"You can’t sell something to people if they don’t want that thing."
November 29, 2015 4:19 AM   Subscribe

Sending and receiving emails are important parts of his job. On average, he gets an email every 45 minutes. Sometimes, the interval between emails is only two minutes. Other times, it’s three hours. Although many of these emails are unimportant or stress-inducing, some of them are fun. Before long, whenever Michael S has an internet connection, he starts refreshing his email inbox every 30 minutes, and then every five minutes and then, occasionally, every two minutes. Before long, it’s a compulsive tic – the pecking pigeon of web usage.
If the internet is addictive, why don’t we regulate it?
posted by rorgy (42 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Like a lot of Aeon articles this was kinda provocative. (To be fair, the author recognized the semantic-stop-sign-ness of using the word "regulation" around tech cognoscenti.)

My $0.02: I don't like that the author gets close to buying into a low view of human beings. Scum and glory of the universe perhaps, but we're not a bunch of fucking pigeons. With that off my chest there are a few insightful points: most people who work in tech are probably aware of the cognitive science and behavioral psych shenanigans that tech giants employ for profit. There may be social usefulness in recognizing that Jane the Plumber hasn't had the tech industry experience that would help her know what tricks are behind her Facebook feed. I also think it's naive to expect for-profit corporations to self-police. Unlikely. But to my (tech-professional) mind, regulation is a bone-headed way to deal with corporations. Businesses respond better to incentives in my limited experience, and while laws can be effective, starting with incentives and building a more positive culture would be more helpful. I'm not personally sure how to work towards a design culture that empowers the user more, but I don't think many would argue it's not a worthwhile goal.
posted by iffthen at 5:14 AM on November 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

why don’t we regulate it?

Perhaps because we aren't ruled by a crowd of cowardly morons who believe that the answer to any and every human failing is more rules and regulations enforced by the state? Either that or they've only recently noticed that computers exist and it's an oversight that will soon be corrected.

How long have people been noting that it's only drug dealers and software companies whose customers are called "users"? Those jokes are probably older than the writer, at least.
posted by sfenders at 6:01 AM on November 29, 2015 [15 favorites]

I don't think the primary purpose of gambling regulation is to keep gambling addictions in check, and I don't think the War on Drugs is a good analogy either.

What we need is a good PSA: "The Internet and television have failed you: Go Drinking!"
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:25 AM on November 29, 2015 [6 favorites]

We don't regulate access to things because they are addictive or because they stimulate compulsive behavior. Consider shopping, driving, salty snacks, television, caffeine, candy, etc. We regulate things that are, for historical, cultural, and emotional reasons, perceived to be signs of personal moral failings. We tax tobacco and alcohol and call that a "sin tax." We don't really believe every person who drinks a beer will become a raging, out-of-control alcoholic. That's not why we restrict access to beer.
posted by Western Infidels at 6:39 AM on November 29, 2015 [18 favorites]

I just finished reading and, Uh, tweeting this. I also emailed it to someone and texted it to two others, feeling like I failed right out of the gate every time.
posted by nevercalm at 6:50 AM on November 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

I dread my email. I hate looking at it. I turned the little icon badge off and just check it when I check it. Same for iMessage and FB and missed calls. And I always have the ringer to my phone off.

Though it doesn't mean I don't read less Internet---just the constant notification stuff makes me anxious and cripples my focus.

But I really hope it isn't me alone in doing this.
posted by discopolo at 6:57 AM on November 29, 2015 [9 favorites]

One more thought: we regulate access to mind-altering chemicals and habits when they are perceived to represent moral failings of the lower classes specifically. And of course modern Internet and social-media obsessions started from the other end of the spectrum. "Crackberry" is kind of telling.
posted by Western Infidels at 7:30 AM on November 29, 2015 [15 favorites]

...your stimulation allotment is about to expire...
posted by fairmettle at 7:48 AM on November 29, 2015

A quick anecdote:

I answer the info@___ e-mail for my travel organization in Canada in addition to the e-mail from my regular job. Through a combination of my professional background and being fluent in the two languages we typically get questions in, I was the obvious and only choice and have been doing this for ten years now.

