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The Problem with Pixels

Confronting the problems of a digital society

“Loneliness may be the real disease of the next


century, as we live alone, work alone, and play
alone, insulated by our modem, our Walkman, or
our television.” – Charles Hardy

Bryan Kennedy
Social Psychology
Prof. Francis
November 22, 2000
It has been nearly a year now since he has touched his clarinet. He used
to play in the city honor’s band. He used to participate in school plays. He
used to do a lot of things. Now, all he does beyond eat and sleep is use his
computer: Games, chat rooms, the latest applications... It consumes him:
he knows more about the speeds of the latest microprocessors than what
his world history teacher went over in class last week. He used to be a
straight-A student. He used to be a student councilman. He used to be a
lot of things. Now he is a computer user, and one of a growing list of those
affected by computer addiction.

This topic is of particular interest to me, for I am that boy. During my high school
years, I would spend an upwards of ten to twelve hours a day on my computer. And while
I never did drugs or go to binge-drinking parties like some of my peers, I suffered some
of the same consequences as they. Today I can proudly claim victory over my addiction,
and hope I can lend positive insight to this paper through my experience. From the
beginning of time, humankind has had to cope with a wide variety of addictions. From
substance abuse, to pathological gambling and shopping, to the more modern addiction to
television, our brains seem wired for obsession. Even though it is still in its infancy, the
information age has already brought with it the new and rarely acknowledged addiction
to computers. As thousands of businesses, schools, and homes get “wired” every day,
computers are beginning to play an increasing role in our daily lives. We depend on
computers for the broadening benefits they provide, and thus are spending increasing
amounts of time connected to them. With this rising use of computers in our society, and
for functions that are increasingly entertainment-oriented, we must implement new
models to help combat the increasing societal effects of computer addiction.
Addiction can take many forms, and is found not only in humans but in animals as
well. Most often recognized are addictions to psychoactive substances; that is, chemicals
like alcohol, marijuana, and nicotine that alter the user’s behaviors, feelings, and
cognitions. Lesser known are those addictions dealing solely with the mind and behavior,
also known as compulsive disorders. Some of these addictions are just now being
recognized in medical circles, such as pathological gambling or shopping, while others,
such as compulsive television or computer use, are yet to be acknowledged. While these
psychological addictions, sometimes called impulse control disorders, have no direct
chemical explanations, those affected often show some of the same symptoms as those

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with chemical dependencies (Orzack, 1999). Addicts are often classified by symptoms
that include: chronic usage, denial of the problem, poor work or school performance,
financial trouble due to spending directly related to the addiction, physical illness, lack of
interests beyond that which is causing the addiction, and a general withdrawal from social
life. Granted, addictions to psychoactive substances involve real and measurable
chemical changes to the brain and body, but both addictions are similar in that their
victims are often seeking a release from the pressures of the daily world.1 Like the
sunbather who moves her recently shaded chair into the sun, our brain seems to seek out
pleasurable states, either by using drugs or undertaking certain behaviors. This concept is
entirely logical when the concept of neural nets is taken into account. That is, the neurons
of our brain learn and function on a level similar to that of training a dog. By using the
techniques of operant conditioning first described by B.F. Skinner, whereas both rewards
and punishments are used to reinforce positive behavior, the neural nets of our brain learn
how to obtain the best possible outcome in the least possible time. When a positive
feeling is obtained, such as that of euphoria or a sense of control, the addict is essentially
rewarding him or herself for that behavior. With every repeat of the behavior, the
connections agreeable to that behavior grow stronger (Kurzweil, 1999). In the case of
computers, the addict grows accustomed to the positive feelings of relaxation and control
that are enabled through its use. With each successive use and corresponding feeling, the
behavior is literally ingrained in his or her brain. This works in such a way that with each
repeated behavior, the desired result itself becomes less and less cognizant, and thus the
addict’s actions become less and less explicable. The addict may then arrive at a juncture
where he cannot explain his reasons for repeating the offending behavior.
This is not to say that everyone who comes in contact with a computer will
become addicted. Like alcoholism, which researchers believe requires a predisposition, it
is entirely likely that only those who have a predisposition to compulsive behavior will
develop an addiction. However, research shows that the sooner a person is exposed to the
addictive substance or behavior, the more chance they have of developing a disorder

1
 Internet chat room users, in an ongoing effort to reduce the amount of characters they must type to convey
a message, will often create their own abbreviations for frequently used terms. It is revealing to note that
“Real Life”, meaning the tangible world outside the computer, and “Virtual Life”, referring to life on the
internet, have their own abbreviations: “RL” and “VL”.

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(Henderson, 1999). With parents introducing their kids to computers at an increasingly
earlier age in an attempt to give them a jump start at future success, they may actually be
setting them up for future problems.
I am reminded of the case of an eight-year-old boy who was hopelessly addicted
to his computer. This boy was so addicted that not only was he spending the whole day
on the machine, but his parents had to literally drag him to dinner and remind him to
sleep, or else he would not do such extraneous things (Henderson, 1999). Is this kid some
sort of anomaly? Speaking from both research and personal experience; no, he is not. He
is part of a growing number of children and adults affected by computer addiction. While
it is difficult to ascertain the many thousands affected by the disorder, it is not surprising
to note that the place that computer addiction is found in the greatest numbers is on
college campuses. In a study of 810 college students conducted at Northeastern
University, it was found that 62 of those surveyed, or eight percent, could be classified as
“internet dependent” (Cromie, 1999). Dr. Maressa Orzack, a leading authority on
computer and internet addiction and founder of Computer Addiction Services at McLean
Hospital, suggests that the percentage of those at risk for compulsive computer use may
actually be as high as one in ten. The problem is that these students are part of a new
generation brought up and raised in an environment filled with computers. For them,
using the computer three or more hours a day is not only considered normal, but a
requisite function of their daily lives. And this excessive use, as reported by school
counselors and deans across the nation, can and often leads to lower grades, rule
infractions, and finally, drops-outs.
Computer addiction not only causes problems at school or work, it can also lead
to the neglect of family and friends, feelings of depression and loneliness, lack of
personal hygiene, eating irregularities, sleep deprivation, dry and light-sensitive eyes,
back problems, carpal tunnel syndrome, and a host of other emotional and physical
effects. Compulsive computer use has even been cited as a cause in a significant number
of recent divorces. In one such case, a woman lost custody of her children because she
used the computer to the point that she neglected them (Cromie, 1999). As with all other
addictions, those affected do not recognize their addiction, or if they do, pass it off as
unavoidable. The problem is that to some extent they are right.

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Computer use has spiraled in the past few decades. Before the 1980’s, most
people had little or no experience with computers. Those using computers the most were
confined to offices and even then used systems that only excelled at basic tasks such as
data entry and word processing. With the advent of the commercial graphical user
interface by Apple Computer, Inc. in 1984, the concept of the computer went through a
paradigm shift. No longer were computers designed to augment our skills, they actually
became our companions. Computers such as the Apple Macintosh displayed a smiling
face when you turned them on. Customizable user interfaces were introduced, and our
computers soon became an expression of our personalities. Desktop images could be
customized, icons could be rearranged, and the sound or movie of your choice could be
displayed when the computer booted up. Apple Computer’s famous “1984” commercial
even ventured so far as to imply that using the older, function-driven machines was akin
to supporting communism. The act of opening up your word processor, which once
involved a simple command, now involves several virtual steps. And with each step, the
user is invited deeper into the virtual landscape to pursue ever more virtual activities,
such as playing the game “Minefield” or surfing the web. Some applications even go so
far as to attempt to foresee the user’s actions. For example, the latest version of Microsoft
Word not only makes grammar and spelling changes automatically, but suggests formats
for you to follow if it “thinks” you are starting any one of a variety of different types of
documents. For the first time in history, the computer has begun to direct the user, rather
than the other way around. And while these new user interfaces are easier to learn and
use, they began the reclassification of the computer. Computers have gone beyond “user
friendly,” by forgetting the user altogether; today’s computers are just “friendly”. And
computer makers want it this way.
In industries where the product being produced may lead to the addictive
consumption of it, the producers deem an addicted user as a positive outcome. It seems
logical to this author that these producers, in their attempt to sell more products, will thus
make every attempt to induce, or at least allow for, that addiction. The tobacco industry is
a fitting example, whereas manufacturers included nicotine in their products in an attempt
to “hook” consumers into their continued use. This was justified as good business
strategy, and simply ensured continued demand for their products. It was only after the

