The first thing most people do when left alone is browsing their social media feeds and checking the news. They are not asking "How to overcome internet addiction?"
Instead 99% of what they look at when browsing the net will mean nothing to them after a few minutes.
We all know that we are probably spending too much time online.
But what almost no one understands about this topic is how to stop internet addiction.
It's not using willpower and motivation that help you to overcome your bad online habits, it's delay discounting. That's a technique based on science that you can use to temporarily block certain websites even if you need the internet on a daily basis.
Internet addiction is a complicated topic. Even Facebook admit that using their service might have negative consequences.
It's time to go back to the basics and take a look at the science of addictive behavior.
Afterwards you'll learn all about the tools and strategies (like delay discounting) that will help to stop wasting time online and develop better habits.... long term.
While online tools can be amazingly useful, being addicted to your smartphone or computer can have a lot of unintended consequences. Especially if you need the internet to work...
In this article you'll learn...
- 1Why internet addiction is too complex to understand even for really smart scientists. (and why you should not care).
- 2A simple and unique way to overcome smartphone addiction that you never heard before.
- 3A surprisingly effective way to become more productive when you open your MacBook or work on your computer that will help you to get things done without getting distracted.
Let's dive into the topic.
Part 1: What Is Internet Addiction?
The truth is that researchers still can't tell you exactly what Internet Addiction Disorder is.
The best way to describe internet addiction, also known by the term "Pathological Internet Use" (PIU) is to let an self-diagnosed addict from reddit describe it in his own words.
An Internet Addict Shares His Story on Reddit
The first I do after I wake up is browse social media for at least an hour. And when I go to bed, I also browse social media for another hour or so. And 99% of what I look at during those times will mean nothing to me after 15 minutes.
[...] I can't go a full 15 minutes without looking at my phone. I procrastinate easily because I check so often. I literally get anxious when I hear my phone buzz and I don't check it straight away. I don't know why either. I can still check it later and see the exact same thing. I won't be punished because I didn't look straight away.
When I'm sitting somewhere along with other people, my default go-to is to look at my phone and hide. I'm sort of kicking myself thinking back on all the times that I could have started a conversation with someone and possibly gotten a lot out of it. In general, I've preferred staying at home and using the internet or my phone to 'hide away' rather than going out and just doing something, which would be way more productive than looking at meaningless content for hours on end.
I honestly think it's affected who I've grown to be as a person too. There's no doubt that I've unintentionally become less sociable, less approachable, and overall less interesting because of how I use the internet and my phone. I've opted out of doing things that would have made my life much better in retrospect and chosen to hide in looking at useless content instead.
I think my relationship with how I use my phone and the internet needs to change.
Internet addiction is a complex topic because it touches a lot of different areas in people life. It's not like this user from Reddit is acting like a heroin addict but he feels a huge negative impact in his daily life.
Due to the complexity there are so many different words trying to describe different aspects of internet addiction. You will hear terms like...
Cyber addiction, web addiction, net addiction, online addiction, technology addiction, smartphone addiction, social media addiction, compulsive internet net use, Facebook addiction, YouTube addiction, gambling addiction, internet gaming disorder, internet sickness, internet overuse, shopping addiction, porn addiction, dopamine addiction, technology obsession, etc. ...
If you look for it you'll probably find a dozen more definitions.
Why Is It so Hard to Define Internet Addiction?
Most research on this topic is not methodologically sound. This is due to the fact that studies lack big enough samples and are designed in very different ways. All this has lead to inconsistencies across studies from various scientists. That's the main reason a standardized diagnosis of Internet Addiction Disorder has not been discovered yet.
If nobody seems to even get these basics down, it is not surprising the research quality still suffers.
Depending on which scientist you ask only 0.3% of the population are addicted or at many as 38% . There is no way to tell how many people have internet addiction.
Source: Internet Addiction Disorder - Signs, Symptoms, and Treatments, Internet Addiction Disorder, https://www.psycom.net/iadcriteria.html
For something to be official, it has to be agreed on for diagnostic manuals, such as the ICD-11. For something to be recognized as a mental disorder in the U.S., that would be the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (the DSM-5).
Research into this disorder began with exploratory surveys, which cannot establish causal relationships between specific behaviors and their cause
It does not surprise that “problematic Internet use” disorder doesn't exist in any form in the DSM-5. Of course, researchers have an interest to promote their work widely, since their entire career is based upon this. Therefore you'll find some big media companies (who often don't haven’t a clue), which go with the most outrageous, eye-catching headline a study with limited sample size produced.
