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.