Why the internet is hard to put down
The following is an excerpt from Log Off, available now on paperback, Kindle, and audiobook
The “king complex.”
That’s the reason it’s difficult for many individuals to leave the internet—even for as little as a few hours in the evening, over a weekend, or on vacation. In short, the internet makes us feel like kings.
“Bring me this,” I demand, and it does. “More!” I say. It complies. “Still more!” It does not disappoint. “Let me watch, this, that, and the other.” Each time, I ask, it delivers, because it’s endless. When I run out of requests, I move to new subjects and interests.
In the event the internet is unable to supply what we ask of it—say, a physical experience, creation, or sensation—it will simulate that experience as often as we like from all possible angles: videos, photos, secondhand observations and reviews by those who have actually experienced what we’re after.
As you can see, the internet offers power, or at least the illusion of it. That’s the real reason the internet is so addicting. For the first time in human history, everyday people can convincingly simulate the experience of kings and exercise dominion over their own fantasized corner of reality.
Hence, the internet gets abused, more by some than others. But it’s not the internet’s fault. It’s ours. As with all things in life, humans abuse power. The internet just happens to be the latest and greatest abuse of power.
In addition to making us feel powerful, the internet tickles our need for socialization. For instance, I tell it, “Show me how many people I know, and make me feel like I’m involved in their lives.” Thanks to social media and take-anywhere smartphones, the internet can do that now, too.
But it comes up short. When socializing on the internet, we really only interact with traces of humans (e.g. a typed artifact left long ago, such as an old email or an even older online comment), often at the expense of real-time correspondence.
Consequently, the vast majority of one’s online time is spent in isolation—well more than 90 percent by some estimates. In other words, it’s lonely at the top for online kings.
How could this be? Why would an otherwise social creature willingly subject themselves to loneliness, isolation, and stale social interactions in pursuit of virtual reality?
The answer is dopamine, a rewarding chemical the brain releases that causes us to want, desire, and seek out favorable experiences. From an evolutionary standpoint, that’s a good thing, since seeking keeps us alive better than sitting around in a satisfied stupor.
But under the extreme conditions of excessive internetting, dopamine becomes a problem. “It starts us seeking, then we get rewarded for the seeking, which makes us seek more,” explains Dr. Susan Weinschenk, a respected behavioral scientist. “It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, texts, web links, or our smartphones to see if we have a new message or alert.”
Which explains why the last time you went online in search of a simple answer, you may have found yourself several hours later clicking on links that had nothing to do with your original search. “It’s the same system at work for gambling and slot machines,” concludes Weinschenk. “Since dopamine is especially sensitive to dings, visual alerts, or any other cue that a reward is coming, it sends our system into a rage.”
And so we stay online, on our phones, and on social media longer than expected. We unknowingly neglect the more meaningful offline relationships and experiences. It’s science.
To be clear, the internet is a phenomenal resource—the penicillin of my generation. But we’ve abused it. We’ve corrupted it. And we’ve gotten big-headed as a result. “I was a winner online, but a loser offline,” one recovering user recently confessed to me.
Although more “connected” than ever before now, we’re also more detached than ever before—all because of the king complex that many of us wrestle with everyday.
It’s time we kill the king.