Internet Addiction is no more an “official thing” today as it was when it was first introduced as a joke nearly two decades ago.
That does not mean no one looked at this topic. To quote John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
Literally, there have been hundreds of studies published on “Net addiction” or “problematic Internet use.” Most of them are, quite plainly, crap. They suffer from fatal flaws or constantly-changing definitions and rely on psychometric measures that are not very good.
That's the reason why there is not even a standardized test you can take to diagnose internet addiction. To quote Mr. Grohol again:
The most commonly used assessment, the Internet Addiction Test, lacks “rigorous and systematic psychometric investigations.” It also has construct validity problems — a core component of a test’s psychometrics.
As he points out. The critique of the problems with the research into this phenomenon is still true today as it was a decade ago:
The three main problems with the existing research on PIU are the challenges regarding the general conceptualization of PIU, the dearth of methodologically sound studies, and the lack of a widely accepted assessment measure with adequate psychometric properties. There continues to be a lack of consensus in the research regarding the definitional and diagnostic base for PIU, which has lead to inconsistencies across studies and posed challenges for the identification of optimal treatment options. [...]
Most research on PIU to date is not methodologically sound due to difficulties with sampling and research design. The majority of studies involve self-identified convenience samples of problematic users or student samples, which significantly biases the results (Byun et al., 2009; Warden et al, 2004). [...]
There is no assessment measure of PIU that is both psychometrically sound and widely accepted. Most of the existing measures have adapted diagnostic criteria from other psychological disorders to PIU and lack adequate psychometric properties. [...]
Watch out for the Symptoms of Net-Addiction - Don't Take Rely on Internet Addiction Tests
That means we, unfortunately, we cannot rely on research. If you think that Internet Addiction ruined your life, a classical test will not help.
However, there is something else you can do.
Take a look inside and be honest with yourself.
Do you sometimes act and feel like something must be wrong?
Is there any chance that you are addicted and downplay the consequences? Only because everyone around you is doing the same?
To help you get started, you can look at these common symptoms that seem to be correlated with surfing too much.
Even if there is no general consensus. There are a lot of warning signs to discover "If internet addiction is real for YOU".
Let's take a look at the signs and symptoms of internet addiction.
Do you experience a few of them?
The signs that you want to look for can occur both in the physical and emotional realm.
Here is a list of possible emotional and physical symptoms that were published on PSYCOM that are related to your internet addiction problem.
Emotional Signs of Internet Addiction:
- Feelings of guilt
- Feelings of Euphoria when using the Computer
- Inability to Prioritize or Keep Schedules
- No Sense of Time
- Avoidance of Work
- Mood Swings
- Boredom with Routine Tasks
Physical Symptoms of Internet Addiction
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
- Poor Nutrition (failing to eat or eating in excessively to avoid being away from the computer)
- Poor Personal Hygiene (e.g., not bathing to stay online)
- Neck Pain
- Dry Eyes and other Vision Problems
- Weight Gain or Loss
Of cause it does not mean that all to symptoms are connected or even caused by using your computer or smartphone too much.
Another problematic indicator is the time and frequency you go online.
How do you even know if you are surfing too much?
Let's take a look at this common question that a lot of people ask themselves.
Do I spend to much time online?
This is another question that leads nowhere.
Why? It does not help because the question if you are spending too much time online, can only be answered in context. It's definitely not a way to answer the question: "How to know if you are addicted to the internet?
The only way to know is to look at your personal situation. You need to view the time you spend online in relation to your current life situation.
Time alone cannot be an indicator of being addicted or engaging in compulsive behavior.
Time must be taken in context with other factors.
In this day and age, the internet is a basic necessity to have a functional and normal social life.
It depends on your occupation. It's a difference if you are a plumper doing physical work all day long or if you're a college student, Ph.D. student or writing a book that needs a lot of research.
Another important factor to consider is whether you have any pre-existing condition such as another mental disorder. A person with depression is more likely to spend more time online than someone who doesn't suffer from this.
Ask yourself whether you have problems or issues in your life which may be causing you to spend to much time on the internet. If you are suffering from a severe condition you should seek professional help.
Conclusion: Talking about whether you spend too much time online without your specific context is useless.
Why Is the Internet so Addictive and Why the Benefits of Technology Do Not Outweigh It's Costs
Let's take a look at how internet addiction is formed and enhanced by companies like Facebook & Google, SnapChat, and their peers. To dive a bit deeper into this topic let's take a look at Silicon Valley.
