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Thoughts on internet addiction

Internet addiction is something that I've struggled with for well over a decade now. Innumerable days, weeks, probably years, lost to aimless scrolling with no goal in particular. My interests are more "intellectual" than the average social media addict who only looks at TikTok and Instagram, so perhaps my habits are more defensible in that regard, but I think it's still had a significant negative impact on my life and has prevented me from spending more time on things that I actually care about.

I wanted to see if anyone struggles with the same issues, and also share some of my recent thoughts on the nature of internet addiction.

  • First, it has to be recognized that the internet can be both a force for great good and a force for great evil. Unlike hard drugs, total abstinence is neither possible nor desirable. The internet made me the person I am today, and gave me so many wonderful, unforgettable experiences. I can't just repudiate it entirely - rather I have to learn to live with it, and take better control of my relationship with it.

  • I don't support the use of strategies like apps that automatically cut off your access during certain times of the day. Nietzsche once said something to the effect of, "only the weak man wants to pluck out his eyes to avoid looking at lustful things". It's a sentiment I agree with. Any solution that "forces" you to reduce browsing time is just putting a band-aid over the problem. The goal is to fundamentally reconfigure your desires and dispositions so they're more naturally aligned with your actual goals.

  • A key factor in understanding internet addiction is understanding the need to accept boredom. Before smartphones, people used to get bored way more often. Sometimes you'd just have to sit there with literally nothing to do, not even anything to think - you won't always want to read a book, or entertain yourself with your own thoughts. Smartphones permanently cured boredom - scrolling the web is infinitely entertaining, and takes zero effort. It's like a liquid that seeps in through the cracks furnished by boredom and gradually fills up all available space, taking over every second of time that you have. I think that one of the biggest keys to reconfiguring my relationship with the internet, for me anyway, is accepting and embracing that there will simply be times where I am bored and I just sit there doing literally, absolutely nothing. But that's not an excuse to resort to web browsing in those cases.

  • I'm currently trying to take an organic approach where I accept that the internet is extremely fun and beneficial, and I will browse it multiple times a day, but I try to consciously remind myself to limit it and make time for other things as well. For example, making short-term plans like "I won't look at my phone until I'm back from my morning walk, at which points I will check websites X Y and Z, and then I won't look at my phone again until after lunch". We'll see how it goes. The unfortunate thing about addiction isn't that any one mitigation strategy is difficult to implement and stick to, but rather that I seem to have little control over exactly what person I'm going to be next week. I always seem to wind up back in a place where, on a meta-level, I simply no longer have a desire to control my web browsing at all and I no longer see it as a problem, so I ditch any prevention strategy and I just go back to unrestricted scrolling. I'd really like to fundamentally reconfigure myself so that doesn't happen anymore. But I don't know how to do that.

I view this as a societal problem, not just an individual problem with me. I saw a family of three at a restaurant the other day, mom and dad and a young boy, and all three of them were glued to their phones, ignoring each other. That made me very sad. I hope that more will be done in the future to raise consciousness of internet addiction, and smartphone addiction in particular.

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I have similar issues, but I don't think it's really internet addiction. It's more like indecisiveness. When trying to decide what should I do, I have a zillion options. I try to figure out the best, which is impossible. I know I should just pick something with positive value, but...

I'm thinking of outsourcing some decision-making to software. Maybe it's possible to build a habit of just doing what it outputs. Something like taskwarrior (or simply taskwarrior) + ordering importance of the tasks via Gwern's Resorter. Or picking e.g. book to read from a list randomly.

The goal is to fundamentally reconfigure your desires and dispositions so they're more naturally aligned with your actual goals.

if an app makes you spend time in a different way, you'll probably 'reconfigure desires' too.

A key factor in understanding internet addiction is understanding the need to accept boredom. Before smartphones, people used to get bored way more often. Sometimes you'd just have to sit there with literally nothing to do, not even anything to think - you won't always want to read a book, or entertain yourself with your own thoughts.

It doesn't help IMO. Experiencing boredom will make you resent the decision to do it to yourself, which leads to relapse. I don't really agree that scrolling Reddit is that entertaining too. Something like watching a good anime is better. The problem is picking which one...

Unlike hard drugs, total abstinence is neither possible nor desirable.

I disagree about it being desirable; hard drugs aren't a coherent category. Total abstinence from opioids if one isn't in pain makes sense; stimulants are useful though.

You have agency over it ultimately. Do not make my mistakes and take control of it. It is not like heroin addiction, also downvote the fuck out of me the next time I bring up ADHD. My ADHD is not the reason but just a cop out by me to justify incorrect habits.

My internet issues died completely since I found ways of keeping my browser out of the minimized/inactive window zones. On GNOME 3 I used the "Hide Minimized" extension, and on MATE I'm using wmctrl/xdotool to keep Firefox running in the background (so I can close it rather than minimize it). Years of scolding myself, incentivizing myself, kludgy messages reminding me not to do things (with some success), and now for several months, no problem at all.

