So, Uh, How Do I Know If I'm Addicted to the Internet?

I don't think my addiction is hurting anybody, but it's prrrrrrobably annoying a lot of people.

Feb 7, 2012 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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In middle school, my health teacher once passed out a worksheet headed "OK Ways to Get High."

It included your garden-variety natural pick-me-ups (Call an old friend! Play with a pet! Jog!), alongside some cult-y sounding, '70s-era bits of clueless-dad idiocy (Bang tuning forks together and enjoy the hum! Roll down a hill until you're dizzy! Jesus. Be cool, worksheet.)

Underneath the list was space for us to write our own "OK" ways to get high, to be shared with the class. As I recall, I got points off for writing "Eat a shit ton of nutmeg." I was sort of a jerk. Then.

Upsettingly, I've thought back on that major L7 of an exercise just as often as Ms. Landi hoped I would.

As great as natural rushes are, I wonder sometimes if some of my favorites aren't just as addictive as the hard stuff. I realize it's all a matter of personal experience, but a lot of little pleasures can be slippery-slope propositions. See: collecting, aerobics, eating danishes, cat ownership, video games, "Video Games" the song, red wine, sex, and on. For me, it's my boyfriend: the Internet.

Okay, maybe I'm not Internet addicted. I'm just what we'll call "Internet annoying."

We've all read about this kind of dependence by now, it's on par with "shoe shopping" on a danger-to-yourself-and-others level. It isn't physically harmful, barring the threat of deep vein thrombosis, and becomes "a problem" when it interferes with your health or job or personal relationships. Is it still a negative, addictive behavior if it's only kind of sad and obnoxious?

My private life hasn't suffered because of the Internet per se (other than the fact that I'm Forever Alone, but that's probably not the Internet's fault). Job-wise, it's so tied to my productivity that it's hard to say where it's interfered with it. Connectedness is so essential to work and leisure these days that it isn't necessarily something that you know to click off and cover with a sigh at quittin' time.

When I visit my technophile family, we've developed this weird, unspoken rule: Whoever isn't messing with her phone gets to be holier-than-thou and yell at whomever IS messing with her phone for ruining Family Time. But that's also the high-sign for all of us to pick up our phones and start messing with them. Because if you're going to sit here and play Words With Friends at a sushi bar instead of enjoying each other and this beautiful fish, well by God, so am I. Out come the tablets, down go our heads, exeuent conversation.

I won't initiate Internettery when I'm spending quality time with someone, but I have no problem sitting in a room with a friend I haven't seen in weeks while we quietly check our email, compare the doings of our exes and peruse the Awl. I've lost whole Sundays I meant to spend cleaning my house to Hulu and D-Listed and Crime Library. I've also gotten into the bad habit again of conducting most of my social interaction on Twitter and Facebook.

We can recognize when other people -- strangers or college friends or colleagues on Facebook -- are being needy or compulsively overshare-y, because of the sheer density of their Onion headlines or mirror photos or Runkeeper postings in our feeds. But, like a lot of self-awareness issues, it's harder to recognize when it's you who's fallen down that particular rabbit hole.

Usually, I'll realize I'm being The Worst after I've

- emailed all of my friends our horoscopes (with commentary)
- unwittingly dedicated two browser tabs to my Twitter crush
- liked ALL of my friend David's pictures of his daily lunches
- screenshot a text conversation with David about his lunches and posted it to Tumblr
- posted multiple successive status updates about a liter of Diet Cream Soda. Ha! I just keep putting it back in the fridge like I'm not just going to drink the whole thing. Think I'll have another glass! Ha ha, what won't I do.

This kind of K-holing, such as it is, kind of comes in waves for me, but every once in a while, I notice a spike that gives me pause. A couple weeks ago, I moved to the country. Well, okay, not "the country," per se; it's a commuter town close enough to New York City that I can come in for meetings or brunch or just to buy a bag of those nuts I like from Trader Joe's. But I live alone, far-ish from my friends and co-workers, and I rarely talk to other people during the day.

Luckily, it's difficult to be totally disconnected these days, and because I'm kind of a social network dork, I've been supplementing my lack of actual human face-time with even more Internet time.

Even though the isolation was intentional -- I wanted to be someplace quiet with lots of space to work -- the adjustment to having limited human interaction has gotten sort of science-experiment-y; Facebook has become my wire monkey mother. I've found myself wanting to get out of the shower to post a Tweet, or feverishly checking my iPhone and swearing because my coverage is bad and I just posted a picture of myself riding a fiberglass horse and maybe somebody has commented on it.

