Kicking the Internet habit

When I worked for newspapers, I often would get home from work late at night, flop down on my sofa and start flipping through TV channels.  Even when I didn’t find anything I liked, I would sit in a mindless stupor and keep on going through the channels.  The next morning I would wake up tired and wonder why I wasted my time this way.

Nowadays I hardly ever watch television, and I only subscribe to the Basic cable service.  But sometimes I duplicate this mindlessly addictive pattern in my Internet use.  I go mindlessly flipping through different web logs, even though I’m not looking for anything in particular and don’t find any new or interesting information.

Scientific research indicates that just as people and animals can become conditioned to seek pleasure, they can be conditioned to seek novelty.  Other research indicates that the most effective form of conditioning is random reinforcement.  You keep trying even when there is no reward because (as the New York Lottery ads say) hey, you never know.

I enjoy writing on this web log, and am pleased that there are people who find it interesting, but sometimes it becomes an obsession, too, taking away more than is good from the rest of my life.   My reward is the number of page views.  I am conditioned, I supposed, to seek approval, even the approval of people I don’t know and will never meet.

I don’t want to make too much of this, but I am reminded of the devil Screwtape in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, who tells his nephew that the most elegant form of damnation is to lure the subject away from doing what he ought to do to something that does not even give him real pleasure.

The on-line cartoonist “xkcd” posted ideas on how to break out of this conditioning.

I made it a rule that as soon as I finished any task, or got bored with it, I had to power off my computer.

I could turn it back on right away—this wasn’t about trying to use the computer less.  The rule was just that the moment I finished (or lost interest in) the thing I was doing, and felt like checking Google News et. al., before I had time to think too much, I’d start the shutdown process.  There was no struggle of willpower; I knew that after I hit the button, I could decide to do anything I wanted.   But if I decided to look at a website, I’d have to wait through the startup, and once I was done, I’d have to turn it off again before doing anything else. … … …

There’s some interesting research about novelty and dopamine, suggesting (tentatively) that for some people exposure to novelty may activate the same reward system that drug abuse does.   In my case, I felt like my problem was that whenever I was trying to focus on a (rewarding) project, these sites were always in the background offering a quicker and easier rush. I’d sit down to write code, draw something, build something, or clean, and the moment I hit a little bump—math I wasn’t sure how to handle, a sentence I couldn’t word right, an electronic part I couldn’t find, or a sock without a mate—I’d find myself switching to one of these sites and refreshing. 

Reward was briefly unavailable from the project, but constantly available from the internet.   Adding the time-delay removed the promise of instant novelty, and perhaps helped disconnect the action from the reward in my head.   Without that connection dominating my decisions, I could think more clearly about whether the task was really important to me. … …

It was remarkable how quickly the urges to constantly check those sites vanished.   Also remarkable was that for the first time in years, I was keeping my room clean.  Since the computer was no longer an instant novelty dispenser, when I got antsy or bored I’d look around my room for a distraction, and wind up picking up a random object and putting it away.

Click on Distraction Affliction Correction Extension for the full post.

Click on Resist Virtual Reality Addiction for the thoughts of young “Frost” on his Freedom Twenty-Five web log.

Click on How to Read for more of Frost’s ideas.  I don’t follow any of these suggestions myself, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good.

Click on The Acceleration of Addictiveness for the thoughts of entrepreneur-essayist Paul Graham.

Tags: ,

2 Responses to “Kicking the Internet habit”

  1. Anne Tanner Says:

    Then add a second addiction, such as my genealogy, and you are in real trouble. I’ve started requiring myself to walk for an hour after my initial survey of web sites in the morning. Clears the head, strengthens the body, makes me happy.


  2. Ben Taylor Says:

    Randall Munroe (the artist you quoted) makes an excellent point: the instant gratification of Google encourages us to follow-up on the slightest curiosity. Since the number of hypotheses one can invent for any situation is effectively infinite, through the web have a limitless number of rabbit holes to run down. On an unrelated note: ponies!

    I doubt it’s universally practical for everyone who struggles with their computer to follow Munroe’s rule, but people have been developing alternative tools such as a Firefox to block or delay links that you haven’t white-listed. Since this HCI problem has only become recognized recently these tools are not as convenient as they might become, but it wouldn’t surprise me if someday they’re as common as the automatic shift.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: