As I mentioned yesterday, a recent article in the Daily Mail (UK) entitled “People deprived of the internet feel ‘upset and lonely’ and find going offline as hard as quitting smoking or drinking” got my colleague, the Rev. Naomi King, and me wondering, “What’s that about?” So we decided to have an online conversation on the subject in our blogs (you can read Naomi’s initial post on the subject here). And if you haven’t read the original article yet, here’s a paragraph from a summary of it in TechCrunch:

A new British study released today backs up what we otherwise know intuitively, that Internet usage is increasingly becoming an addiction. Out of 1000 people surveyed after being cut off from the Internet for 24 hours, 53% reported feeling “upset” about being deprived of online access and 40% said that they felt lonely after not being able to connect to the Internet. Participants described the digital detox akin to quitting drinking or smoking and one even said it was like having his hand chopped off (!).

And here are our responses to the article:

Naomi: Our digital lives are our lives – so much part of who and how many of us are, we feel real loss and disconnection when separated from the technologies that support our communities of connection and how we practice our faith. Addiction is an issue, but I want to notice the differences between internet addiction and the grief that comes from being separated from where we have meaningful relationships. When folks who’ve been largely defined by work find themselves unemployed or retired, there’s a similar sense of grief and loss. They weren’t necessarily addicted to work. Liberal religious spiritual life is so much about balance. We want to notice when we’re being defined or only have meaning in discrete sections of our lives and turn there instead of addressing more difficult or absent relationships and meaning. As liberal religious people, we seek revelation and meaning everywhere in our lives – via social media, in families, with friends, through work, through volunteering, through play.

Like many people I connect with in my social media ministry, I’m often housebound, due to my chronic illness. Since I’m also hearing impaired, I love the print and video forms of social media because I can connect with fewer missed words and attitudes. I also connect across faith divisions and with colleagues, in ways that busy schedules and long distances don’t allow. Our lives are more grounded and attentive because of the ways we’re staying connected. I love being with people, talking with people, finding out what’s going on for them spiritually, sharing stories and enthusiasms and encouraging folks in living faithfully the best they understand. How could I not be attracted to social media, where so many people are increasing and deepening their connections to the holy and to one another?

Phil: My response to this article comes from my own experience of intentionally taking Internet Sabbaths. I can identify with what the people in the article felt: “fidgety, anxious and isolated.” What’s more, “people” (including myself) “experience these feelings even if denied online access for a short time.” I have to confess that I was surprised by these feelings, since I had tried to make sure I wouldn’t feel deprived during my Internet Sabbaths. My wife and I have subscribed to the Sunday New York Times so we would have plenty of reading material. We try to cook several (if not all) of our meals on Sunday, starting with pancakes in the morning. And my six-year-old son is always around in case I want to play with Legos or something like that. Still, I found myself with odd moments when I was jonesing to get online and check the Internet. And as a former smoker, the urge felt very familiar, which is what I think the article was getting at. People who are denied Internet access report feeling the same sort of feelings that smokers and drinkers feel when deprived of alcohol or tobacco. (Of course, there’s a spectrum of dependency, from bad habits to all out addiction. The article seems to be talking about a milder sort of dependency.)

My sense is there are two things going on here. One is missing connections with other people. Part of the urge I felt was about wanting to check in and see how things were going with the friends, family, and colleagues I’m in contact with via the Internet. However, most of us can go relatively short periods of time without contacting our friends, family, and colleagues and not feel “fidgety, anxious, and isolated.” I’m perfectly capable of spending a morning, afternoon, or entire day away from my wife and son without feeling those things. I may miss them, but I don’t experience withdrawal (although if we’re going be apart all day, I’m likely to call at least once to see how things are going). So I’m thinking that there’s some combination of missing connections and the habit of using the technology that comes into play here. With more and more people connecting with smart phones via the mobile web, the temptation to whip out your device for a quick fix can be pretty compelling. Even when they’re off, they’re calling to us, just like a pack of cigarettes in a coat pocket calls out to regular smokers or a bottle of scotch in the cabinet calls out the moderately heavy drinkers. Good news is there’s no reason to quit the Internet completely. It’s more a matter of understanding those urges and developing habits that keep them from overwhelming us.

For the latest on device addiction, see the Ars Technica article: “Setting, avalanche of information creating smartphone addicts.”