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linkage of lung cancer and smoking that their strategies became immoral in the public
eye. While the differences between the computer industry and the tobacco industry are
many, the same rules of profit motivation apply. Thus, in an attempt to foster greater
consumption for their products, the computer industry creates ever more intricate
interfaces containing more and more functions to increase usage and thus, need. While
the first version of Microsoft Office was concerned mainly with word processing, today’s
Office program contains thousands of features, such as a calendar, address book, and
programming suite. With each new feature comes a higher learning curve, and thus a
sense of obligation to use the features once they are learned. As a result, usage increases
exponentially with each new addition. This is the case even though the vast majority of
these new features were never requested and will remain superfluous to most computer
users. Furthermore, each new software version outdates the old, making it all but
impossible to stay more than a few months behind. Indeed, most of today’s web sites are
designed with the sole intent of drawing visitors in and keeping them there for the longest
period of time possible2. Each one of us is susceptible to the new methods the industry
employs to keep us addicted and consuming.
The effects of computer addiction on isolated individuals can readily be seen, but
at the same time, the larger societal effects of this disease are just staring to emerge. For
not only does the virtual world have the capability of accurately imitating the real world,
it also has the power to desensitize us to what we see there. We are just now witnessing
cases of how this virtual desensitization is clashing with the real world. Take the
Columbine High School shooting in 1998 as a tragic example. The students that carried
out the attack were avid computer and internet users, frequents of the virtual world. One
boy described in his journal that committing the murders would be much like playing the
game of Doom on his computer. The perpetrators even learned how to buy guns and
make bombs over internet chat rooms. In the virtual world, nothing is real, but every
attempt is made to achieve an illusion of reality. Just imagine what will happen when we
can one day experience our every fantasy on the computer, without regard for the law.
Robbery,

2
 The revenue of most web sites comes solely from advertising. The longer a user stays at a site, the more 
advertisements they are exposed to, and thus more revenue is generated from their visit.

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murder, and rape: As the lines between the virtual world and the real world blur, what’s to
prevent this lawlessness from seeping into our real cities, our real towns, and our real
homes? Even today’s e-commerce sites, such as Egghead.com, whose motto is “the
computer store inside your computer”, attempt to create an illusion of a typical Brick &
Mortar3 store. They do this by using terms that symbolize items found in real stores, such
as offering the customer a “shopping cart”, and having product “isles” and store
“sections”. The theory is, if you succeed at creating an effective illusion, customers will
be more likely to trust what you have to sell. This has not only fostered an explosion in
online sales, it has also opened up the doors for cunning scam artists, who can easily
produce bogus stores with the sole intent of stealing the credit card numbers of unwitting
internet users. This concept does not stop at sales pitches, but also applies to the pitching
of information. Today, anyone with a $49 web authoring program can publish their
opinion on the internet, and because of the site’s presentation, may end up confusing the
site’s visitors into believing it fact. Who knows how effectively a malicious person might
be able to mislead us in the not too distant future. With more people spending more time
on the internet than ever before, only time will tell how the clash of reality and virtual
reality will further impact our culture.
Even if the psychological effects of the internet do not make a great impact on
our lives, a thriving virtual world still detracts from the real one. Common sense suggests
that if more people are spending more time on their computers, rather than with family,
friends, and neighbors, our social fabric will suffer. Some contend that online chatting
brings them closer to more people than ever before, but studies show that people benefit
the most from face-to-face encounters (Sleek, 1998). We also know that frequent
computer use tends to lead to depression and feelings of isolation, regardless of how
many people the user is in contact with over the internet (Rosenberg, 1998). The reason
being is that the people you meet online, while real human beings, do not share the same
accountability and commitment with you as those you meet in person. That is, a person
you meet online may be able to carry on an interesting conversation, but he or she has the
power to leave the relationship at any moment. Perhaps more importantly, you too can
break the commitment at any time you wish, without having to face the consequences. In

3
 “Brick & Mortar” is the internet­inspired term for stores that have real storefronts.