Probably it isn't a solution that would work for everyone, but I'm convinced that healthier interfaces are possible and necessary. All you really need is a critical mass of people who use the internet wisely, to support the rest of users who have issues.

I don't support the use of strategies like apps....

I have felt similarly to this but recently I am thinking it is a wrong way to approach this. My thoughts in random order.

  1. If you were a weak man wouldn't it be better to cover your eyes instead of relying on your strength that you know will fail you?

  2. When you consider improving physical weakness you do not start with deadlifting a car. You would slowly increase the strength required. These apps etc might be used as a stepping stone. And only when you are strong enough you can ditch them.

  3. Maybe for some people cutting the internet might be impossible without apps and possible with them. And if someone who can't see without glasses refuses to wear them because it would make him weak it does not make him strong. It makes him a fool.

Acknowledging your weaknesses and getting over or around them is true strength.

(I feel like I am dancing around some idea and failing to express it correctly and concisely. But in writing this I might have convinced myself. Might give some apps or other techniques another go. The main reason I do not use them now is because when I tried it did not seem to work for me. But there might be something out there that might. And if it exist it is definitely worth finding.)

Definitely one of the most important posts to have come out of old Motte.

Technically, it's on the old /r/slatestarcodex.

I don't think this is entirely new; before phones people would bury themselves in newspapers and magazines when bored or not feeling sociable. The biggest negative effects are, I think:

  • The collapse in publishing cost pushing the quality threshold to best zero to get something published;

  • The associated war for attention necessary to get advertising dollars incentivizing nuclear hot takes which directly leads to radicalization and polarization;

  • General anxiety and the bed-friendliness of phone reading killing people's sleep

I don't disagree completely with you--I mean I think you're right that this isn't entirely new. But as someone born in 1968 who went through my formative years and a considerable portion of my adulthood before not only smartphones but the internet itself was even a thing: It's different now. Unquestionably, inarguably, different.

Back in the day sure we had novels and newspapers and magazines, and of course some dads would sit on the couch and read the newspaper and tune everyone out--but the newspaper or sports section eventually ran out of words. You could read through the Sunday comics but then you were done. Not everyone even read newspapers--they are, after all, to some degree unwieldy, especially in public, and it was rare to see a family at a four-top at the local restaurant all reading the newspaper. I remember some of the restaurants of my childhood in the South had those little triangle things where you sank golf tees into holes to eventually have only one golf tee standing--this was meant to bide the time while the waitress brought the hushpuppies or whatever. It was mind-numbing, sure--but we did this generally as a family.

There were no alerts notifying you that a "contact" had sent a message which might or might not be important. There was no chance to dip into the family vacation albums of friends (or celebrities, or strangers). I won't even mention porn except to say--I am one of many who once found every boy's dream: a waterlogged pornographic magazine deep in the woods. This was an unexpected boon beyond imagining. It's laughable now; it's a boomer joke. Like so much of what was my youth.

I don't wish to sound overly strident here but the point must be made and I guess at least today I will make it: The world I was born in no longer exists. Sure, you can point at old diatribes that the novel was wasting the minds of 19th-century women, or that TV was the idiotbox, or that comics stifled the brain. And to that degree--the degree that we are experiencing some form of that now in internet/smartphone critiques--that is true enough. But it's far, far different in many ways. Twenty-four hours of every day a smartphone in the pocket is unlike anything ever before seen. And yes, I do mourn this technological miracle on some days. I am not fool enough to think the Internet is a "bad thing" TM but I can simultaneously see the amazingness of smartphones and how they have destroyed certain rather important aspects of human relationships.

The associated war for attention necessary to get advertising dollars incentivizing nuclear hot takes which directly leads to radicalization and polarization;

This is the real issue, in my mind.

Which is to say, I believe you can avoid 90% of the 'harm' of internet addiction by taking measures to avoid being sucked into radicalization traps and echo chambers.

The internet went down in my building for 3 days and on day 1 I was acting like some kind of addict with withdrawal symptoms, constantly wanting to go check twitter (which can be useful and fun when you curate who you're following). Day 2 and Day 3 I was behaving more normally, doing offline writing and work. It still sucked how I couldn't easily search things though.

I can tolerate boredom when I'm going on a walk or listening to music, just not at my desk on my PC. It's very much a habitual, situational thing.

One thing that has worked quite well for me is this service called FocusMate. How it works is you get paired with someone on the service for a video call that lasts 25 or 50 minutes. You share at the beginning what you're working on and want to accomplish by the end of the session. Then you turn off your mic and do it for the rest of the session. At the end you check in with them and share how much you were actually able to do. It sounds dumb but it works better than anything else does to get me to stop surfing Reddit/YouTube/Wikipedia and actually get something done.

It sounds like your concern is not only about work but lesiure time too. FocusMate can be used for many leisure activities too. For example, if you want to read a book, you can say you want to read X pages in the session.

If you find that you don't know what you actually want to do with your leisure time when you have to structure it like that, that might be part of your problem.

