An 18-year-old’s exploration of ‘Internet addiction’ in video

By Anne Collier

In a series of man-on-the-street interviews, one young woman’s answer to the question, “Do you think you’re addicted to the Internet?” was: “Yes…. Twitter. I can’t get off of it.” Another responded, “I love creeping on Facebook. I never post; I’m just always creeping, creeping, creeping [also called “lurking,” looking at people’s comments, likes, photos, etc.].” A third said, “I just run to the videos, the weirdest videos. I can spend all night watching them.”

But 18-year-old Irish filmmaker Eoin (sounds like “Owen”) Corbett went a lot deeper for his 20-min. documentary Internet Addiction and Me. He also asked this question of himself – before and after completely unplugging from the Internet for 30 days – and of three friends, who agreed to participate in the experiment and each stay totally offline for a week.

He started his Net-free month thinking, “I’m probably more addicted than I think I am,” and I won’t spoil the ending, but what he discovered was both a bit complicated and definitely anti-climactic. He realized he’d “built it up in my head as being a bigger thing than it really is.” That probably has a lot to do with how the society and media culture around him have represented “the Internet” to him and his peers (not much different from US society). So both complicated and anti-climactic is about right, because the Internet is so many different things and its use so very individual (see this about youth-and-social-media researcher danah boyd’s book It’s Complicated).

Seeking an expert’s perspective

How smart of Eoin also to take his investigation to the CyberPsychology Research Center, where psychologist Ciaran McMahon told him “we really don’t know what it [the Internet] is yet.” He took Eoin back to the mid-’90s, when the conversation about Internet addiction started, pointing out how much the Net has changed since then. “Every day it’s different,” Dr. McMahon said, “you never go back to the same Internet twice…. Maybe we’re not talking about ‘Internet addiction’,” he added, suggesting that what people may actually be referring to is impulse control.

What Eoin really comes away from this interview at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin (coming back to it at the end of his film) is the importance of presence. McMahon told him, “When you’re in a social situation, and I think it’s really important for parents of young children to establish a rule that the people in front of you are more important than the people on the Internet.”

Eoin’s own exploration turned up very little evidence of the impulse control McMahon referred to. He was a little surprised to find he didn’t actually miss being online much during his month away.

Watching ‘the weirdest stuff’ on TV

On the entertainment side, he did at first find that he missed the way the Net allowed him to tailor it so exactly to his own interests. He found that TV simply took over where “the Internet” left off during his month away. “I find myself watching the weirdest stuff, the stupidest stuff … all this stuff I have no interest in, watching it just because it’s on” (doesn’t this sound a little like our mass-media childhoods?)…. I’m watching Ice Road Truckers. I’m not interested in ice or the road or truckers, but [ever the optimist] it should be good.”

Ten days into his month offline, he asks his parents what they’re seeing. You can barely hear them, but the upshot seems to be that they like having him around – downstairs watching TV (somewhat ironically while they’re in the next room watching not Netflix not TV) rather than upstairs in his room.

So this was interesting. There seems to be a trade-off in entertainment now that’s pretty common but not given much thought: The more customized or tailored to you your entertainment is, the more solitary it is. Even with Eoin off the Net and downstairs, his parents aren’t watching TV with him. Their entertainment interests are different, and they’re opting for those on a screen in the next room.

The value of stopping to think on it

Eoin’s friends – Aoife, Adam and Lia – illustrated how individual entertainment (not just Internet use) is too. During their week away, each had a different experience. Aoife was really bored because her No. 1 form of entertainment is socializing with friends online, and she had to lay off that. Lia focused more on how backed up she got with her schoolwork because it was so dependent on Net use, while Adam found his school-related productivity increased. Lia also found that she talked with people in person more “and everything’s a bit more relaxed, slow-paced.”

Clearly, the one value that they all derived was stopping to think about it. They all seemed to appreciate what they learned about themselves as well as technology upon taking the opportunity to stop and reflect. Besides Dr. McMahon’s comment on presence, that’s probably everybody’s top take-away. It’s the reflection (and articulation) part of experiences online or offline that turn them into experiential learning. Unplugging is fine, but it’s not the goal. It’s the means to the kind of learning and reflection that increase self-awareness, one of the five social-emotional competencies that contribute to academic, personal and social success.

Were Eoin ever to read this review, my only suggestion would be to redo the first 25 seconds – cut right to, “Can I, a self-professed Internet addict, live without the Internet for 30 days?” Because starting with “Internet addiction is becoming a serious problem, especially for young people” is starting with a hypothesis based on a widely accepted fear that has become a cliché. Good for you for investigating that for yourself, Eoin! You turned that introductory statement into a question in the rest of your film, why not question it right from the start, rather than restate a cliché? Maybe parents and educators will take a cue and challenge that statement too. [Thanks to my friend and colleague Tito de Morais of in Portugal for pointing Eoin’s video out.]

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