Monday, September 05, 2011

Is the Internet a Drug?

The dangers of alcohol abuse are too well-known to be questioned, although most societies have decided that the dangers are not so widespread and inevitable as to require absolute prohibition of alcohol use. We tried that in the U. S. from 1920 to 1933 and it is now generally regarded as a failure. A psychiatrist named Elias Aboujaoude has described how one’s use of the Internet can lead to personality changes both online and offline that are just as serious as those resulting from alcohol abuse. When I heard him interviewed recently, it struck a chord with me because I have recently had a couple of experiences that made me think he is right.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, we hosted our ten-year-old nephew for a couple of months this summer. There were many ups and downs in that connection, but the specific effect I noted came after he was allowed (unwisely, on our part) to view hours of YouTube videos produced by teenagers playing certain Nintendo games.

It was interesting to watch the change that came over the boy as he sat on the couch, watching the screen images and wearing headphones because the noise was too much for us to put up with if he played it over the speakers. Hypnotism isn’t too strong a word for it. The worst came when we needed to talk with him for mundane things like getting him to come to supper. The first time I’d speak to him he would almost never respond. So I’d raise my voice slightly, thinking he didn’t hear me through the din of the video game and adolescent narration. When my voice finally registered, it was like the Tasmanian Devil had been disturbed in his lair. Whaddaya want??!!” is the general tenor of the responses I’d get, none of which were socially acceptable, at least in my book. It would take him several minutes to mentally disengage himself from the machine and get to where he could approximate a reasonable member of society again.

In the child’s defense, he was dealing with some difficulties in his own family, and zoning out on YouTube may have been a kind of coping mechanism. But nothing else he did (with the exception of playing with his Nintendo itself) made him as cranky and rude as watching those YouTube videos.

I also experienced something similar when I went to a retreat center for a couple of days in mid-August. It is in a remote area and set up as a contemplative Catholic retreat, where no talking is allowed. And I had no radio or Internet access. I liked the experience so much that when I came back, I intentionally limited my time on the Internet to strictly work-related matters such as email and looking up specific information. In particular, I dropped my viewing of news sites, which had become a kind of killing-time activity I would do several times a day.

It wasn’t a controlled experiment, because several other things changed at the same time, but I attribute at least part of my noticeable increase in calmness, lack of stress, and feeling more rested to my abstention from what had become a pernicious Internet habit. I may eventually go back to viewing some of those sites on a limited basis, but right now I like the benefits better than whatever enjoyment I got out of them.

Neither I nor my nephew suffered from the more acute maladies that Dr. Aboujaoude sees in his practice of treating sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Although I have not read his book Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality, in the interview I heard he described five types of problems that can result from spending hours online, especially if one’s participation is more active than just reading or viewing. People who participate in the kind of mob-psychology forums that encourage “flaming” and anonymous posts are particularly susceptible to these problems.

The two problems that struck me as especially insightful were grandiosity, a technical term that means having a self-image that is much better than reality, and narcissism. People with these problems tend to think they are smarter, more important, and much more worth listening to than the average person online, and neglect the needs and feelings of others they encounter. It is a kind of delusion that the Internet encourages: a false image that you are the center of your electronic universe and everything is under your control. The real trouble is that these traits acquired online tend to stay with you in the rest of your life as well. Combine those with regression and impulsivity (two more dangers Aboujaounde has identified), and you get the kind of grossly indiscreet behavior that former U. S. Representative Anthony Weiner confessed to engaging in last June. My initial reaction to the news that someone in such a responsible position sent photos of his naughty bits to not just one, but several women, was disbelief. Rep. Weiner has apparently admitted to extensive online activity of other types as well, and the Internet may have had the effects on him that Aboujaounde describes in his patients. Given enough doses of grandiosity and narcissism, a person might delude himself into thinking that certain personal closeups are exactly what Miss X is wanting to see. Add some impulsivity that would lead you to do something that a little reflection would reveal as foolish, and there you are. Or were—Rep. Weiner eventually resigned.

The Internet doesn’t come in little cardboard boxes that we can put warning labels on, as the federal government requires cigarette makers to do. The hazards are much less quantifiable than smoking, but I think the effects are just as real. In the absence of such warnings, I think it is just up to everyone who uses the Internet for any reason to be aware that it can be habit-forming, and many of the habits it forms are not good ones.

Sources: An online (!) audio publication called Mars Hill Audio ( carried the interview with Dr. Elias Aboujaounde in their March/April 2011 (Vol. 108) edition. His book Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality was published in 2011 by W. W. Norton.

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