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fact, online relationships, in all their glory, are little more than pen pals. That’s why
online relationships are inherently unstable and superficial.
And just like online relationships, what we do to customize our computers is mere
frivolity. A click of a button, a wave of a magnet, and everything that was done
disappears into a sea of bits. I can remember spending hours on end organizing the
folders and files on my computer desktop, and applying the most unique desktop patterns.
And for what purpose? I updated my operating system a few months later (in my valiant
attempt to stay current) and everything was rearranged. At least when I clean my room,
the atoms of my possessions stay in more or less the same place as I leave them, even if
the power goes out. The computer industry, in all its push for productivity, is creating a
world in which endless time can be wasted on meaningless customization. We don’t need
our computers to be “friendly.” When you need a smile, you can turn to a friend. It is a
shallow culture indeed to find solace in a machine.
The smile. A simple, uniquely human gesture used to convey friendliness and
compassion. At the height of my addiction, the computer was my best friend. And its
smile, in the shallowest of senses, meant a lot to me. For it signified the entire experience
of using my computer. When I was “in” it, I could escape all the worries and cares of the
outside world. Many a time did I put off my homework assignments in lieu of using my
computer. More often than not, I could not even describe to myself what I had done all
day. Sure, the high score lists on my games were filled, and my computer desktop was
organized, but my chores were piling up, and my real desk top was a mess. My virtual
life, in essence, was a lot easier to organize and control than my real life. So I spent more
of my time “in” than “out”, and suffered for it. It was not even the act of realizing my
condition that helped me break the cycle. I knew that I spent far too much time on the
computer, but at the same time I refused to acknowledge it was an addiction. My parents
were also distressed by my excessive usage, but were loath to interfere for fear it might
spoil my future success in the computer field. They thought of me as a “computer
genius,” and passed off my behavior as normal for my interests in technology. I passed
off my addiction to the multitude of tasks I could accomplish using the computer. Thus, I
continued to feel the importance of keeping my computer organized, my e-mail checked,
and my applications up-to-date. In a way, I had an obligation to that smiling machine, and

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I couldn’t stop myself from using it. What eventually helped me break loose was the
realization that the obligation was all an illusion of pixels. This rather obvious conclusion
came to me while camping for a week in the beautiful California mountains. In
abstinence, I discovered that my pursuits were not only meaningless and trivial, but were
having negative effects on my social life and school work. So I decided to take action and
gradually cut down on my computer usage. I did this first by making it a point to turn the
machine off when it was not in use. Just as an open cookie jar will be empty by day’s end,
a computer that is always running is begging to be used. Then, whenever I felt the urge to
use the machine, I made myself actively declare my intentions before even turning it on.
If I didn’t have a specific goal in mind, I would turn around and read a book or go to the
gym to work out. Essentially, I reclassified my concept of the computer, from friend to
useful tool. I still spend a solid two hours a day in front of my computer screen, but I now
use it to accomplish real goals for my real life, and not to fill virtual obligations. And I’m
proud to report my computer’s virtual desktop is in a delightful state of disarray.

Courtesy of http://jokes.glowport.com

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Computer/Internet Addiction: How to tell if you are at risk
Partially adapted from lists compiled by Dr. James Fearing and Dr. Maressa Orzack

1) Neglecting social obligations with family and friends, or valuing continued computer 
use over the loss of significant relationships.
2) Lacking interest in activities not associated with the computer, or using it to carry out 
previous interests. For example: playing chess on the computer instead of with 
friends. Losing the will to pursue outdoor activities such as camping or vacationing.
3) Missing meals or sleep due to computer usage.
4) Spending more and more money on computer­related goods, such as hardware, 
software, and magazines, or gratifying oneself with such purchases. Experiencing 
financial problems due to excessive purchases.
5) Experiencing the consuming need to keep applications up­to­date, for no apparent 
reason, or the hoarding of software, music, or photos that are not planned for use.
6) Sitting at the computer without performing a function, other than looping through 
folders and files, organizing icons, or customizing the desktop.
7) Surfing the internet for fun, or brainstorming search words, without any particular 
desired end result, other than entertainment.
8) Participating in high risk or otherwise unacceptable behavior while using the 
computer. Compromising morals or values due to the opportunity of remaining 
anonymous while on the computer. Feeling the need to cover up computer activities.
9) Lying or feeling the need to cover up the amount of time spent on the computer.
10) Noticing a distinct feeling of pleasure or gratification while using the computer.
11) Missing work or school obligations because of excessive computer usage, or risking 
the loss of significant career goals or educational objectives.
12) Experiencing emotional symptoms while not at the computer, such as: irritability, 
restlessness, anxiety, depression, or hostility. 
13) Dreaming about or thinking about the computer experience in your spare time, or 
actively planning to return to the computer when away. Calling ahead to assure the 
possibility of internet connectivity during short trips.
14) Using the computer at times of high stress or irritation, in order to “escape”.
15) Having an overdeveloped sense of the importance of the computer in ones life. 
Defending the right to use the computer as much as desired, without regard for the 
concerns of others.
16) Failing repeated efforts to control computer usage. Promising to quit or cut down and 
not being able to do so.

