Detractors of the cyber world frequently focus on sensational stories to make their point that video games, online social networking and the Internet are destructive. They thrive on stories of people dying from blood clots after not moving from the chair during 20-hour gaming binges, or parents leaving infants unattended while they play World of Warcraft. The Internet and even the mainstream media are full of such anecdotes, but they represent an incredibly narrow slice of the actual situation.
The much larger tragedy can be found in the lives of ordinary, working parents whose relatively modest online time cuts in to connecting with their children. Mitch, father of three, worked 45 hours a week at his job, came home every evening, ate dinner and then logged on to the computer. Most of the time, he was in search of deals for parts and accessories for his 1968 Mustang convertible. Two hours a night might not sound like a lot, but this was prime time that, in his own words, “I should have been spending with the kids.” His two younger children were in bed before 8pm, so he hardly spent much time with them at all. “I finally figured out I had a problem,” Mitch said, “because exhaustively searching for car parts was more important than spending time with my family. But, I couldn’t stop.”
Mitch’s seeming inability to stop speaks to the lack of impulse control that can accompany cyber behaviors. This gets to the heart of addiction: knowing something is bad, but doing it anyway. Paul, another married member of my cyber recovery groups was unhappy in his marriage, but saw no way to improve it, in addition to feeling like a failure in his life. “I pay the bills and provide for my family,” he said, “but there’s no glory. My dreams in life are all but dead, and my wife holds me in quiet contempt.” Seeing no chance for improving his lot, Paul chose escape, playing Internet poker 3-4 hours a night, and luckily not playing for real money. But the stakes were high, as he tuned out his wife and virtually ignored his children. They could talk to him between hands, but he wasn’t really available to them.
People like Mitch and Paul pursue their cyber-mediated rewards because there’s something they’re not getting out of life. They struggle, however, to figure out exactly what it is. Unhappy and unfulfilled, they sabotage their chances for better lives by temporarily escaping.
Sure, there are extreme examples of addicts whose cyber behaviors lose them jobs, relationships, and their health. But those pale in comparison to the tens of millions whose lives languish in self-imposed mediocrity because they settle for online distraction and never get to the point of confronting the reasons underlying their dissatisfaction with life.