdrawal, but is it really as difficult as trying to quit heroin? Do I need to start going to a 12-step program for internet addicts? Or could I maybe just buy a regular alarm clock and stop sleeping with my phone next to the bed?

The truth is, I haven’t tried that hard to quit the internet. There are ways to combat addictions, and I haven’t really implemented any of them. And I can’t actually quit the internet altogether: it’s how I earn a living. My editor suggested that I try to quit for this article, and I thought about it for five minutes before deciding it was impossible. But there are ways I could spend less time online, without quitting entirely.

Alter recommends not answering emails after six o’clock at night – but admits that he “can’t go to bed at night if I haven’t cleared my inbox,” and that he keeps his phone next to his bed.

Still, it’s a worthy goal to do as Alter recommends and be “more mindful” about how we use technology. “Find more time to be in natural environments, to sit face to face with someone in a long conversation without any technology in the room.”

I guess I’m going alarm clock shopping. But can I still do it online?

Images via wheretogetit.com, youtube.com, 4stayingwell.com, sharegif.com.

Comment: Do you think you’re addicted to the Internet? 

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