Caught in the Net

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Kim’s essay uses narration and definition to focus on Internet addiction. This essay predates Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Skype, and smart phones. How has our definition of Internet addiction changed?

Caught in the Net

“Hello. My name is Kim. I’m an online-aholic.” There. I’ve said it. I guess I’ve been addicted for quite some time now, but I have just begun to realize it.

My first interaction with the “Net” began when I was only 15 years old. My dad was the computer coordinator at our school, so he wanted to try Internet access at home before installing it at school. We became America Online members in 1993. None of my friends had email back then.

My relationship with email started like a Romeo/Juliet conspiracy. I experimented with the Net on the sly at night when the rest of my family was sleeping. That’s when I first created my own screen name. Although I was too young to drive, the locked doors of adolescence were suddenly flung open before me. I could be social in the evening rather than hang out with my family—the typical family that every adolescent wants to escape from. Hanging out in chat rooms became a nightly ritual. I quickly found friends who would meet me there, give advice for my adolescent problems, and discuss things such as dating, theater, religion, morals, and entertainment. I began to form emotional attachments with these new friends. In fact, I maintained two online relationships for over two years.

Raul is a Hispanic teenager living in one of the roughest cities in our nation, Compton, California—the filming location of the 1991 movie Boyz ’N the Hood. I met Raul in a chat room one night. He sent me an instant message in the middle of a discussion about religion and asked what I believed. My subsequent chats with Raul seemed to have an impact on him and helped me to grow in my own faith. I occasionally took Raul’s questions to my preacher or Bible teacher when I needed further explanation. For Raul’s 18th birthday, I sent him a Bible that I bought with my paper-route earnings. Raul and I wrote each other for two years, and then Raul had to sell his computer. I haven’t heard from him since.

Brian is a middle-aged high-school theater teacher in Bowie, Maryland. He answered one of my message board posts about an upcoming audition for our school’s performance of The Sound of Music. I was 17 years old at the time and greatly desired a part in the musical. Brian had expert advice for how to nail the audition, and as a result I was cast in the role of Maria. Needless to say, we began to communicate regularly via email. My high school drama director had very little experience, so I wrote Brian regarding my struggles with developing character. Brian has written on numerous occasions about coming to see me perform, but it hasn’t happened yet. Instead I mail him videos of my performances. We have been writing for four years now, and I never perform without reading advice from him before going on stage. To this day, he is still my mentor, even though I’ve never seen a picture of him or heard his voice.

Perhaps communicating with my new friends wouldn’t have been so bad except that I went online nightly. I remember my morn coming out of her bedroom at 2:00 a.m., her eyes unaccustomed to the light, her hair tousled from sleep, and her robe wrapped tightly around her cold, sluggish body. “What are you still doing up?” she would ask. “Go to bed!”

Now that I’m 20 years old and in college, not much has changed. I still stay up late writing email, only now I don’t have anyone to tell me to “go to bed!” I can disguise my Internet addiction by going to a computer center and frantically typing away at a computer terminal. Little does everyone else know how often I’m not doing school research or paper writing; instead I’m aimlessly writing emails or chatting with Internet friends and family hundreds of miles away.

The Signs

I recently took an online “Internet Addiction Test” to diagnose the severity of my problem. The test included 10 symptoms of Internet addiction. I evaluated each symptom carefully and related it to my own life.

