Name: Alisa Sh...
From: New York, New York
School: Columbia University
Addiction Awareness Scholarship
Web Junkie / Alisa Shodiyev
The sound of an incoming message increases my heartbeat. I tell myself to stay in control, to forget about it. But the little green logo of WhatsApp is scratching my fingers, holding the wheel. I can’t resist the curiosity. I pray for a red light at the intersection. Yes! It’s red. I quickly reach to read the message. It is still a red light. Should I answer? I am having a debate with myself in my head. I won’t type while driving, but it’s still red and I don’t know when I will be able to reply next. It’s green, I am driving, praying for the next red light to be soon so I can finish my response. Am I addicted? Do I need to go to rehab?
“My dad told me we are going to see a doctor and brought me here,” says a sobbing Chinese teenager while showing the jail-like room he was kept in. “They handcuffed me,” he adds, trying to emphasize the similarity to prison. The reason for his captivity, as he explains it is: “I used the Internet.”
This scene is from the documentary movie called “Web Junkie.” The movie was filmed in a recovery center in the suburbs of Beijing and exposes the extreme ways China officially treats addicted teenagers. The rehabilitation includes forced hospitalization in half-health, half-military institutions. These places are a parent’s last resort to save their kids. When parents bring their child there, they feel like they have already lost them.
The documentary follows kids who dropped out from school and who have lost all connection with society. Some of them didn’t sleep or eat for extended periods of time, scared of losing in a computer game. Some would wear adult diapers so they could keep playing with no interruptions.
The movie was released in 2014, but it seems like we have only become more addicted since. Technology has become essential in every aspect of our lives, and our relationships have shifted drastically as a result. We are connected all the time, but actually we are alone. Our constant use of computers and smartphones has created a new kind of loneliness that never existed before.
The documentary was filmed in China, a radical country with a very different approach to treating mental disorders from the way the United States does. However, this is not something we can ignore. This is not only China’s problem, it is happening across the globe.
The movie portrays a radical problem and approach to solving it, but it also touches an open wound. Don’t we all glance at the phone while driving? Don’t we all rush to the phone every time it pings? Don’t we all lose our minds a little when the WIFI connection goes off? Shouldn’t we all be alarmed by this? Did we all, as a society, lose control over our lives and our health, on some level, because of this?
Unlike other addictions like drugs, alcohol, sex or shopping, addiction to screens is a relatively new phenomenon. In recent years, more and more research has been performed on the connection between smartphones, the digital and social world they represent, and the effects that has on our brain and behavior.
We call something an addiction, experts say, not only when someone is fired from their job, disconnects from society or wears diapers to keep doing whatever it is they’re addicted to, but it’s also when a person experiences the same psychological symptoms as in other addictions.
We are addicted to things that fill holes in our lives. Holes in self-esteem, traumas, or just boredom. The addiction creates an illusion that we are in control. Addiction to “likes” on social media is a classic example. Addicts know that the dosage of today won’t be enough tomorrow. Addicts will do everything to receive a larger dose. These addicts will post more provocative content to receive more digital attention, and they will experience a meltdown when they won’t receive their daily dose, just like drug addicts might.
Even if we don’t suffer from the psychological disorder of too much computer or smartphone use, we might still need rehab. Because underneath comforting thoughts like “everyone does it,” we have made an obsession the new norm, and we are paying for it.
Instagram has announced that they will start hiding the number of likes on others’ posts, so users don’t see how many likes their friends got. Some say that the company will extend it to Facebook as well. I believe the company is trying to make us feel good when we use their app. But how much will it reduce our scrolling? How much will the company lose from this, and how long will it last, until they have to bring it back to boost revenue?
In 2008, when Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone, he described it as “better than laptops,” In interviews in later years, he mentioned that his kids didn’t have iPhones because he wanted them to be concentrated on school and friends. But what about us? Our families? Our kids? Give them iPhones, as many as you can buy. In the world of drug dealers, this is what’s known as “you don’t get high on your own supply.”
How can we solve it? I believe countries (and not people or companies) should take responsibility. Right now, it’s a problem that has no solution and is spreading fast from the personal to the national, social level. As long as the “free” companies are legal, they will keep evolving, getting better at keeping our eyes for as many minutes as possible, because this is what brings them revenue. And this is what leads to our addiction: scrolling without ever seeing the end.
About a year ago, Facebook removed the “it’s free and always will be” slogan from its homepage. I don’t know what it means for us, but I hope this is a sign for a change we all should be hoping for.