A year ago, I got two unrelated e-mails in a short time: the first was from a woman named Kitsuke and the domain she was sending from from was .jp -- her question was "Do you have watermelon picking job in Australia?" The choice of random business and random continent left me baffled. I restrained my immediate impulse to sarcasm and directed her to my Australian counterpart, who (even if she had no line on agriculture could possibly at least give Kitsuke an idea of where to look). I thought the whole thing odd: if I decided I really wanted to work in a cafe in Chile, my first step would not be to write to a tool-and-die company in the Czech republic to ask for their help.

A few days later I opened up the info@____ e-mail on a Sunday morning and scrolled back through the questions that had come in overnight, answering or redirecting them as appropriate. It was the usual mix: reservation for this place, cancellation for that place, spam, spam, inquiry about rates here, etc. As always, I saw and dealt with them in reverse chronological order, so I would see the most recent one, answer that, go on to the one before, answer that, and so on until I was back to the point I had been at in my previous session.

I reached one that was harsh in its tone, asking something to the effect of "Why has no one bothered to answer my question on (whatever)? I dislike being ignored and find this behaviour totally unprofessional." I looked carefully at the sender's name, but it was entirely unfamiliar to me. I am the only one who answer this, and there was nothing in the the junk e-mail filter, so I reckoned that maybe he had written weeks earlier with his original question, I had forwarded it to the proper recipient and it had somehow gone unaddressed. I marked it to come back to investigate it later.

I moved on to the next -- i.e. previously sent -- e-mail. This one was from the same guy, and was in fact his original question. It was not especially time-sensitive at all, by the way. The guy had written to an office at 1:50 AM on a Sunday morning, and by 2:40 AM was already complaining that he had not yet received an answer. The guy was in North America, btw, so it wasn't even a question of some New Zealander or something forgetting about the time zone difference: he just wanted instant gratification. Ah.

A couple of weeks later I met with all my office mates over lunch. I mentioned these two bits of correspondence (watermelon jobs, snippy demands as to why no one was answering the e-mail instantly at 2:00 AM). My colleague in marketing said she had the solution -- we would set up an auto-response on the info line to assure people writing that we would respond within ten minutes.

I stared at her, agog. I am the only one who does these responses (and our entire office was five people). I cannot sit and monitor the e-mail 24/7 from one end of the year to another on the off chance someone has an inquiry about picking watermelons. She defended her position by saying that is what customers demand now.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:13 AM on November 29, 2015 [27 favorites]

Interesting that the article backs off near the end. The writer seems to conclude that regulation is probably not the solution, but that discussing the possibility of regulation is an effective way to get an industry talking about its own solutions.

I like iffthen's suggestion of using incentives rather than regulations. Since so much of this argument hangs on behavioral psychology (Skinner's pigeons, etc.), it feels appropriate for the solution to also come from behaviorism, namely that incentives work better than rules or punishments for changing behavior. I'm not sure how well that fact extends from individuals to corporations or industries, but it seems like a profit-motivated industry comprised of individual CEOs and decision-makers would respond to a profit incentive.
posted by vytae at 8:26 AM on November 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

I turned off the "You have new email." notification about five years ago, but still check frequently. That being said, before email existed for me, I would check my mailslot at the office multiple times a day, hoping for a piece of paper to read.
posted by Mogur at 8:51 AM on November 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

How many times per day do y'all refresh your Recent Activity page, hmm?
posted by Jacqueline at 8:57 AM on November 29, 2015 [5 favorites]

I'm not opposed to regulation, but the actual proposals here are a bit weak. I wouldn't mind killing continuous scrolling though, which is a usability nightmare.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 9:08 AM on November 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

> we aren't ruled by a crowd of cowardly morons who believe that the answer to any and every human failing is more rules and regulations enforced by the state?

Ah, yes, the libertarian marching cry. "Regulations are created by cowardly morons!"