Don't be surprised that there are people teaching startups and other companies how to make people addicted.
Of course, they don't call it this way. They call it "habit-forming".
The most prominent expert on "habit-forming" online products and services is Nir Eyal. He spent years in the video gaming and advertising industry where he learned and applied techniques to "motivate and influence" users.
Basically what he does is to teach companies how to make their users addicted.
That does not mean he's a bad guy.
In fact, he has very good intentions and his talks on Youtube are worth watching. After all, he proposes a similar approach to deal with internet addiction as I do. He just does not like to call it an addiction.
The core problem here is that he thinks that "The opportunity cost of not using these technologies to improve people's lives is immeasurably high. That's a much more worrisome problem than the negative aspects of the technologies people generally worry about."
That's the major flaw a lot of technology enthusiasts make. The opportunity cost of not realizing potential benefits are speculative, while the costs are already real.
Of course, there is opportunity cost of not using these addictive technologies but at the same time, it's very probable that the bad consequences of technology addiction may outweigh potential benefits.
That's because the traditional approach to risk management in business and our society has significant flaws as Nicolas Nassim Taleb points out in his book "Anti-Fragile".
We are only able to see risks that we have already seen or can imagine. This can be labeled as “managing risk through the rear-view mirror”, and does not address unexpected risks that may (or may not) outweigh the "immeasurable high possibilities to improve people's lives".
Of course, it's good if some software makes it easier to adopt healthy habits for some people. However, as Adam Alter noted in his book Irresistible:
There is a fine line between behavioral addictions and helpful habits. [...] Addictive levers work by boosting motivation, so if your motivation is already high there's a good chance those levers will compromise you well-being.
In most cases, it's better to stay away from habit-forming software completely. The benefits are very often negligible.
We all know that changing habits is never easy.
The struggle is part of the journey to personal growth and well being. This struggle will make you stronger longer-term. (Sidenote: I wrote about the long-term effects of "helpful" software here.)
Summary: Software might help in the short-term but makes you stupid in the long-term.
How Companies like Facebook and Snapchat Are Making You Addicted - the Hooked Model
Online services like Facebook, Youtube and Snapchat and a lot of other tech companies use the "hooked model" to make you addicted to their service.
For companies, there are a lot of benefits to this approach. When they attach internal triggers, their "users" show up without any external prompting.
Instead of relying on expensive marketing, habit-forming companies link their services to the users' daily routines and emotions.
A habit is at work when users feel a tad bored and instantly open Twitter. When you feel lonely or stressed you open Facebook without thinking about it.
Nir Eyal answers the question pretty straightforward:
How do products create habits? The answer They manufacture them.
Today, tech companies can profoundly change behavior by guiding "users" through a series of experiences he calls hooks. The more often users run through these hooks, the more likely they are to form habits.
In other words, if you use these online services without awareness you are likely to form a behavioral addiction by design.
The hooked model typically consists of 4 phases:
- Variable Reward
Triggers can be external or internal. External triggers are things like an email, notifications or an app icon. Imagine a friend is uploading a picture to Instagram. You see it and click on it. Over time you form internal triggers, which you attach to existing behaviors and emotions.
When you start to cue your next behavior, this becomes a new habit really fast.
After being triggered by the trigger, you are asked to perform some kind of action. For you like the picture. Maybe you click on it and see the whole album of your friends holiday. For companies to be successful they have to make it really easy for you to take an action and you need to have some kind of motivation to perform the action.
Next comes the reward. You'll see more pictures of your friend. What distinguishes this addiction model from a typical feedback loop is the ability to create a craving.
You won't form a behavioral addiction if the feedback loop is predictable and does not create desire. Instead, it's more like a gambling machine. You don't know what kind of pictures you see when you scroll down your feed. Many pictures, status updates, and ads may be boring but there are some rare gems that you really enjoy (or hate).
The last phase of the addiction model requires you to do a bit of work. Maybe you leave a comment on the picture. (And don't know if your friend will reply or like your comment). Maybe you upload pictures to Instagram as well.
When you invest some time and effort it's more likely that you pass through this cycle again in the future.
Investment can mean anything. Time, data, effort, social capital or even money. Ideally, this helps the company make the service better. More pictures and more friends using the service to make Instagram even more exciting. You learn which pictures will get more likes, you learn how to shoot better pictures and use there features to add special effects to your photo.
Why Behavioral Addiction Will Not Go Away Soon and Will Be a Problem for Decades to Come
There are a lot of ways to stop computer addiction but especially start-ups form the tech industry will use this problematic model in the next years to design products that become more and more addictive.
