If you ask an alcoholic who is not yet sober if they have a drinking problem he or she might respond by saying: "don't worry -- I have it under control." When asked about overuse of all things digital, those of us who work and play tethered constantly to PCs and cell phones will probably say the same. But the statistics reveal something different.
A Harvard study concluded that five to ten percent of people online are described as suffering from overuse of the Internet or being "web dependent." Assuming eighty percent of Americans are online, that means between twelve and twenty million people have at least a mild addiction. By comparison fourteen million Americans are said to have problems with drinking -- eight million of which are considered to be Alcoholics.
Closer to home a 2007 report by Kelton Research concluded that three out of five Americans spend more time at the computer keyboard than they do with their significant other at home. It's not surprising given the fact that Americans spend an average of 15 hours a week online, not to mention three hours a day on a cell phone.
Like the fish not realizing it lives in water, more and more of us are blissfully unaware of how overly reliant we have become on the digital world. During the early years of the Internet and mobile phones, it was easier for naysayers to make themselves heard. As computer and mobile device use has reached near ubiquity, the critical voices have become fewer and further between.
When almost everyone is an addict those who aren't using suddenly become the ones with the problem.
And because conditions like Internet Addiction Disorder and the up-and-coming Facebook Addiction Disorder are so new, there is little realization that these are potentially serious addictions and few places which offer treatment.
I wonder what would happen if scientists proved conclusively that cell phones cause brain cancer and that no amount of exposure was safe? Would people (myself included) actually put down their phones or would they prefer to risk it?
The easy answer to handling digital addictions is self control. In other words it's really about deciding to spend time with the family instead of shutting off the computer, and choosing a walk outside over one last Facebook posting, email, or Tweet.
Let's be honest. That doesn't work for most people. It's as unrealistic as thinking a drunk sitting in a bar can say no to one last drink.
Not that everyone who is an active user of all things digital needs to seek treatment or be deprogrammed at a treatment camp (yes, there are such things). But we do need something more than band aid solutions when it has been proven, for example, that texting while driving is actually worse than driving drunk and real people are dying as a result of uncontrollable texting habits.
So what is the solution? Well, it's like any other addiction. First we need to realize that there is a problem. Next we should develop mutual agreements with our families, friends and colleagues about how much time we spend online and with our devices. It's always easier tackling addictions when you are not alone.
For the more extreme cases we need Alcoholics Anonymous style self help groups (preferably not online) and more widely available formal therapy and treatment centers. The underlying causes of "digital drunkenness," like any other addiction, need to be exposed and dealt with.
No, the Internet and mobile technologies are not inherently bad, and no they should not be abandoned altogether. Unlike gambling and alcoholism going cold turkey is not a choice. But just like with treatment of an eating disorder, overuse of social networking, texting, and online games, etc. can be modified and a balance achieved.
It's time to face up to our digital addictions.
So do yourself a favor. Don't Facebook or Twitter this piece. Instead take a moment to step away from your computer, take a deep breath, and as yourself honestly -- "do I have a problem?" If you're like me you probably won't like the answer.