  1. Uses online services everyday without any skipping. Well, yes, this is true. The first thing I do when I wake up every morning is log on and check my email. I have a daily electronic newspaper and weather report waiting for me (delivered at 7:30 a.m. just like our tangible newspaper at home). My computer stays logged on all day, and the last thing I do before I go to bed is check my email again, just in case there’s a message waiting for me. I figure, Why let an email wait unopened when I could just as well read it now?
  2. Loses track of time after making a connection. This is true of me also. Just the other day I sat down by my computer after classes were done for the day. I had an hour before choir, and a whole pile of reading that needed to be done. I’ll just quickly check my mail, I thought, and then I’ll do my reading. Instead, I ended up doing email and Internet browsing for the entire hour and was even two minutes late for choir. Countless times I’ve said “only one more minute” to myself or to friends who ask how much longer I’ll be playing on the computer—but quite often that “minute” turns into hours.
  3. Goes out less and less. Not true. I still have a very active social life. Perhaps I spend less time on homework due to Internet use, but not less time socializing.
  4. Spends less and less time on meals at home or at work, and eats in front of the monitor. Occasionally I eat my lunch in front of my computer—but that’s just good time management, isn’t it? On these occasions, I am pressed for time to get to my next class, so I eat and do my email at the same time. There is the small problem of crumbs falling into the keyboard or greasy fingers brushing the tops of the keys, but I don’t worry about these things when I want to check my email.
  5. Denies spending too much time on the Net. What? I don’t spend too much time on the Net!
  6. Others complain that you spend too much time in front of the monitor. At home, my mom often complained about my time in front of the monitor. While my family watched football around the TV on Sunday afternoons, I had personal chats with friends online. Now that I’m away from home, my roommates tease me about my time online. But I acknowledge that I do spend twice (maybe three or four times) as much time online as do all of my other friends and roommates.
  7. Checks the electronic mailbox too many times a day. I estimate that I check my email 20-30 times throughout the day. Quite often it’s just out of habit when I enter or exit my room—it’s so easy to click the “Get mail” button. Perhaps it’s too accessible for me. I can check my email as a study break in the middle of an assignment, or when I have 10 extra minutes before class. My friends ask if I get discouraged when I check and don’t have mail. I don’t. Sure, I’d like to see new mail appear rather than “No new messages on server,” but maybe I’m used to it by now. With an average of 10 messages received per day, I’m used to not having email every time I check.
  8. Thinks he or she has the greatest Web site in the world, and dies to give people the URL (Internet address). Nope, not me. I don’t have my own Web site. (But if I knew how to create one, I think I’d be interested.)
  9. Logs onto the Net while already busy at work. In regard to schoolwork, yes, I check my email or go to the Internet several times while busy on other assignments. I find that my Internet use is most frequent when I’m procrastinating over an urgent assignment or when I’m waiting for an idea to “hit me.” I dodge the pressure of schoolwork by exercising the power I have online to communicate with others or locate mountains of useless information.
  10. Sneaks online with a sense of relief when spouse or family members are not at home. Not anymore. I’m pretty open with my time online. However, I do find myself secretly hoping that other people think I’m studious—doing homework—rather than writing another measly email.

Cold Turkey

The results of this “Internet Addiction Test” indicated that I answered yes to 7 of the 10 symptoms and “may very well be addicted to the Net.” I was shocked! Sure, I spend more time online than most other people I know do, but I never realized that my time on the computer could become an addiction. It was at this point that essayist Askold Melnyczuk’s words hit home: “Technology is addicting: the habit is hard to break. Like heroin, it feeds on our wish to escape the limits of time and space; and it consumes us.”

In response to this discovery, I decided to take a 24-hour break from the Net—a standstill on email, instant messages and Web surfing. I told my roommates of my decision and found a sign affixed to my computer screen the next day, holding me to my word: “Stay strong, my friend! 24 hours is only one day. You can do it! The clock is tickin’! NO EMAIL marathon. The messages will still be there…”

It wasn’t easy going cold turkey. Every time I walked into my bedroom, my hands instantly clenched as that obtrusive sign prevented me from taking a minute to “Get mail.” While I did go to bed earlier—not allowing myself to check for the latest arriving messages at 1:00 a.m.—I hated this moratorium, and I complained about it to my roommates. When the 24 hours were finally up, I ran back to my room and clicked on my cherished “Get mail” to find 12 new messages waiting.

After this 24-hour marathon, I realized that I had real friends in cyberspace. Without the Internet, I compromised my ability to stay in touch with these people. I enjoy communicating through instant messages with my mom and brothers. Just the other night I had three small windows on my screen: one from my brother in California, one from my brother here at college with me, and one from my mom. I was able to chat with all three at the same time—for free! I guess I’m just not quite ready to go cold turkey.

Final Evaluation

I wonder how many frequent Internet users have taken time to evaluate how the technology has impacted their personal lives. I wonder how many of those who have considered its impact have permanently pulled the plug, cut the wire, and tossed out the computer, and how many others, like myself, took a short vacation, then ran back to the sleeping monitor.

Like me, many college students are attracted to the unrestricted, free, and unlimited Internet access available on campuses across the nation. Psychologist Kimberly Young of the University of Pittsburgh-Bradford said, “College counselors are starting to see those students who can’t stop surfing the Net at the risk of jeopardizing their grades.” So far, my problem has not become this big. My grades are not slipping, and I am not in need of counseling.

I admit that I’m addicted to spending time on the computer, and it is difficult for me to go without it. Yet I refuse to completely reject the medium just because my use of it is somewhat irrational. The Internet provides me with a practical form of communication and offers an easily accessible source of information. I enjoy spending time online. I have not substituted Internet relationships for real-life relationships, and my Internet addiction is not a threat to my financial and emotional security, so I don’t see a problem with it.

However, if I ever do find that I’ve gone over the edge, I know I can email Dr. Young at her Web site (www.addictionrecov.org). Or I can go to a weekly meeting place for Internet addicts, a chat channel called Addictions.com. After all, Internet junkies always know where to turn online for help.

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