It's just too profitable.
Of course initiatives like Tristan Harris "Time Well Spent" are helpful and might even help to ban the worst addiction levers.
However, companies are making way more money by making you addicted to their products.
As Paul Graham, a famous investor from Silicon Valley noted:
"Unless the forms of technological progress that produced progress in general, the world will get more addictive in the next 40 years than it did in the last 40."
And Nir Eyal warns us:
If used irresponsibly, bad habits can quickly degenerate into mindless, zombielike addictions. - Nir Eyal
Can you imagine a public company staying away from this proven model for success and say to their shareholders:
"We know our products are addictive for some people. Let's make them less addictive. This would only mean we lose a big chunk of our revenue but we're making the world of a better place?"
I don't think so.
How to Fight the Companies That Are Spending Millions to Perfect Their Additive Online Services and Products?
If we want to continue using the internet we have to find a way to deal with this. We need to find a way to break the habit loop that most of us have developed and made us addicted in the first place.
And yes, I believe we need apps and software to fight back if we want to continue using apps and software that make us addicted.
The secret is to inject awareness before the hooked model makes us addicted.
For this, I developed a two-step approach.
First, we must overcome our smartphone addiction.
Because most of us are within one arm length away from our phones 24/7 this is the first place we need to tackle.
Once we have established a less addictive approach to using our phone we need to find a way to use the internet on our computer.
Reduce Proximity and Exposure by Design
I discovered that overcoming my smartphone addiction was "relatively easy" while it was way more difficult to deal with internet addiction on my computer.
Especially when I wanted to get work done and engage in deep work habits.
For most people, the computer is still the place where we can work most efficiently.
The big advantage of using a computer to access the internet is that it's LESS convenient and therefore easier to not use the internet too much.
The whole approach is based on reducing proximity and expose to the internet and our smartphones.
This will remove most of the triggers that start the addictive hooked model. It will also make it much more difficult to engage in the 2nd step of the model and perform the action tech companies want us to take.
By designing an environment that removes the trigger or and makes making the action much more difficult, I was able to overcome my internet addiction.
If you follow this you will be able to do the same.
The secret ingredient I used is something I stumbled upon in Kelly McGonigal's book "The Willpower Instinct" and it's called Delay Discounting.
Delay discounting is a mind trick recommend by behavioral scientists to fight internet addiction.
Researchers found out that the longer you have to wait for a reward (e.g. checking your favorite social media site or playing a game online) the less it is worth to you.
The reason is that your brain chooses immediate gratification at the cost of future rewards because immediate rewards trigger the older, more primitive reward system and its dopamine-induced desire in the brain.
To make this work and to delay gratification, the prefrontal cortex has to be forced to cool off the promise of the reward.
The reason is that even small delays can dramatically lower the perceived value of any temptation.
In practice that means your urge to visit Facebook, Reddit, Youtube etc. or playing a game has only a narrow window of opportunity to overwhelm your brain.
As soon as there is any distance between you and the temptation, the rational part of your brain takes over and it becomes easier to deal with your internet addiction. For example, even putting your phone on airplane mode and putting it in the drawer will work.
This works because you are getting further away from the source your addiction and reduce proximity and exposure.
However, putting my phone in the drawer wasn't enough for me.
That's why I had to take some more sophisticated measures to make access to my smartphone and the addictive websites and apps more difficult by using website and app blockers.
This worked pretty well for my smartphone but when tried to copy apply this approach on my computer I failed.
There was no software that was built for short-term delay gratification on my computer. So I had to develop my own software which I called FindFocus to make this approach work and break my internet addiction.
I think it's time to add a disclaimer:
The solutions presented in this guide are based on my own experience and my self-diagnosed internet addiction.
To make delay discounting work I use external apps and my own software to make it more difficult to access the internet other addictive services and apps.
I'm no professional. I suffered from online addiction and saw it impacting my ability to be productive.
Internet addiction did not completely ruin my life. However, it was holding me back more than I still dare to admit.
If you have a life problem or are struggling with a disorder such as depression, seek professional treatment for it. Even if PIU is no official mental illness no one can deny it's a growing problem. Many therapists know this and will be able to help you.
Part 2: How to Overcome Smart Phone Addiction?
How you want to use your smartphone is the most important thing you need to address. Period.
The problem that makes it so hard to deal with your smartphone is that it's such a universal powerful device.
You can easily fool yourself into finding a reason why you have it close to you 24/7.
At the same time t