I first heard that siren song when I was working on Wall Street in the 80s, and they were about to repeal Glass-Steagall. But you know, that didn't really work out at all well for America, did it?

Rational people know that regulations are like all sorts of other adult things - necessary in certain cases and oversold in others. The fact that there are strict regulations preventing my neighbors from, say, starting a meth lab is not something I attribute to "cowardly morons".

I don't know if regulations are the solution to the real problems posed in this article - the regulatory suggestions they have seem a bit silly, and regulation is not a universal solution to problems - no adult has ever claimed this.

But to decry any sort of rules and regulations as being "ruled by a crowd of cowardly morons" is pathologically unrealistic (even if it didn't sound like a sound bite from Trump or Carson).
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:40 AM on November 29, 2015 [20 favorites]

I definitely believe the Internet can be addictive but I'm not sure it's any more addictive than it used to be, or more addictive than lots of other activities. My parents watch TV for just as many hours as I use the Internet. People are always going to find their dopamine hit somewhere and - as long as the activity isn't physically or financially harming anyone - it's just moralizing to say one thing is better than the other.
posted by desjardins at 9:41 AM on November 29, 2015 [7 favorites]

I do find myself refreshing pages and looking for new posts over and over and suddenly think "I don't remember why I'm doing this" it's just impulse. It's not terribly harmful, but I do feel a bit guilty about wasting time.

It's a difficult habit to break, if only because it's where my goes when I let it slip into autopilot.
posted by Ferreous at 9:43 AM on November 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

If the internet is addictive, why don’t we regulate it?

Fair question. They regulate the internet in China and elsewhere, but only because it is potentially subversive to the regime, which exposes a non-sequitur for addictive internet regulation, because not every solution to a problem qualifies as justice (capital punishment for petty theft, for example). The public should only regulate things that protect the political and socioeconomic system we desire, not necessarily those things that protect some individuals, which is what China does, by protecting the power of a few individuals. And I would argue that most addictive drugs threaten our public system, often as imported or patented substances that create their own demand by blocking rational choices and directly harming the economy and social spending.
posted by Brian B. at 10:07 AM on November 29, 2015

It made total sense to me that one of the guys who studied persuasion worked on a college project with an Instagram founder. I started following and contributing to a niche art community on there a couple months ago, and my God is it addictive. I don't know why, but people on Instagram seem so much more giving than on other social-media sites, and I've wondered whether something about the app encourages that (maybe the fact that the app doesn't treat those posts as a canonical set of favorites it'll remember forever, while kind of annoying, actually encourages people to live in the moment with their responses).

Whatever it is—and maybe it's just that people in that little community like my photography style and subject matter better than my writing style—it feels like I rack up hearts so quickly on there (and continue to get responses even after posts are a few days old). Whereas on sites where raw text is foregrounded, I don't get nearly as much gratification (even though I've worked as a professional writer and editor and I feel like in general, I do decently in terms of positive response to what I have to say).

All of that said, for me at least the gratification hasn't translated into sales, even though I see people making sales on there every day with new designs. It still feels good, but it also feels like something I haven't fully mastered if I can't translate positive response into sales.

But yeah, I like even the mild proposed solution of showing me my active time on site or in app, or the number of posts or images viewed for things like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and yeah, even MeFi. Even something subtle—I'm thinking of how full-screen MMORPGs will display the time in an upper corner—could help users self-regulate. Of course, such metrics could just as well help gamify things more, if they feel like rings to collect—even the daily favorites limit on here can be like that, a somewhat gratifying thing if it means you've really given a lot to a particular thread. So this is definitely an interesting set of ideas, and it would be nice to see sites at least consider putting something like this in place.
posted by limeonaire at 10:43 AM on November 29, 2015 [5 favorites]

From ricochet biscuit's post: so it wasn't even a question of some New Zealander or something forgetting about the time zone difference

May I just say that New Zealanders never forget about time zone (or hemispheric) differences. It's the rest of the world that forgets about us :)
posted by maupuia at 10:47 AM on November 29, 2015 [12 favorites]