I'm a social person by nature, so for me, going on Facebook too much is kind of the equivalent of somebody on a desert island writing HELP on a beach with rocks.

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But it's my house, not an uncharted archipelago off the tortugas where I become super thin and learn to spearfish. It's self-imposed solitude, which is totally healthy. It's what I cam here for! But, jeez, is it proving difficult to embrace.

The recent post here about getting validation through social media struck a chord with me. But I don't post status updates so much for the "likes" as for the personal echo they create.

It's remarkable how much you need others to note that you Are, in the small, stupid ways that somebody might if they were sitting beside you. But no one is around even to be indifferent to my inanities, so I post them on Facebook. Working from home is admittedly great, but I forgot how much I liked being in an office, someplace where my cubemate would comment when my sandwich smelled weird. Now, I find myself broadcasting that stuff via social media: Hey, world! My sandwich smells!

It's the act itself, but any resulting comments or likes are the equivalent for me of somebody saying, Oh, hi, Julieanne. I continue to acknowledge that you exist. Thumbs up.

But, okay. Why do I need that? I run smack into enough doors and lampposts on a daily basis to know I'm not a ghost. I have the option to go to a bar, or to take the MTA into New York and have dinner with friends or creepy Internet strangers or my one local sister, whenever I want. Yet instead, I'll be working on my house on a Tuesday night and I'll find myself pausing my iTunes "home improvement" playlist to post about paint. PAINT.

The part that worries me is that compulsion. It feels the same as getting out of bed to furtively peel back the foil on a loaf of zucchini bread you swore you were going to stop eating a day ago. Not that I've done that. I just watch a lot of TLC.

I've read those New York Times trend stories about phone-and-computer free Buddhist retreats where people go to unplug for days at a time with a kind of impotent envy. What would I be like, I wonder, if somebody physically took my computer away from me? You know, the same way my high school boyfriend said he wished somebody would kidnap him and lock him in a basement for just long enough to get over his craving for KOOLS.

The yearning for some mean yogi to come steal my notebook and phone is a futile, bootless one. For one thing, I would never spend my precious vacation days on someplace where there wasn't a beach or at least a jacuzzi. (Alpinists: sorry but I don't understand you and I never will.)

And two: Even when I do go on vacation, I have to bring my laptop. I write for a living, and I mean that in both the practical and the fruity feelings sense (God, I hate me sometimes). I'm freelance -- if I don't write, I don't get paid, but I also write in my leisure time. I'm not a complete asshole so I don't do this on a typewriter, and a lot of it naturally necessitates copious use of the Internet.

Professional obligations aside, asking me to take a day without opening a text doc or consulting an Internet encyclopedia would be like asking your average teenager to take a day off from spankin' it.

Go ahead and extract whatever perimasturbatory connotations you care to from that. But trying to get social satisfaction from the Internet isn't even healthy like masturbation is, because there's no convulsive, ultimate moment of satisfaction. Furthermore, if you're doing it right, masturbation shouldn't irritate other people and make them sad for you.

For me, the line between addictive behavior and a good old fashioned endorphin high is "something I'm doing that happens to induce a high" vs "something that I'm doing for the high." Something, in the case of updating my Facebook too much, that irritates my friends and makes me look kind of pathetic. You know, like the way flashing your breasts in a bar doesn't hurt anybody and feels good for that one second where everybody's WOO!-ing. Then there's nothing but the lingering moment of shame for having solicited and accepted Bad Attention.

But even pitting one high against another is squicky for me. I once heard a comedian discuss how Twitter has supplanted abusing controlled substances for him. He couched the high he gets from the response to a good joke as a lesser-of-two-evils, but I'm not sure that he even thinks of Internet approval as an evil to begin with. It might not be, for him, which is great and fine. But I think it is for me. Personally, relying on the Internet to keep from being lonely is like eating kleenex instead of food.

I know, I know, Real Addicts. When compared with more dangerous and destructive behaviors like abusing sex or drugs, changing my profile picture three times a week is small potatoes. It all brings to mind the "Marijuana is not a drug!" scene from "Half Baked." Although, I used to smoke pot, and it's nothing compared to having a hot dude thumb up your insipid status update.

But I don't think a response to my hourly dispatches about watching "Downton Abbey" in my underwear should in any way constitute a "social behavior" for me.

Interacting on the Internet isn't the same as interacting with people, any more than porn is sex. And from somebody who loves porn as much as an Internet fiend like me does, that's probably a signal to take a breather.