In March of 2010, I wrote this:

“Last week I received my Wired magazine in the mail. Yep, the actual hard copy made of atoms and not just internet magic. Even though Wired offers a digital version of its content on the web and on mobile devices, I prefer to read static text from tangible sources. Maybe I’m old school, but I justify it as liking real stuff.”

I wrote this as an introduction to the first blog post ever published by Famigo. It was about a spoof product displayed in the back of Wired magazine, called “Ball®.”

Ball® is a product of the future, available in 2032, but it’s almost unique by today’s standards: It doesn’t run on batteries, it’s a likely source for causing injuries, and it has no online functionality whatsoever. Ball® could be available today and might be a success, but big retailers are concerned that ball is a one-trick-pony. Retailers want customers to obsess over their products (like Apple) and use them compulsively (like the hit video game World of Warcraft).

This is sad for two reasons.

  1. Not many people go outside to play with a ball anymore.
  2. The people that make fun stuff are purposely making things that are too fun.

What do I mean by that?

Next year, the big book that provides definitions of known mental illnesses (DSM 5) is going include “internet use disorder.” It’s being included because a significant percentage of the world’s population have become obsessed with the Internet to the point that it is affecting their family life, social relationships, and their job performance.

Why is this happening?

According to Bill Davidow, a leading tech industry executive and venture investor, it’s because many Internet products exploit neuroscience principles in order to elicit obsessive and compulsive behaviors in users. In fact, Internet products are built to engage the same area of the human brain that is hijacked by drugs of abuse like cocaine, amphetamine, and nicotine. Here’s another way of saying that: cocaine, amphetamines, nicotine, and certain Internet products hijack an area of your brain to cause addictive behaviors.

I have a PhD in neuroscience, and I wholeheartedly believe this. My graduate thesis focused on reward related learning and addiction to drugs of abuse, and it’s true that by providing certain stimuli in response to specific actions, developers can take advantage of a natural reaction in the human brain. This natural reaction can be so strong as to significantly alter higher order decision making and change a person’s behavior.

How do parents (and people in general) deal with this?

Image courtesy of Kim Kircher

Not to worry. I think it’s relatively easy: Unplug. Power down all the devices, pick up a ball, go outside and play. Nothing will ever replace the value and richness of the environment that is outside, it’s still the natural place for us to be, and engaging with all the people, places, and things outside will always be healthy (IMO).

There is still a place in our lives for the Internet. It’s an unparalleled source of knowledge and fun. But it’s best used in moderation.

Bill Davidow provided a personal example of how he unplugs. And I encourage everyone to read his article and read his book: OVERconnected: the promise and threat of the internet.

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One Response to The Internet, Addiction, and You

  1. Clinton Wu says:

    This is a nice piece on the subject of Internet Addiction, Matt. As someone who has a PhD in neuroscience though, wouldn’t you say your advice is easier said than done – especially for someone who might not have the self-discipline and control to just unplug? Much like asking an alcoholic to just stop drinking?

    I think there need to be more tools and platforms that are built with “anti-compulsion loops in mind” – built with more digital discipline and health at their cores. Using the same analogy, like having an AA group or a bartender who cuts you off?

    At Skim.Me, we think we’re the first content consumption tool built with a user experience that encourages offline activity. We want to make your daily browsing routines more productive and encourage users to browse in scheduled and timed batches a couple times per day. Would love you to check us out and give me your thoughts at wu at skim dot me. Private alpha in a couple weeks.

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