Mod note: A few comments deleted, let's rewind and just skip having a fight over "Metafilter people are like this"?
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:51 AM on November 29, 2015

Good timing. NYT, yesterday: "Addicted to Distraction"
posted by Apocryphon at 11:01 AM on November 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

We do regulate the internet like alcohol. You can neither drink nor email while driving. And if you're selling it (internet or alcohol) there are a ton of legal requirements you have to fulfill under the pretense that it's helping to prevent customers from abusing it.
posted by anonymisc at 11:08 AM on November 29, 2015

I do not live in a state where it's illegal to email while driving (unless it takes the form of texting and you're a minor). I have a former colleague who frighteningly took advantage of that while driving several of us up a narrow, winding gravel path through the woods (without wearing his seatbelt). [shudders]
posted by limeonaire at 11:40 AM on November 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Having just worked a job that involved online customer service in a very small office, like ricochet biscuit, I can testify that oh yes we are a bunch of fucking pigeons. I never thought I'd be so relieved to return to face-to-face public service where people cannot hector you 17 times via email over a few hours. (They can also see when you're speaking to another customer and do not assume that they are the only speaker on Earth). The emailer in question even said, when it was pointed out to her that she had emailed me 17x in a few hours, "I don't know what came over me. I'm so sorry. I didn't know I was doing that".

Our customers were well-educated professionals on the Type-A side. And a lot of them were elderly; give them an iPhone and the gates of customer-service hell are opened. They didn't know how to unsubscribe to newsletters; they'd say "WHY ARE YOU PEOPLE TELLING ME THIS" etc. They comprehended very little about email communication yet never hesitated to send dumb, haranging messages "From my iPhone". Our Board President consistently emailed people at 2 or 3 in the morning, generally about nothing remotely urgent. "Just wondering..." 'From my iPhone'....

I've seen this behavior in friends who are engineers; highly intelligent yet cannot get the fuck offline even when my relatives were dying or I was coming out of the hospital. Higher reasoning and basic common sense seemed to get highjacked by that evil peck-instant reward process. Pigeons, indeed.
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 12:02 PM on November 29, 2015 [9 favorites]

The people who have IM'd me compulsively (late hours, wouldn't stop, had to say 'get off your phone, stop messaging') were also people who had major substance abuse issues, so this post really hits home. Thank you for a great post.
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 12:18 PM on November 29, 2015

though i'm compulsively commenting here, ahem...Along the Skinner/Pavlov line, I semi-seriously wished there was a phone that could auto-taze or zap its user who messaged/emailed in a badgering way. Like the anti-bark collars that zap barking dogs. Sometimes I think we humans need the same tech. But maybe I just like zapping people.
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 12:43 PM on November 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

That doesn't sound like a problem with email it sounds like a problem with his job.

While there's some really exploitative stuff like F2P game tactics I kinda feel like that's on the periphery of what drives compulsive Internet use. Me, I mostly just read stuff all day - which I did before I had the Internet except now I can do it everywhere so I do. And likewise the communication aspects are habit-forming for social reasons.
posted by atoxyl at 12:53 PM on November 29, 2015

Is this a joke? People are not "addicted" to Facebook, nor are they "tricked" into using social media. They use it for exactly the amount of time that they want. The endless scroll should not be legislated simply because some people are lazy and lack motivation.

You absolutely cannot legislate self discipline. If someone decides to eat bacon double cheeseburgers for every meal until they are morbidly obese, that is entirely their decision to make. I sympathize; bacon double cheeseburgers are goddamn delicious. Should we therefore legislate cheeseburger consumption to protect people from their lack of self control?

People who choose to spend their every waking moment posting incessantly to social media and obsessively checking their "hearts" are doing precisely what they want. If they'd rather do that than practice a musical instrument, or improve their drawing skills, or volunteer to help those in need, then legislating the Internet won't help them. They'll just waste their brief, bright moment of life staring vapidly at something else.

Cat videos, probably.
posted by johnnyace at 12:55 PM on November 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

My colleague in marketing said she had the solution -- we would set up an auto-response on the info line to assure people writing that we would respond within ten minutes.

