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


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
 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”.


(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.


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


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,
 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.


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, 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

 “Brick & Mortar” is the internet­inspired term for stores that have real storefronts. 7

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


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


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.


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 

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: 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:­16/interview.shtml Mander, Jerry. Four arguments for the elimination of television. New York: Morrow,  1978. Orzack, Maressa Hecht. “Computer Addiction Services.” Online: Rawlins, Gregory J. E. Moths to the flame: the seductions of computer technology.  Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996.


Rosenberg, Scott. “Sad and Lonely in Cyberspace?”, June 1998. Online: 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.