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Summary:

A British study found that people who went without the internet for 24 hours were “upset” and experienced “withdrawal.” But is this really surprising? It’s become obvious that internet access is a core function of modern life — talking about it as “addiction” misses the point.

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Every so often, a new study comes out that says people are “addicted” to the internet, or to digital tools, or social media — describing their anguish when cut off from these services in the same way that smokers or alcoholics react when prevented from smoking or drinking. The latest is research from a UK survey company that asked 1,000 respondents to go without internet access for 24 hours, and found that more than half of those surveyed were “upset.”

But is this really that surprising? Surely by now it’s become obvious that internet access and all it brings with it is a core function of modern life, like the telephone or the automobile. Talking about it in terms of “addiction” misses the point.

According to the research from Intersperience, a British agency that specializes in consumer research, 53 percent of those who were surveyed after going without internet access for 24 hours said they felt upset, while 40 percent of those who did so said they felt “lonely” when they couldn’t go online. One respondent described being without net access as a “nightmare,” and another apparently compared it to “having my hand chopped off.” Intersperience says that the younger a user was, the more difficult they found it to be disconnected from the internet.

The chief executive of the agency was quoted as saying:

Online and digital technology is increasingly pervasive. [Our research] shows how dominant a role it now assumes, influencing our friendships, the way we communicate, the fabric of our family life, our work lives, our purchasing habits and our dealings with organisations [sic].

This might have been an interesting insight in 1998, when consumer use of the internet was only just starting to become commonplace, and broadband connections were rare. But is it really news that we are connected more now, and that we use the internet to communicate and research things we want to buy? If that comes as a surprise to you, then you probably need to leave your cave once in a while.

The internet and addiction

But the part of the study that everyone has picked up on, of course, is the references to how users are “addicted to” the internet, and can’t live without it, and feel withdrawal symptoms (or say they do). This part of the study echoes similar research that was done by the University of Maryland last year, which also asked students in a number of programs at the school to go without internet access — including giving up their smartphones and mobile devices — for 24 hours. There too, researchers noted that those surveyed described “symptoms similar to drug and alcohol addiction” when deprived of internet use, and one even used the same analogy to missing a limb.

As I tried to point out at the time, this kind of study says more about our need to prove that new technologies are addicting than it does about our actual behavior — a point that author and technology observer Nicholas Carr (a prominent internet and social-media skeptic) also made when last year’s study was released. And it obscures the real point, which is that the internet has had a huge and fundamental impact on the way we live our lives. Is that good or bad? I’ve argued — in another debate involving Carr, and his book “The Shallows” — that it is both.

Can using the internet, or social-media tools, or a smartphone, become a problem? Sure it can, if it interferes with you living a normal life, interacting with your friends and family, and being a functioning member of society. Does that describe any of the people in this latest survey who described themselves as “addicted?” Unlikely. What they probably meant is that they really missed it, because it allows them to do things that they find important, including connecting with their friends and family, and finding out important information about the world around them.

The “moral panic” that comes with new technology

Were similar studies done about how people were “addicted to” the newspaper, or the radio, or the telephone? I don’t know, but at various times many people would probably have felt “upset” if they were deprived of those, too. As sociologist Genevieve Bell has pointed out, we often demonize new technology and try to describe our fears about it in scientific terms because we are afraid of change, and how it makes us feel — such as the “moral panic” that erupted when electricity started to become commonplace, or trains became mainstream tech.

I’d be the first person to admit that I feel anxious when I am not online — in part because it’s how I do my job, but also because it is an almost endless source of interesting information about the world. I wrote recently about how disconnected and powerless I felt when my iPhone stopped working (I even used the “missing limb” analogy), but that’s because my phone allows me to do useful things, like figuring out where I am, or taking photos and sharing them with people. Does that mean I’m addicted to doing those things? Not really. And even if I am, I don’t mind.

