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Internet Detox Diary

Posted by Dr. Suzanne Koven  April 23, 2012 06:40 AM

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mysmarphone-addiction.jpgIt's estimated that the average American adult stares at screens at least eight hours a day. Though I barely watch any television, I'm still sure I'm doing my part to keep the numbers up.

All day long at work I check patients' lab results, enter data into their electronic charts, and send and receive e-mails. That would be troubling enough, in terms of concerns I've explored previously about what's been called "distracted doctoring."

What's been worrying me more lately, is the possibility that I may be addicted to the Internet and--if the numbers of patients I find sitting on exam tables, half-naked, surfing the web is any indication--I'm not alone.

When did I start worrying?

Maybe it was when I began waking up in the middle of the night, reaching over to turn on my phone "just to see the time," and checking e-mail and Facebook...at 3:19 am.

Maybe it was when I found myself wincing while reading an article about people who have decided to give up their smart phones. One of them was novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, who chucked the thing after he realized he was checking e-mails while bathing his young children. (My children have long bathed themselves but, too often lately, I speak to them from behind a slice of lit-up, apple-adorned white plastic).

Maybe it was when I barely noticed that an hour had passed as I clicked from e-mail, to Facebook, to Twitter, to various news outlets, and back again--chasing my proverbial cyber-tail, just in case I missed something new on one site while looking at another site.

But are these signs of addiction?

This is a topic of great debate now among mental health professionals, as they compile the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM V), the bible of psychiatric diagnoses, the next edition of which is to be released next year. Calling Internet overuse an "addiction" would have both medical and legal implications: it would become a condition in need of treatment, and a possible criminal defense.

The DSM V authors will have to consider several questions in deciding whether to call Internet overuse an addiction. These are summarized in this article and include:

1) Is excessive use often associated with a loss of sense of time or a neglect of basic drives (like eating)?

2) Is there withdrawal, including feelings of anger, tension, and/or depression when the computer is inaccessible?

3) Is there tolerance, including the need for better computer equipment, more software, or more hours of use?

4) Are there negative repercussions, including arguments, lying, poor achievement, social isolation, and fatigue from excessive use?

In my own case, I was pretty sure I'd experienced #1; hankerings for an iPad covered #3; and, though #4 seemed pretty dramatic, I had to admit I'd sometimes felt an odd combination of exhausted and jittery after too much screen time and, yes, even during pleasant interactions I often wished I could be alone so I could get back to my laptop.

The only way to test for #2, withdrawal symptoms, was to withdraw.

So last weekend I unplugged for 24 hours.

After one (two, three...) last farewell check-ins, I didn't look log on from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday.

The results of my little experiment surprised me.

Though there were a few moments early Saturday morning when I felt a little tempted (my phone rang and I noticed a Facebook message was waiting...that could be important!) I found my screens surprisingly easy to resist. In fact, I felt better than usual: more relaxed, more focused. I read a difficult book with greater concentration than I'd mustered in ages, I chatted with my husband, I groaned through the Yankees/Red Sox game. I was engaged.

Granted, my research is hardly scientific--talk about a small sample size!--but it validates the opinion of the sizable contingent of mental health professionals who believe Internet overuse may be habit-forming or compulsive, but not, strictly speaking, addictive behavior.

Have you ever tried to kick the on-line habit? Tell me about it!

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Suzanne Koven, M.D. practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. She writes a monthly column for the Globe's G Health section and her essays have appeared in the More »

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