Preventing Internet Addiction: Is the Goal Abstinence or Balance?
In my first post on Internet Addiction, I began with a distinction that is central to defining and classifying addictions: The distinction between addictions to substances such as drugs or alcohol, and addictions to behaviors or processes such as shopping or gambling. In this post, I’d like to introduce a second important distinction, one that is relevant to issues of prevention and treatment. The distinction is that some of the things that we become addicted to are not essential to staying alive or living a full life, such as drugs, alcohol, and gambling; I will call these “Addictions to Non-Essentials.” In contrast, sources of addiction such as food, sex, shopping, and (increasingly) the Internet, are either required to sustain life or to participate fully in contemporary culture. I will refer to these as “Addictions to Essentials.”
In the case of addictions to non-essential substances and processes, managing the addiction is a challenging, long-term proposition. At the same time, it is conceptually simple because one can utilize an abstinence or full-avoidance model as practiced in twelve-step programs like AA or NA or gambling anonymous. However, when dealing with addictions to essentials, an abstinence model is either deadly (as in the case of food) or severely limits the individual’s social adaptation (as in the case of sex, shopping, and Internet use). With respect to Internet Addiction, can you imagine a therapist treating individuals struggling with this condition by suggesting that they permanently get rid of all of their devices (analogous to giving up their stash of drugs and drug paraphernalia), terminate their accounts on all digital platforms and services (analogous to cutting ties with all of their dealers) and never going online again (analogous to staying perpetually clean and sober)? Unless the client expresses a desire to become a member of the Amish community or join a radical, back-to-the-land, eco-village, this would constitute malpractice in contemporary culture. Clearly, in the case of addictions to essentials, the focus of treatment is for the client to continue to be involved with the source of the addiction, while struggling to achieve a healthy balance between engagement and freedom. This goal is often referred to as “Sustainable Use.” In sum, the central question regarding addictions to non-essentials is (with apologies to Shakespeare) simple but profound: “To use or not to use?” In contrast, with addictions to essentials, the question is more complex and nuanced: “How, and how not, to use?” In a sense, whether we are diagnostically addicted to the Internet or not, this is a question that all of us must face as our lives are increasingly enveloped by the Internet.
So how do we go about achieving an optimum balance between our involvement in the physical and the digital world and preventing Internet Addiction?
Promoting “Realm Balance” in Normal Development
The concept of balance has been central to models of psychological health and adjustment throughout the modern history of psychology. In the first half of the 20th century, Freud, Jung and other psychoanalytic theorists defined mental health in terms of the balance between internal psychological forces such as biological drives, morality, and reason. After World War II, the speed and complexity of society dramatically increased and the challenge of balancing work, relationships, and individual needs became an additional element in considerations of psychological adjustment. Now, with the advent of the Digital Age in the 21st century, human beings are confronted with a third major issue of balance, what I have termed “Realm Balance” – the challenge of simultaneously participating in two realms of experience, the physical world and the digital world, in an integrated and effective way. What makes this challenge so daunting is that, while we have doubled the spatial context of human culture by adding cyberspace to physical space, time has remained constant. This is the larger human challenge in which Internet Addiction is embedded.
In my view, our best chance to address the challenge of realm balance and limit the prevalence of Internet Addiction is to take a developmental perspective. Consistent with the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association, I believe we should severely restrict access to digital technology during infancy, toddlerhood, and early childhood — the critical period for the formation of primary attachment relationships, language development, and basic social interaction – in order to ensure that children are anchored and comfortable in the physical world before exposing them to the digital world in a significant way.
Then, starting with kindergarten or first grade, I would introduce a curriculum that mixes digital and physical experiences and helps the child develop an internal model of realm balance. On one hand, students would learn the basics of computer hardware and devices, the workings of simple software and operating systems, and even begin to learn a simple coding language using sequences of Legos in order to begin learning skills that will help them thrive in a post-industrial world. At the same time, children would have whole periods of the day devoted to physical development, and classes designed to promote emotional development, social skills, creativity and imagination, in order to maximize their ability to function effectively with other people in the physical world. To make time for this curriculum, I’d cut anything that involved rote memorization of facts that are better stored in the cloud and accessed via online searches and any instruction in skills that have been rendered archaic and obsolete by software.
During the years of primary school education, the family could also begin to loosen the strict constraints imposed on digital experience that were recommended earlier in the child’s life, while still maintaining meaningful limitations on digital usage. Some strategies for promoting realm balance in order to help prevent internet addiction for children (and to a great extent, all of us!) are:
- Spatial – establishing “Internet-Free Zones” in the home, car, or in outside social settings like restaurants, or spending time in natural environments without Internet connectivity.
- Temporal – designating certain hours of the day, or an entire day during the week (sometimes referred to as a “Technological Sabbath”), or entire vacation periods, as “Internet Free Times.”
- Behavioral – participating in activities such as exercise, meditation, mindfulness, and yoga that reconnect the individual to the physical body.
It should also be mentioned that some websites and apps have been designed to limit the use of technology by sending notifications to the user when they have been on the site for more than a designated time period or even have a time-based shut off function integrated into the software. In addition, new digital assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home utilize a voice interface that allows the user to execute many online functions, such as playing music, searching the web, placing calls, and sending texts without being tied to a screen. The transition underway from a “screen based” to a “voice based” interface is significant because it enables the user to negotiate cyberspace without limiting freedom of motion for the hands, eyes, and body. In a subtle but significant way, this preserves a better balance between the digital and physical domains.
Hopefully, by following these developmental guidelines in the family and the educational system, the child will reach adolescence with an indelible stake and competency in the physical world, along with skills and comfort regarding the tools of the computer age. That is, he or she will have a living experience of realm balance — one that is structured into his or her way of approaching the world on a deep, unconscious level. This will give the child the best and easiest chance to avoid problematic levels of Internet use later in life.
But what happens if this integration doesn’t occur and the person’s life is dominated by digital experience? We will consider this in our final post on the treatment of Internet Addiction.
Richard Gilbert is Professor of Psychology of Loyola Marymount University and the Founding Director of The P.R.O.S.E. (Psychological Research on Synthetic Environments) Project, a research lab that investigates the psychological and cultural impact of leading-edge digital technologies such as virtual and augmented reality and artificial intelligence. In 2011, he and his colleagues published the first article ever written on addiction to virtual reality, virtual worlds, and the emerging 3-dimensional Internet.