Comparisons to smoking and other kinds of addictive behavior don’t really work, because none of those things have positive aspects to them. Connection to the internet, and all that it allows, has become so important that some countries have actually made it a universal right that every citizen is entitled to. Has any country done that with smoking or drinking? Not that I know of. Talking about how we use technology — rather than allowing it to use us — is a sensible thing to do. But let’s drop the “addiction” talk.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users zackwitnij and Tony Preece

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  1. I recently went on holiday and had intermittent internet connectivity. About once a day. I never once felt the need (drug addiction need) to boot up Chrome and start surfing. I think the internet is like taking a taxi instead of a bus. If the taxi is available I would rather take it. Similarly, if the internet is available I am on it 24/7, but if it is not then I don’t go searching for it!

  2. Another great article!

    I think you’ve got it exactly right. Internet addiction is the new television addiction. Whether or not it is technically an “addiction” is for the APA to decide, but clearly, a lot of what people too casually allude to as “addiction” is perhaps better described as something they simply enjoy (a lot). Are these folks physically or psychologically dependent on the “internet”, to the point where they get fired from their job, their relationships all break down, and so on?

    As is so often the case, lumping everything together into “internet addiction” misses crucial distinctions between the various activities that people engage in on the web. “The internet” isn’t an end, it is a means to an end. I’d think that the most compelling data would be found analyzing very specific web-based activities (e.g., MMO Gaming, etc.).

  3. Matthew…I agree with a lot of what you were saying. I’m leary of calling it addiction when so many people use the internet for business, shopping, research, etc. What the researchers were saying is that it is problematic when you cannot be away from technology for any length of time. Too many young kids can’t eat a meal with their family or friends without texting every 2 seconds. Any time someone has a sense of withdrawl for anything whether it’s the phone, internet, i-pod, or exercising, they need to re-assess their interaction. If you can’t go for a walk, ride a bike, have a meal, read a book, have face to face conversation without the umbilical cord of technology, rather than calling it addiction, it becomes a social interaction problem.

    1. Jason Thibeault Duffy Tuesday, July 26, 2011

      Why are you calling it a “social interaction” problem? Just like I wrote below, that is using old vocabulary to define changing behavior. We need to get away from that. There is no addiction and no problem. We need to rethink how we define social interaction in order to incorporate this apparent “need” to stay connected to the data stream.

  4. Jason Thibeault Tuesday, July 26, 2011

    I would argue that this is not an addiction. We are using an old vocabulary to describe the changing way that we socialize. Sherry Turkle really pioneered a lot of thought into the way the digital world will impact the natural need we have, as humans, to socialize (check out Life on the Screen: http://www.amazon.com/Life-Screen-Identity-Age-Internet/dp/0684833484/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1311707461&sr=8-1). This recent study simply affirms what she (and others including myself; did a lot of graduate work on this) have already surmised: that the digital space affords us new and different ways to socialize. And although they are different, they aren’t bad or addictive (although I argue that the pace of information facilitates our perceived “need” to constantly be connected). Part of the problem is our need to feel relevant in an ever changing world, one moving at breakneck pace because of the Internet. When we disconnect, we are no longer relevant either to work, or in the case of socialization, to our friends. If I don’t post on Facebook for weeks will anyone pay attention when I do? Maybe, maybe not. That would be an interesting study. I’ve written a blog post (more of my attempts at socializing through the digital world as much as this comment is) you can see here which really discusses this concept of how social media and the web have enabled us to extend our social capabilities. Disconnecting from Facebook is no different than taking a vacation: we wonder what everyone is doing.

    Great post Matt.

    http://blog.jasonthibeault.com/index.php/2011/07/26/the-need-to-be-always-on/

    J

    1. Great point Jason. Your post makes me immediately think of how alluring MMO games have been, by virtue of the fact that they persist even when we’re offline. What is happening? What am I missing? While that sense of disconnectedness compares with taking a vacation, the fact that there are virtually no practical barriers (in an affluent society) towards remaining perpetually connected to the web is a notable and important difference.

