Whoa, you like to think that you’re immune to the stuff, oh yeah
It’s closer to the truth to say you can’t get enough
You know you’re gonna have to face it, you’re addicted to [the Internet].
Robert Palmer, Addicted to Love (1986) (more recently covered by Florence & The Machine (2010))
This morning, I awoke and reached for my smartphone to turn off the alarm. Because I already had the phone in my hand, I checked the day’s weather (for both the Madison area, where I live, and Milwaukee, where I work). Then, of course, I had to check email, to see what had come in during the night. And, while I was at it, I took my turn in the eight concurrent games with three different people that I have going on Words with Friends. After that, I finally got out of bed.
According to an article by Tony Dokoupil in the July 16, 2012 issue of Newsweek, that kind of morning makes me just like more than one-third of smartphone users. We are the ones who check our phones before we even get out of bed. Really? Only one-third of us do that?
Technology has allowed us to be continuously connected to a wider world, and too many of us are tethered to those portals. According to Dokoupil’s article, most of us spend at least eight hours a day with our computers – “more time than we spend on any other activity including sleeping.” Being on the computer means access not only to the software programs we need to work, but also to the Internet and all that comes from having that broadband connection: instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest, blogs and more blogs, and any number of other sites for socializing, sharing, or shopping. Staying connected has never been so easy. For instance, texting is no longer for the young, although they still dominate in text usage. Dokoupil says, “[T]he average person, regardless of age, sends or receives about 400 texts a month. . . . The average teen processes an outstanding 3,700 texts a month.” These numbers make my youngest son and me considerably better than average. In a recent one-month billing cycle, my teenage son processed a whopping 14,169 text messages. Me? A comparatively measly 814, yet still double the “average” person’s monthly texts. (FWIW, my son was amazed @ & I think a bit impressed w/ his 1-month total.)
This continuous connectivity has changed our lives; we can always be reached, whether by email, by text, by phone (although who uses the phone part of the smartphone anymore?). We can work just about anywhere, provided there’s a wi-fi connection or nearby hotspot to keep us connected. And in an instant we can upload pictures and videos of our child’s first steps, of the awesome concert we’re attending, of the beautiful sunset we’re watching on the beach, literally moments after those things occur. Within minutes, friends we know and “friends” we know only online are “liking” our posts, tweeting responses, forwarding to their friends (real and virtual), and maybe getting our stuff trending. All of this feels like part of a “normal” life for many of us. What Dokoupil gets at in his article is the dark side to the continuous connectivity. He notes, “This life of continuous connection has come to seem normal, but that’s not the same as saying that it’s healthy or sustainable . . . .” Recent research seems to indicate that continuous connectivity is literally changing our brains, and not necessarily in a good way.
Dokoupil reviews research from a dozen countries that all conclude pretty much the same thing: an increasing number of us are addicted to the Internet and some of us are suffering mentally as a result. Dokoupil quotes one expert as saying, “[T]he computer is like electronic cocaine[.]” Another expert claims that the Internet “encourages – and even promotes – insanity.” In fact, Dokoupil’s article leads off with the story of filmmaker Jason Russell’s (creator of Kony 2012) very public mental breakdown. His diagnosis: reactive psychosis, a temporary insanity caused not by drugs or alcohol but by extreme stress, very likely brought on by the whirlwind cyberspace response to his posting of his Kony 2012 documentary, sending him from relative anonymity to instant notoriety. Dokoupil notes that the film “clock[ed] more than 70 million views in less than a week” and spawned both praise and critiques.
In 2010, researchers at the University of Maryland asked 200 undergraduate students to give up the Internet and all their mobile technologies for a single day. The study authors concluded, “Most college students are not just unwilling, but functionally unable, to be without their media links to the world.” Interestingly, two other schools have been unable to do similar studies because they have been unable to find enough participants. Apparently very few students are willing to go a single day without that continuous connectivity. A psychiatrist at Stanford University School of Medicine tells Dokoupil “There’s just something about the medium that’s addictive,” and Chinese researchers have recently noted that images of the brains of Internet addicts look similar to images of the brains of drug and alcohol addicts.
It’s easy to say, “Well, that’s not me. I’m not addicted.” But Dokoupil has news for you. “[T]he gap between an ‘Internet addict’ and John Q. Public is thin to nonexistent.” Another study found that most people in the study (except for those over 50 years old) checked their text messages, email, or social networking sites “all the time” or “every 15 minutes.” Does sound like you? Next time you’re with a group of people, notice how when one person’s phone rings or buzzes, everyone reaches for his or her phone, even though you know that many of them knew that ringing or buzzing wasn’t from their phones. Still, such ringing and buzzing gives us an opportunity to check our own phones – just in case. And, conveniently, someone’s phone is always ringing or buzzing and so we can always check our own phones. Just in case. One of the early signs for addiction is that a person spends more than 38 hours a week online. Combine the hours spent on your smartphone (including adding up those short times throughout the day you’re checking – just in case) and your computer and you realize that you can meet the 38-hour threshold, as Dokoupil says, “by Wednesday afternoon, Tuesday, if it’s a busy week.”
There are many threads from Dokoupil’s article that we can pick up and explore. We could consider how we educate a generation who literally cannot be unplugged. We could explore how the use of email, texting, and social networking changes the way we practice law and communicate with clients. Surely such usage raises issues with client confidentiality as well as with professionalism. Or we could talk about whether it’s even true that we are addicted to the Internet and our portals to it. After all, for some professionals, their constant checking of their smartphones may not be entirely by choice as much as it is by mandate or professional expectation. Can you unplug? Do you even want to try?