Is the Internet making us crazy?

http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/07/08/is-the-internet-making-us-crazy-what-the-new-research-says.html

I came across this on facebook (of all addictive places!) thanks to an old friend of mine, Nazif Topçuoğlu, who posted it there. And yes – I too think that online social networks and domains are wreaking havoc on our psyches. And if I am saying this, if I am observing some very adverse effects in myself that have come about from being a virtual worlds resident of 5+ years, then I may well be a good candidate for some of the research that these folks are conducting.

The findings that are being reported in the article are all disconcerting. But, here is the bit that has terrified me more than anything else in there, I guess:

“We may appear to be choosing to use this technology, but in fact we are being dragged to it by the potential of short-term rewards. Every ping could be a social, sexual, or professional opportunity, and we get a mini-reward, a squirt of dopamine, for answering the bell. “These rewards serve as jolts of energy that recharge the compulsion engine, much like the frisson a gambler receives as a new card hits the table,””

I find this notion of the “mini-reward” extremely worrisome since I can immediately recognize this type of compulsive behavior in myself also, when I think on how I have to go and check Flickr every half hour or so for the first 6 hours after I post an image, to see if my friends have commented on it and/or faved it. And to then realize how the “reward” is indeed so short-lived, that the “high” from getting the fave/comment evaporates almost instantaneously and I have to run back for more very shortly afterwards. And if nothing happens, I feel downcast. Not depressed maybe – I may not be that far gone yet – but definitely downcast…

However, a distinction, in my case, is that for me it is not about “opportunity” but about “affirmation”. And also, that I am looking for this affirmation from people that I know and value. So, in my own defense, I am not a “ping” collector. I do not want lots of faves or comments, but instead I want them from people that matter. (And who incidentally are all avatars in Second life, and whom I therefore know only as virtual beings – an important attribute of their relationship to me, as I will talk about more just a little bit later).

It did not take for me to read this article to know that something is indeed wrong with me, that I am no longer quite “sane” when it comes to all this stuff. And I am not even one of the really bad cases, I suppose. For example I do not (yet) have a smart-phone. Or rather I bought one a while ago but haven’t started using it since I do not like small fiddly gadgets with lots of buttons at all (mine is a Blackberry); and I absolutely loathe the touch system, so one of those is out of the question for me anyway. Nevertheless, lack of smart-phone notwithstanding, I am hooked through the computer, in front of which I spend enough time.

I think one of the aspects of this addiction, which is based on the “dopamine mini-reward” is something that, funnily enough, I wrote in an email to a friend of mine very shortly before I saw this article:

“IRL we can let others know how we feel about them through our expressions, our body languages, with how we look at them, in all kinds of ways, many of them probably not even all too consciously. And then “saying it out loud” that we think that they are great, that we care about them, may not be all that crucial; even may end up being somewhat obnoxious at times. However, in virtual life, all that we have is tangible, conscious, deliberate affirmation. And so we have to do it often, and repeatedly, whenever the person does something new that we can respond to, so that we can convey our continued support, our approval, our affection in the face of the lack of physical, bodily communication. Therefore silence in cyberspace means no support, no affection, no approval – or it means indifference of course. ”

So, the “ping”, the “like”, the “fave”, the “comment” or indeed the purchase of one’s virtual merchandise (in my specific case, that is) probably stands in lieu of the physical (unspoken) affirmation. Which we no longer adequately have since we are all staring at our screens all the time – as is the person who is sitting next to us, or across from us IRL. And, this physical affirmation that can manifest in a million ways through body language is probably not replaceable in terms of its (long-term) impact through virtual means; not even with all the “pings” that one could possibly ever hope to get. The sense of being appreciated and valued by the ones we value – once and for all, through something even as fleeting as an affectionate gaze. The “ping” can only do that (no matter how inadequately) if it happens regularly, over and over again, all the time, in order to keep up a continuous flow of the nice hormone that we have become addicted to. So, we have to keep going back for more. More posts, more links shared, more tweets, more this, more that… Which, of course, takes us further and further away from the only panacea that can ever work – bestowing and receiving loving gazes.

I have recently been making a point of going out as often as I can with friends to eat and drink in nice places with nice sea views, and all the works, for long meals. And, I especially seek out friends who do not sit across from me with an iPhone in their hands, when it comes to these outings. (Thankfully I am of an age where I have the luxury to still have people around me who can manage to do so, albeit with difficulty sometimes, I have to admit). I no longer check my email when I go on vacation. Went for 10 days without doing so earlier this month – which I thought would be a very hard thing to do, and in the event ended up being a cinch. I nowadays shut down the computer when I decide to go and read my old crime novels. I try not to look at social networks more than twice a day, and never for longer than 10 minutes at the very most. And I try not to post more than one single item in any 24 hour period and try to be very selective as to what it is that I post. And, most importantly, I log off from them when I am done.

And I plan on reducing my online existence even further and further, professional involvements permitting of course…

Because, in the end, I have a very strong sense that this stuff truly ain’t good for me, no matter what the short term buzz of it may be. Dopamine is highly addictive after all – and therefore, knowing this, I will continue to try and say “thank you, but no thank you…” to its charms…

(And the total irony of course, is that I am writing all of this on my two blogs…)

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