  5. Great post. I don’t think we are “addicted” to technology but have become accustomed to the convenience and loads of information available at our fingertips. Having said that, I do feel lost when I am without my phone or have no internet connection.

  6. Niall Harbison Tuesday, July 26, 2011

    Yeah no doubt that we are all addicted and I don’t think we will know what it does to our brains until about 20 years in to the future. We are certainly all wired in at the moment!

  7. Hi. I thought I’d jump into this debate, as the said CEO being quoted! We didn’t actually ever use the word ‘addicted’ in our report; that was the Maryland study that the Daily Mail quoted. I would agree that the term ‘addiction’ misses the point and shouldn’t actually be used. Which is why we didn’t. Our press release only uses the analagy as a quote from a participant. To say that we have missed the point, is therefore incorrect.

    I would actually disagree with your first point also that we weren’t not bringing any ‘insight’ to the table with the report. The full report certainly does. As a research organisation that hase been conducting studies into behavioural change from technology, since 1998, I certainly do ‘leave the cave’ as you put it.

    The fact is, even with all of the insight and knowledge we have gathered in that time, I was still surprised by the results.

    Not the fact that people liken it to giving up smoking. Nor the limb analogy that has been used a lot.

    I think you’ve missed the point in your article. 40% feel lonely without access to the internet. The breadth (40% of the UK population) and the depth (lonely is a very strong emotion) is the point here. These facts tell us how far internet has crept into everyday lives – not that it is ‘a source of information’, which is very functional; not that you depend on it – of course YOU do, your job is online as is mine. But ‘lonely’ indicates much more than dependence. And 40% is much broader than you and I.

    40% of a WHOLE population feel lonely if they didn’t have the internet for just one evening.

    That is the point here. The signficance of that one sentance, not addiction or dependence.

  8. Hi. I thought I’d jump into this debate, as the said CEO being quoted! We didn’t actually ever use the word ‘addicted’ in our report; that was the Maryland study that the Daily Mail quoted. I would agree that the term ‘addiction’ misses the point and shouldn’t actually be used. Which is why we didn’t. Our press release only uses the analagy as a quote from a participant. To say that we have missed the point, is therefore incorrect.

    I would actually disagree with your first point also that we weren’t not bringing any ‘insight’ to the table with the report. The full report certainly does. As a research organisation that hase been conducting studies into behavioural change from technology, since 1998, I certainly do ‘leave the cave’ as you put it.

    The fact is, even with all of the insight and knowledge we have gathered in that time, I was still surprised by the results.

    Not the fact that people liken it to giving up smoking. Nor the limb analogy that has been used a lot.

    I think you’ve missed the point in your article. 40% feel lonely without access to the internet. The breadth (40% of the UK population) and the depth (lonely is a very strong emotion) is the point here. These facts tell us how far internet has crept into everyday lives – not that it is ‘a source of information’, which is very functional; not that you depend on it – of course YOU do, your job is online as is mine. But ‘lonely’ indicates much more than dependence. And 40% is much broader than you and I.

    40% of a WHOLE population feel lonely if they didn’t have the internet for just one evening.

    That is the point here. The significance of that one sentence, not addiction or dependence.

  9. Rick McKnight Tuesday, July 26, 2011

    We are all totally addicted, without the quotation marks.
    Trying to deny it is a clear symptom of any addiction.

  10. Jason Thibeault Tuesday, July 26, 2011

    This post (and the research study) really got me thinking about this topic again, something I have been exploring for a decade or more through academic research and other pursuits: the process of how we form our identities. Although I won’t go into the philosophy and psychological concepts involved in that topic, there’s a lot under the covers of this study that point to a fundamental and gradual evolution of the human condition. This is not fancy. It’s happening slowly and surely and our children will never look at this as an “addiction.” It will simply be the state of the world. Check out another blog post I put together on understanding how this connection between our real world selves and our online selves is being facilitated.

    http://blog.jasonthibeault.com/index.php/2011/07/26/mapping-out-the-connection-between-our-real-and-our-digital-selves/

    J

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