The Internet has proven to be mesmerizing, and the tide of its usage is rising exponentially. In the mid-1990s, a psychiatrist coined the term “Problematic Internet Use” (PIU) as a joke, but with one in four adults using the internet to the point of disrupting their daily functioning, most people would recognize internet addiction as a very real and relevant problem today. Proliferation of apps and devices to share experiences and to tap the growing volume of digital information is removing barriers to being online all the time, prompting catch phrases like “digital anarchy” and “look down generation.” For many, checking their device for messages or using some other app is the first thing they do when they open their eyes in the morning.
The internet is so mesmerizing that many people can’t seem to put down their phones even when they’re driving, and other situations where the choice to remain glued to an app puts themselves and others in danger. One recent study in the UK reported that over 40% of people reported walking into something while using a phone, and another study reports dramatically higher pedestrian mortality rates associated with walking and texting, especially with children and teens.
Aside from these physical dangers, increasing internet use is taking a toll on the cognitive and psychological functions of populations as well. The constant switching of attention by checking email, texts, following hyperlinks, notifications, etc. is impairing the capacity to concentrate and stay focused on tasks for any amount of time. The pattern of internet and smartphone usage is reducing the average amount of time spent focusing on a single activity as 11 minutes in one study, and as low as. I 2 minutes in another. In another workplace study people reported losing as much as 60% of their workday productivity to such interruptions. “Digital dementia” refers to the way in which people are thinking less for themselves and relying more on googling for solutions. The capacity to read, the capacity to focus and concentrate, the capacity to reflect, imagine, to develop empathy, and possibly overall intellectual capacity are all skills that are being eroded through the way we use the internet.
Finally, having one or more gadgets that is literally on hand all day (and sometimes nights) is disruptive to connection and presence, two qualities that are critical to happiness and well-being. This is troublesome, but particularly concerning when it interferes with the development of social skills in young people. Teens and young adults who may feel shy or self-conscious in social contexts might feel it is easier or less emotionally risky to interact with others with a screen mediating between them.
Mindfulness is both a desirable skill and a series of systematic steps that can help people develop presence and greater self-awareness. It provides a means to interrupt the addiction to reactivity, novelty-seeking and preference for virtual, as opposed to real, reality. It can be an antidote to people who are getting disconnected by grounding them in their own body. Starting with self-connection and improved social connections with others, mindfulness can provide a path to a sense of vitality and well-being.
Mindfulness-oriented psychotherapy and adjunct treatment may be critical if the internet is related to as a virtual reality that provides a form of distraction or escape from a person’s real life and functioning. Like any other addiction, it could be that internet addiction has taken on a life of its own and vigorous treatment such as inpatient hospitalization or residential rehabilitation is needed to break the addiction. However for most people, it could be as simple as being aware of the impulse to check the device and reducing how often you reach for it. It could be relaxing by taking a walk instead of surfing the internet, or talking to someone on the telephone instead of testing or emailing.