Did you tell her that was a great marketing idea and you would immediately reduce the marketing budget by the cost of 2 more FTEs plus weekend OT to make it happen? Funny how people don't think ideas are so great once they have to pay for them.
posted by ctmf at 12:56 PM on November 29, 2015 [9 favorites]

This is a frustrating article because it lays out a real problem, and then skirts close to identifying at least one place where regulation might actually address some of the structural issues without being oppressive towards users: The entire analogy of charging for walking through doors, the relentless click-mining, the vast effort expended on getting people to participate in channels which can feed update-addiction-cycle behaviors, etc.: A huge amount of this is founded in a technical situation where users are tracked and surveilled constantly by every service provider who can figure out how.

You want to undermine this excess of manipulative user-hostile brain-hijacking bullshit with a regulatory framework? Ok. Regulate infringements on user privacy. Regulate surveillance. Make unlimited nebulously-consensual data retention and spyware and unsolicited commercial messaging into things with serious criminal liabilities. Put people out of business for spam. Give technical people who don't want to implement shady bullshit a fundamental out ("Bob, I'd love to build you that feature, but then someone would go to jail.") when they're asked to do shady bullshit.

Or, ok, a parallel thought: You want messaging systems and protocols and networks that aren't engineered by shady operators with conflicting interests to totally capture users' attention in exchange for any value provided whatever? You want a way for people to communicate with their friends and families that does not have the deliberate pathologies of Facegoogtwittle? Ok: Aggressively devote public resources to building open, less-centralized, more-secure systems. Fund the software and infrastructure commons.

I'm not going to claim that either approach eliminates the incentives to exploit compulsive user behavior, but both (hard as they would be) would do more to reduce those incentives than the non-starter of asking legislators to mandate particular highly-specific behaviors in app/site and browser UX.
posted by brennen at 1:42 PM on November 29, 2015 [12 favorites]

Drugs is a bad, clickbaity analogy for this. For a serious discussion, he could have used food. There are massive corporations out there designing their chips to exactly produce an instinct to keep eating. Not everyone agrees this is a problem. Nobody would accept "ban eating" as a solution. Nobody thinks that the problem is the existence of food. Etc etc etc.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 2:03 PM on November 29, 2015 [11 favorites]

There are several huge problems with the argument for regulation:

1) It would be extraordinarily complex and would almost certainly violate the first amendment in the U.S.

2) Companies are extremely excellent at getting around such things.

3) The vast majority of people never get addicted, no matter how "good" the companies supposedly are at manipulating us. Casinos often *go out of business*— would this happen if they were able to create an infinite number of gambling addicted people? There's not even any evidence that gambling addiction rates are rising, regardless of a massive increase in opportunities to gamble.

4) Basically, human variety means that what attracts some people repels others.

5) Studies of internet addiction find low rates of it— and those who get the diagnosis
virtually always have other pre-existing diagnoses, just like people with drug addictions.

6) Supply side measures for dealing with addiction tend to push people from one substance or activity to another— if you don't figure out why people are desperate to escape, you're not going to come close to solving the problem. You might reduce harm by getting a heroin addicted person to switch to an internet addiction— but you'll increase harm if you push them in the other direction. Regulation almost never takes account of this complexity.

Not everything that is problematic can be solved by regulation, although it certainly can be useful if it is done right. I can't imagine how that would be possible here though and given the chances for this to make stuff worse, I think there are better ways of dealing with the problem. For one, helping people with mental illness.
posted by Maias at 3:22 PM on November 29, 2015 [6 favorites]

Eh. People choose to waste their time in all kinds of ways. I'm not convinced that spending three hours on Facebook is worse than three hours trying to solve the Sunday crossword.
And to call it an addiction is to do a disservice to people who are physically addicted to substances that are, you know, actually dangerous to them.
posted by monospace at 3:49 PM on November 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

But maybe I just like zapping people.

Settle down there, Stanley Milgram.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:38 PM on November 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

And to call it an addiction is to do a disservice to people who are physically addicted to substances that are, you know, actually dangerous to them.

