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Suzanne Hegland Headshot

Hyperactive Hyperlinks: Are You Digitally Dysfunctional?

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Last fall I asked my College Writing students to digitally disconnect for 24 hours. That's right: no Internet equals no texting, no tweeting, no Facebooking, no skyping, no web-surfing, not even good old-fashioned emailing.

I'm thinking I might recycle that assignment this September, since clearly the issue is still hot. Earlier this month Newsweek ran a story concluding that the Internet might, in fact, be driving us crazy.

Many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are content to label internet addiction as just another one of those Millennial problems. Sure, we text and tweet and keep up with our friends on Facebook, but it's really those crazy kids with their newfangled devices who need an intervention, right? After all, when I first presented my college assignment to a test group (the two adolescents living in my home) I was met with expressions of horror suggesting I had asked them to literally digitally disconnect -- as in chop off one of their fingers.

And my kids' reaction was a good predictor of my students' experience. They tried it, but as one student explained, "I kept getting panic attacks wondering what I was missing and how I'd ever catch up," echoing the respondent to an MTV survey who explained that he felt "exhausted" by the pressures of social media.

But the Newsweek article makes it clear that this problem is not confined to teenagers and twenty-somethings. Recent research suggests that overuse of the Internet -- that great tool of connection -- might in fact be making us more lonely and alienated than ever. Some studies even posit that Internet addiction might cause severe emotional dysfunction or even psychosis.

And this is not just a US phenomenon. While the Newsweek article quoted studies from a number of US universities, prominent scholars from all over the world also weighed in on the problem. "This is an issue as important and unprecedented as climate change," says one British researcher, who warns that without oversight, we could become a society of "glassy-eyed zombies." Some believe the problem is even more serious in Asia. According to Newsweek, the Korean government, seeing a "grave national health crisis" where as many as 30% of teens are considered Internet-addicted is now paying for treatment centers and attempting a mandatory nighttime ban on Web activity.

Ironically, I first heard about this story by clicking a friend's link on Facebook. I didn't read the article in the print edition of Newsweek, but in their online journal, The Daily Beast. A subscription to Newsweek costs $39 per year. The Daily Beast is "free," as long as you're willing to pay the price of constant distractions. It took more fortitude than I possess to resist clicking on the tempting list of links running down the right hand side of the screen. One minute, I was reading about an OCD study, the next I was on YouTube. I'm a 46 year-old writer and college professor with three Master's degrees and presumably at least some ability to focus, yet here's a partial sample of the links I couldn't resist: "Buzzfeed: Dog Gets Stuck in Sweater, Flops Around Like a Worm." After a minute and thirty seconds of watching an adorable dachshund cruelly but hysterically encased in a human garment, I clicked back to the Newsweek piece, but three paragraphs later I gave in and clicked on this link from Styleist "7 Ways to Spare Your Feet from the 'Summer Spread.'" What the heck is that, I couldn't help wondering as my eyes strayed from the screen to my bare feet. Were they wider now than they had been back in May? Reluctantly, I clicked back to my original site and forced myself to read the rest. As a reward I clicked on the Huffington Post Tech link, because before I could digest a five page article on how the Internet might be rewiring our brain, I had to find out if I was guilty of tweeting any of the "15 Annoying Things We Never Want To See On Twitter Again."

Given my dismal failure to complete one magazine article without straying to the dark side of the hyperlink, it's surprising that only two of my 27 students were unable to digitally disconnect for a full 24 hours. My smug belief that I could teach my students something about the dangers of Internet distraction is a perfect example of the pot calling the kettle black (an idiom I'm unable to explain to them, either, come to think of it).

But here's what I do know: in the pre-Internet days, research for this assignment would have taken weeks, not hours, and would have involved multiple trips to a library large enough to house both mass-market magazines and peer-reviewed journals, not to mention endless thumbing through the card catalogs and wandering among the stacks. Hyperlinks to quoted sources and Google Scholar make inter-library loan about as anachronistic as the blips and bleeps of Morse code.

Like many pleasures in life, use of the internet requires moderation. But as most dieters can attest, quitting drugs or alcohol is easier than permanently losing weight because we don't (theoretically) need alcohol to live, but we do need food. For many of us, quitting the Internet is not just unpleasant, it's impossible. Like the morbidly obese unable to control their portion sizes, Internet addicts -- regardless of age -- sabotage the nourishment we can get from responsible internet use. Digital connection becomes a toxic drug when we're unable to keep our focus and separate real time from screen time.

Full disclosure: while writing this post I read and responded to eight texts, checked Facebook four times, my work email three times, my personal email twice, and (most damning), clicked around an unnamed celebrity website for over twenty minutes.