Are We Addicted to Stories About Internet Addiction?
Confession: I got distracted midway through Tony Schwartz’s much-read New York Times op-ed “Addicted to Distraction” over the weekend. No obvious reason. My phone was out of reach on the kitchen counter. My iPad—I don’t know where my iPad was. I was reading the Schwartz essay in front of coffee and toast. My kids were contentedly dismantling the bookcase. It was one of those fugitive moments of Sunday calm when I can actually read a thoughtful sociological argument from beginning to end. Instead I looked up halfway through. Turned the page. Scanned some headlines. Reached vaguely for another section. Then another.Schwartz might say my attention span—like his—has been hopelessly shredded by an addiction to the Internet. I do spend most of my waking hours engaged with one screen or another. Schwartz, who is the CEO of consulting firm The Energy Project, describes his dismay at such habits and writes that he found himself, one day, unable to read books: “I simply couldn’t marshal the necessary focus.” He describes how, as an Internet addict, he can’t resist checking his email (a phrase I found a little quaint). He describes trying to be mostly off-line for a month. He fails. He goes on a vacation where he limits himself to texting. Manages to binge-read Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. That was about when I put his piece to the side.
Maybe my attention span fizzed out or maybe I’m simply done with these lamentations. Could it be that Internet addiction is no less threatening to our collective mental health than a steady diet of essays and articles about Internet addiction? Does that sound like denial? (Schwartz: “Denial is any addict’s first defense.”) So be it. As a parent with a toddler who lunges at my iPhone whenever I set it down, I’m still smarting from that Times story last summer about how “Screen Addiction Is Taking a Toll on Children.” And remember the scary documentary about zombie-like South Korean teenagers sent to digital detox boot camp?
It is no small irony, of course, that declinist stories like these gain their purchase on the culture exactly because we are all constantly zinging interesting things at one another on Facebook and Twitter. It will surprise no one that Schwartz’s op-ed shot up The New York Times’s Most Emailed list and has stayed there for two days and counting.
You can say that the Internet does a marvelous job of spreading the word about how bad the Internet is for us. Or you might point out that most of us have never read so much in our lives. Keeping an eye on Twitter in my Internet-addicted way has led me to all kinds of stories that are being discussed, applauded, derided. My wife and I had a lively discussion over Thanksgiving weekend about Claire Vaye Watkins’s thundering Tin House essay “On Pandering” that we’d discovered thanks to Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Stuck on the subway the other day, I read Adrian Chen’s much-tweeted-about New Yorker story about the Westboro Baptist Church teenager who turned away from her church’s hideous doctrine of intolerance thanks to . . . Twitter.
I also binge-read Purity not too long ago, and—now I’m just bragging—read two books over the holiday, even though my phone was never far from hand. My family discussed the various shows we’re watching on our devices. My 11-year-old nephew slipped upstairs to play an online video game. My 70-year-old mother kept herself busy learning to text. (Her first text to me: “This is your mother.”) Her phone was blipping with incoming replies all day. She loved it!
Before writing this, I went back to the Schwartz article and finished it—and I’m very sorry I did. He concludes with a tableau of “a man in his early 40s” ignoring his “adorable” young daughter in a restaurant because he’s stubbornly staring at his phone. She tries and tries to get his attention and “after a while,” Schwartz writes, “she glumly gave up. The silence felt deafening.”
Why is it always parents we gang up on? For all Schwartz knows that dad had been gamely playing with his adorable daughter all day long. Whatever. I’m going to stay away from stories like these for a while. I can admit that we’re addicted to the Internet. But I’d like to point out that we’re also addicted to bad news about ourselves. Here’s to breaking that habit first.