Declaring that only physical addictions count is a disservice to the people who are mentally/psychologically addicted to anything, as literally any addiction can be dangerous. People have died because of video game addictions, and there's no physical component there (beyond the dopamine hit that anything fun gives you). I work at a gas station and my gambling addicts are exactly as regular as my tobacco customers, and I've watched them toss big chunks of paychecks out of the bank folder and onto my counter, and I know most of them don't have much to spare. I watched one of my worst win a hundred on a $5 ticket, then slowly burn it down over the course of an hour, collecting his diminishing 'winnings' after each round, grabbing twenty's from his wallet to keep it going, and burning it all again. This is common, just usually with $20-$40.
posted by neonrev at 5:39 PM on November 29, 2015 [9 favorites]

Is this a joke? People are not "addicted" to Facebook, nor are they "tricked" into using social media. They use it for exactly the amount of time that they want. The endless scroll should not be legislated simply because some people are lazy and lack motivation.

People's wants can be manipulated, johnnyace, and it's facile to suggest we shouldn't try to look out for the public interest just because people vary in their vulnerability to these tactics. the agents of KAOS makes a great point in comparing this to food. I'm overweight, but I have to eat, and for various reasons, likely some genetic, I'm predisposed to gaining weight even when I eat what others might consider fairly normally. As the agents of KAOS points out, there is also evidence that food companies may be deliberately manipulating processed foods in ways that alter the desires and possibly metabolisms of those who are vulnerable, like me and about two-thirds of adults in the U.S. Yeah, I personally have some confounding factors, too, that could be nature, could be nurture, but that lead me to stress-eat sometimes, and I've had a particularly stressful year. But your analysis, if applied to food, would just say I'm lazy and lack impulse control and that's why I'm fat, and thus I am undeserving of public policy that seeks to remedy even part of this situation.

Well, great analysis, johnnyace. Way to work that science, dude. I understand that this is your opinion, which you're entitled to, but this just seems like the most basic level of "don't be judgmental and dismissive of things you don't understand." This is the exact kind of attitude that helps companies justify their bad behavior and hide behind a mantle of statements like "Well, if self-control is a problem for you, maybe don't smoke," ignoring that there are larger forces at work.
posted by limeonaire at 5:45 PM on November 29, 2015 [8 favorites]

this just seems like the most basic level of "don't be judgmental and dismissive of things you don't understand."

Right, because since I didn't air my dirty laundry, I couldn't possibly have an informed opinion about real addiction.

I simply stated that it's impractical if not impossible to pass laws limiting everyone's consumption because some people have difficulty limiting their own. Freedom means choice, whether that's eating delicious bacon double cheeseburgers for every meal, or managing one's own reproductive system.

I also found the comparison of social stimulus to physical addiction bordering on ridiculous. Social media, in all its pitfalls and pleasures, is, I suspect, far easier to put down than heroin. And I'd argue again that no one is "addicted" to Facebook.
posted by johnnyace at 8:15 PM on November 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Robert Palmer is addicted to love. Perhaps we should regulate that.
posted by dgaicun at 11:16 PM on November 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

5) Studies of internet addiction find low rates of it

Quick check and reported rates are low. Most of the studies I could see seem to have used the tool below, which was adapted from a screen for gambling addiction.

Young’s Diagnostic Questionnaire for Internet addiction

Diagnosis suggested by five or more “yes” answers to:

1 Do you feel preoccupied with the Internet (think about previous online activity or anticipate next online session)?

2 Do you feel the need to use the Internet for increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction?

3 Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop Internet use?

4 Do you feel restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop Internet use?

5 Do you stay online longer than originally intended?

6 Have you jeopardized or risked the loss of significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunity because of the Internet?

7 Have you lied to family members, therapist, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the Internet?

8 Do you use the Internet as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a dysphoric mood (e.g., feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression)?


