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2011. 4. 12. 07:24

Miss G.: A Case of Internet Addiction

Virginia HeffernanVirginia Heffernan on digital and pop culture.

There are certain popular diversions — television, video games, the Internet — that we pursue so deliriously we end up hating ourselves for loving them. Others we brightly recast as the duties of citizenship: newspapers, public radio, sports.

All the while, cottage industries crop up to freak us out about our every last cultural pursuit. In recent years, it’s Internet use that’s been styled as potentially sick, and “Internet addiction” a new reason for self-hatred.

If you’re inclined to worry about your habits, you may have already stumbled onto a strange and influential self-evaluation questionnaire by Dr. Kimberly Young, a professor of business at St. Bonaventure University. Though Dr. Young developed the test in 1998, early in Web life, it still dominates the Google returns for “Internet addiction” and steadily stirs up anxiety.

Dr. Young told me she believes the Internet is addictive in part because it “allows us to create new personalities and use them to fulfill unmet psychological needs” — which sounds worrying except that art, entertainment and communications systems are designed explicitly to permit self-exploration and satisfy psychological needs.

The way the test loads the cultural dice in favor of reality over fantasy should make hearts sink. In the hierarchy of the test, any real-world task or interaction, no matter how mundane or tedious, is more important — and, worse, ought to be more fulfilling — than online fantasy, research or social life. “Do you neglect household chores to use the Internet?” one question asks, and undone laundry is later cited as a warning sign. “How often do you block out disturbing thoughts about your life with soothing thoughts of the Internet?” goes another question.

Can this really be science? (And might another psychologist find something to admire in a person who quiets his mind with mere thoughts of the Internet?) I wondered whether other habits of cultural consumption were considered pathological enough to inspire tests. The Web carries a few tests for television addiction, and none for movies. Over on, there are no tests, only recordings to order.

In general, if a pastime is not classy, those who love it are “addicted.” Opera and poetry buffs are “passionate.”

Virtually all non-work activities have, at one time or another, been represented as craven and diseased. Opera obsession leads to delinquency in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 film "Diva" ; an intense movie habit deepens the alienation of the hero of Walker Percy’s 1961 novel “The Moviegoer.”

Novels themselves, now the signature pursuit of the sound and literate mind, have also been considered toxic, as in the 1797 analysis, “Novel Reading, a Cause of Female Depravity.” The 18th-century worry about female literacy is not unlike the contemporary anxiety that Web use above all makes girls vulnerable to “predators”: “Without this poison instilled, as it were, into the blood, females in ordinary life would never have been so much the slaves of vice.” Taken together, these warnings against the very stuff that makes life worth living often seem either like veiled boasts (“I’m addicted to the symphony!”) or just absurd.

So why are authors and educators hellbent on using this shopworn rhetoric when it comes to Internet use?

Gabriela Gabriela

Two weeks ago, I met a professed Internet addict, a 20-year-old college student in New York named Gabriela. (Like many addicts, she preferred that only her first name be used.) One of Gabriela’s professors had told me she slept with her laptop, and was wired in the extreme. She told me she had taken Dr. Young’s test and was worried about her Internet habits.

In e-mail, Gabriela struck a note between irony and concern as she described her symptoms. She told me she keeps an extremely late bedtime, sometimes 4 a.m., because she’s up noodling around online.

She then described a typical surfing session: “I’ll be on Facebook and see a status update of song lyrics, and I’ll Google them and find the band name, that I will subsequently Wikipedia and discover that the lead singer is interesting and briefly look at his Twitter and try his music on Grooveshark” — a music search engine and streaming service — “while looking at pictures of him on Tumblr” — the multimedia microblogging platform — “that will lead me to a meme I’ve never heard of that I’ll explore until I find hilarious photos I will subsequently share with friends of mine on Facebook.” Gabriela, who sometimes dresses in the futuristic Victoriana known as steampunk, also loves Webcomics, a site for graphic novels and comic books, and Neopets, a game that lets players care for virtual pets.

She indeed sleeps with her laptop in her bed, “partly so I can have my iTunes play my Sleep playlist.” Even on the Sabbath, when she refrains from Internet use for religious reasons, she talks and thinks about the Internet. She told me she considers surfing the Web not so much a regimen but “a state of being” that, like a meditative state, took her years to achieve.


Aha. I’m no addiction expert, but Gabriela strikes me as a bright, self-effacing, religious young woman who keeps student hours and prefers logic games, jokes, graphic novels, trivia quizzes, music, Victoriana and socializing on Facebook to prefab pop bands.

This kind of Internet use isn’t usefully described as an addiction, even if there’s some shirking of chores and insomnia to it. Fantasy life and real life should, ideally, be brought into balance — but no student who’s making decent grades needs to get off the Internet just because it would look more respectable or comprehensible to be playing chess, throwing a Frisbee or reading a George Orwell paperback. The Internet as Gabriela uses it simply is intellectual life, and play. She’s just the person I’d want for a student, in fact — or a friend, or a daughter.

It’s no accident that “search” is the dominant metaphor of the Internet. And it’s no accident that the Internet attracts a certain kind of young, dreamy mind at some liberty to find itself — the type that in earlier eras might have been drawn to novels or movies. As Binx Bolling puts it in “The Movie goer”: “What is the nature of the search? you ask. Really it is very simple; at least for a fellow like me. So simple that it is often overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”

A version of this column appeared in print on April 10, 2011.

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