Internet addiction

Two years ago, I wrote about research that found that those people who tried to multitask (i.e., switch rapidly between different cognitive tasks) were highly inefficient in procession information when compared to those who did the same work sequentially. They suffered in all three major areas that would be necessary to multitask: the ability to filter (i.e., to detect irrelevancy so as to be able to quickly distinguish between those things that are important and those that are not), the rapidity with which they could switch from one task to the next, and the ability to sort and organize the information in the brain so as to keep track of the results of their different tasks.

But unfortunately people still try to multitask, suffering under the delusion that they are good at it. It seems like they are fretful about missing out on some important development even when the chances of that are highly remote. In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (unfortunately behind a paywall) researcher SuHua Huang studied college students and her findings are discouraging.

Her observations revealed that students seemed to have difficulty putting away their Internet-capable cellphones during class, often keeping them on their laps or in their hands. Some students explained that they needed to do so to keep from missing a message from family members or friends or to pick up extra hours at their jobs.

Cellphone usage in class became so ubiquitous that Ms. Huang said it “reached the point of obsession.” Few of the students she observed followed instructions, took notes, or brought their textbooks to class.

“Many students often asked repeatedly how to do assignments even though the instructors explained several times,” Ms. Huang wrote. Some students completed their assignments and sent them to their instructors in the middle of class.

I never had even the self-delusion that I was good multitasker and the research on its drawbacks convinced me to give up trying altogether. So now when I go to meetings or talks I avoid taking my iPad or laptop because I know I am addicted to the internet and so must take deliberate steps to avoid the temptation to do something else just because my interest momentarily lags in what is going on around me. But I notice that many of my colleagues are openly or surreptitiously still doing this with their electronic devices, so this is not just a problem with young people but with almost everyone who has immediate access to the internet.


  1. CaitieCat says

    It’s such an instant gratification, if it’s a thing you become emotionally dependent on, the hit is immediate, the relief instantaneous, and the next hit just a thumb press away.

    For those who are susceptible to it (and I’m thinking it looks like there are a LOT of them), I could see it becoming a serious problem for some number, because as an addiction magnet, it’s got all the properties of being a solid hook, namely instantaneity and cheap-as-dirt ubiquity (compared to most other addictions of note).

    I know for me, I can’t do MMO games. I’ve tried it twice, with totally different games, and I simply cannot control my desire to play MORE AND MORE AND MORE ALTS until I’m playing ALL THE ALTS IN ALL THE GUILDS AND I JUST NEED TO CHECK THE FORUMS ONCE MORE BEFORE WE CAN GO OUT TO DINNER, DEAR, I AM AFTER ALL THE GUILD LEADER IN…

    So I just don’t play them at all, since I can’t play them sensibly.

  2. glendenb says

    With regard to teens and their phones: I volunteer with adolescents and have had some interesting experiences including one time when we told everyone they had to turn in their phones for a three hour activity. Several of the girls were in tears about giving up their phones. The kids offered a series of reasons they needed their phones all of which boiled down to the illusion of control in their lives. If they had their phones, they imagined they could solve problems. Take away their phones and they experience tremendous anxiety because they experience it as the loss of control. I know it’s illusory – teens have very little by way of resources to be in control which is why they treat their phones like holy objects. The illusion of control is better than the reality that they have almost no control.

    As far as adults? We suck. The irony being that long term focus is good for adults and productivity. I work in a corporation where people will spend half the day dinking around online then suddenly do a huge push and get 8 hours work done in four hours.

  3. MNb says

    1. I am bad at multitasking too, I get confused very quickly.
    2. “the illusion of control in their lives”
    I hate the idea of things like alcohol and computers controlling my life and I have known since long that I am susceptible. Example: I should do a laundry right now and go to the supermarket next, but I’m postponing it. The test is simple, but hard to do: can I do three months without alcohol? An entire evening without my computer? It takes me effort, but I can.
    3. “missing out on some important development”
    If some development is that important it still be a few hours later.

  4. Sophy says

    I do better at meetings or places where I am expected to listen mostly if I have some plain knitting in hand. But at work while I’m on the phone I cannot type a memo at the same time as speaking.

  5. Mano Singham says

    The research suggests that you can do two things if they do not make similar cognitive demands on the brain, and if one of them is automatic, requiring low effort. So knitting and listening can work, unless you are a novice knitter who needs to pay attention to each stitch. But typing and speaking both require verbal attention and interfere with each other.

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