I've yet to attend a meeting, seminar, dinner, party, you name it, where most people aren't checking their phones/social sites on the half-hour, or at least the hour. At least. (In some of the classes I've taken, when I've sat at the back, there's been a sea of Facebook blue and white on the screens in front of me for the duration of class.)

Almost no one I know is actually trying to curtail their activity, even when it's constant or good as, because constant internet use has been normalized.

If the respondent hasn't bothered trying to stop using the internet, answers to 1, 3, 4, and 5 aren't informative, and 7 (on shame) is unlikely, given that there's no serious or uniform moral injunction against ongoing Internet use (as noted by Western Infidels)

1, 2, 4 - this is totally speculation - I wonder whether internet "sessions" might not deliver the same kind of memorable, spiky, intermittent reward as gambling or some substances. When people complain about feeling compulsion to be online, they mostly talk about losing specific memories of what they found, and losing time, like it's a black hole. I bet it's more like a low-level, rolling hum of little dopamine hills and valleys that's maybe compulsive in a different way than winning $100 on a scratch lottery ticket (or $10k at a casino), or the extremely fast hit of nicotine that comes with a cigarette. I also bet the lows of withdrawal are different.

8 - some people may not have the insight to know they're doing this.

I think it's unquestionable that "the internet" is fundamentally woven into our experience and has probably gotten us to wire our brains in new ways, and I personally think that's problematic for a few reasons, but I'm not sure addiction is the way to frame it, and I'm not sure measures like this really capture what happens, even when people are online all the time and don't want to be. (And I think odds are good that people with pre-existing, diagnosed mental health issues are probably more likely to frame their [over?] use of the internet in terms of pathology.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:38 AM on November 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

And I think odds are good that people with pre-existing, diagnosed mental health issues are probably more likely to frame their [over?] use of the internet in terms of pathology.

That's a fascinating point, and I'd argue the opposite as well -- individuals who haven't been diagnosed with mental health issues are probably more reluctant to attribute their behavior to things outside of their control.

For me, what's frustrating isn't just that the internet is there but that it's unavoidable. There are weeks I miss not having a smartphone, and definitely days I wish I didn't need to have a computer at home.

I have alcoholism on both sides of the family. I deal with it by making a point of not keeping alcohol at home -- I may buy a bottle of wine and drink it, but I don't keep it on the shelf. It's impossible to do the same with the internet. I wish it weren't. Regulation may not necessarily be the solution, but I think this article is pretty good at spelling out the current problem.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 11:52 AM on November 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm a former cocaine and heroin addict, so I know from addiction and I don't think it does a disservice to us to say that the internet and gambling can be addictive. In fact, it does a disservice to people with addiction to say that physical dependence is the most important part of it— that myth led me to think cocaine wasn't addictive (you don't get sick when you quit like you do with heroin) and that once I'd got over the physical dependence on heroin, I'd be fine. (Did that about six times before I actually sought help to quit... all of those times I easily got through the physical withdrawal and a few days later, completely not sick, I said "I can do it again, just on weekends." Of course, that didn't work. It's that psychological drive that matters most).

Regarding the checklist, the reason that you can see lots of people checking email, etc. while they do not think of it as a problem is because if you do not behave compulsively despite negative consequences, you aren't addicted. If they aren't having negative consequences, they aren't addicted: are they checking their phones for fun or because they worry about work or because they are having a socially awkward moment? Either way, the problem is not with the act of checking the phone and it carries multiple meanings.

Regarding dopamine, yeah, certain internet activities, like Twitter, do give you intermittent reinforcement and risk of punishment, which makes them especially problematic for some people.

But in order to count as an addiction, internet use has to get in the way of your life in a significantly impairing way— and that's not happening for the vast majority of people. For example, many people, given greater economic security, would check their email a helluva lot less. Their constant checking isn't a sign of addiction, it's a sign of serious economic uncertainty.

Addiction needs to be understood in context.
posted by Maias at 1:57 PM on November 30, 2015 [5 favorites]

Yeah, I'm just saying that that specific screen might miss or mask use that might be subjectively felt to be problematic.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:45 PM on November 30, 2015

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