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Treatments for Computer/Internet Addiction: How to overcome an addiction

Dr. Orzack and other therapists recommend adapting similar techniques used in the 
treatment of gambling, alcohol, or eating disorders. In one such technique known as 
cognitive­behavior therapy, people are instructed to monitor and identify those thoughts 
that trigger addictive feelings (Cromie, 1999). For me, it was helpful to have time away 
from the computer, in the form of a relaxing week­long camping trip. This allowed me to 
reflect on and recognize the problem and how it was affecting my life and the lives of 
those around me. During my abstinence, it was helpful for me to recognize the various 
thoughts and longings I had surrounding the computer, but I also think it was important 
that I did not take on a scolding or negative view of the situation. My theory on this is 
that once you can see the problem as it is without assigning blame, it is easier to 
overcome it. Toward the end of the trip, be sure to note how well you felt while away from 
the computer. It is important to recognize that the computer is not required for your well­
being and enjoyment.
Once you have recognized the problem and decided you’d like to do something about it, 
the following steps may help you:
1) Turn off the computer when it is not is use.
2) Before turning it back on, be sure that you have a clear goal in mind. If you don’t, 
pursue another activity. This can be very difficult at first, especially if you have been 
addicted for as long as I have, and have lost many other interests. Give it time, and 
gradually take up some of your old activities. For me, this was reading and biking.
3) Cut back on virtual world obligations. Cut back on e­mail correspondence, chat room 
communications, web site memberships, and other extraneous uses. I used to run a 
small software retail business on the internet on the side. My use was cut in half once 
I closed it down. While I admittedly miss the extra “gift money” the business 
provided me, I am spending far less on computer components than I used to.
4) Redefine your computer as a useful tool, rather than an entertainment machine. Use 
the computer for tasks that are meeting real­life goals or obligations.
5) Keep track of your computer use, but only restrict yourself if you’re finding you still 
can’t cut down. Even better is if you have a family member or good friend who can 

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make sure you are following your restrictions. Some software programs are entering 
the market that can help you. Even with restrictions, be sure not to go “cold­turkey”. 
Restrictions work best if graduated over time. Start out by cutting off a fourth of your 
computing time. If after a couple weeks you find you are meeting your restrictions, 
cut your use down some more. A realistic goal is limiting yourself to two hours of 
usage per day. If much of your livelihood revolves around the computer, it may make 
sense to instead limit the amount of entertainment time you spend on your computer.

List of Works Cited

Cromie, William J. “Computer Addiction is Coming Online.” Harvard University 
Gazette, January 1999. Online: http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/
1999/01.21/computer.html

Henderson, Bill, ed. Minutes of the Lead Pencil Club. Wainscott, NY: Pushcart, 1996.

Henderson, Harry. Issues in the Information Age. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1999.

Kurzweil, Ray. The Age of Spiritual Machines. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.

Koch, John. “Interview with Maressa Hecht Orzack.” Boston Globe Magazine, May 
1999. Online: http://www.boston.com/globe/magazine/5­16/interview.shtml

Mander, Jerry. Four arguments for the elimination of television. New York: Morrow, 
1978.

Orzack, Maressa Hecht. “Computer Addiction Services.” Online: 
http://www.computeraddiction.com/

Rawlins, Gregory J. E. Moths to the flame: the seductions of computer technology. 
Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996.

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Rosenberg, Scott. “Sad and Lonely in Cyberspace?” Salon.com, June 1998. Online: 
http://www.salon.com/21st/rose/1998/09/03straight.html.

Sleek, Scott. “Isolation increases with Internet use.” APA Monitor, September 1998.

Stoll, Clifford. High tech heretic: why computers don’t belong in the classroom and other 
reflections by a computer contrarian. New York: Doubleday, 1999.

Wilkins, Joan Anderson. Breaking the TV habit. New York: Scribner, 1982.

Winters, Paul A., ed. Computers and society. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1997.

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