I view this as a societal problem, not just an individual problem with me. I saw a family of three at a restaurant the other day, mom and dad and a young boy, and all three of them were glued to their phones, ignoring each other. That made me very sad.

My excuse in these situations is that we're satisfying our preferences better this way. <Sibling> is reading about the latest sports happenings (don't care). <Parent> is playing an ad-ridden slot machine game (ew!), and I'm reading culture war insight porn (which would horrify them).

If we all tried to have the respective conversations that interested us, it would be awkward. I didn't see that ludicrous display last night. Neither <sibling> nor I want to talk about grandkids, and my family doesn't appreciate abstract argument the same way I do. They get *annoyed* at disagreement. They are allergic to contrarianism. They don't like philosophy. They're low decouplers. We can't even discuss pop culture: "Ugh. Must you overanalyze everything?"

So .. phones.

This is something I’ve thought about before and it dovetails nicely with the point I made about accepting boredom.

Human relations are messy and unpredictable. When you’re interacting with real people in real life, you can’t just “change the channel” and order up someone who’s a better fit for your temperament and interests instead. If we’re committed to maintaining a world of real relationships rather than virtual ones, then you have to accept some limitation on your power to control the people around you, and you have to accept that those people will come with certain flaws that are unavoidable.

The internet has given you much greater access to the kind of socialization you prefer, but at what cost?

Prior to global connectivity, you would have learned the specific communication patterns that were mutually pleasurable between yourself and your family. This should have resulted in deeper emotional ties and a stronger family and community.

Now you spend that same time building social capital on rationalist forums.

I don't think this is a net gain for you or your family.

If you're having trouble SCROOLING social media on your phone, just download some ebooks. If you download a bunch of non-fiction educational books you'll probably be bored though, so be sure to actually download something fun like Ultra Cyberpunk Detective: The Cypher City Hacker Femdroid RoboKiller Slasher Supreme if you're trying to actually replace "fun" websites. Longform reading is much better for the mind than just reading snappy one-liners on reddit.

I've been moving in this direction myself and I think its effective. I put deathworlders and some ttrpgs on my phone.

I don't support the use of strategies like apps that automatically cut off your access during certain times of the day. Nietzsche once said something to the effect of, "only the weak man wants to pluck out his eyes to avoid looking at lustful things". It's a sentiment I agree with. Any solution that "forces" you to reduce browsing time is just putting a band-aid over the problem. The goal is to fundamentally reconfigure your desires and dispositions so they're more naturally aligned with your actual goals.

While your post in general is very relatable to me, I don't think I agree with this point. I don't care particularly about whether or not to use these specific tools you mention, but rather I object to the underlying idea of the statement. I think setting rules for yourself and limiting your exposure to 'temptations' is a key element in building healthier habits. I agree the end goal should be to reconfigure your desires and dispositions to something better, but I think strictly and systemically adhering to rules you set yourself to limit your exposure to the internet is a useful tool in changing those desires and dispositions. The desires and dispositions, to some extent, follow the habits in my experience, and less so the other way around.

I was going to write a reply that was roughly this.

I don't think cutting internet browsing off cold turkey is viable. In order to train your mind to have better patterns of behaviour (habits) I think giving yourself a daily quota of browsing (even if its huge, like 6+ hours) to wean yourself off 'autopilot' mindless browsing is a good start. This will give your mind access to mindfulness and an 'inactive' mind.

Boredom is actually useful if you can get over the hump as this is a state in which your mind will naturally start being creative and allow you to think of other activities/goals that you'd like to undertake at the same time as building your boredom tolerance. Then overtime you will spend more time undertaking healthier activities which might obviate the need for the quota.

Also struggling with this. I find it baffling that net addiction isn't talked about more often; I worry that the younger generation, so used to growing up with access to the internet, would be unaware that the extent of their usage could be considered addiction. I can't imagine what school must be like when you're constantly hyperconnected to all of your peers through social media, I feel that people aren't well equipped mentally for that kind of constant surveillance of their own online self and the online personae of everyone around them. Despite these worries about social media addiction and the mental harm it could cause, that isn't the type of net addiction I struggle with: it's what I think of as "information" addiction.

This is mainly YouTube content and various forums & boards. I think of it as "information" addiction not because I'm actually informed by what I'm looking at (though some content does provide genuinely useful info) but because it gives me the same feeling of satisfaction as learning something, becoming more informed about something. Whether I read a programming book and learn useful information about a language I don't know very well, or read a post about what a strange autistic streamer from Wyoming was doing on his stream yesterday, it doesn't matter. I can very well understand that one of these is vastly more important to me than the other but I gain satisfaction from both regardless. And therein lies the problem: the unimportant useless information is much more convenient to consume, is completely endless and still provides the same stimulation so why choose anything else? The solution I've reached is exactly the same as your own in that I see no sense in trying to go cold turkey, so I'm trying to limit my use of forums & discussion boards. Do some exercises first before I check the net in the morning, have breakfast without reading some inane imageboard posts etc. It mostly works but I do occasionally slip up and find myself almost unconsciously reaching for the phone.

I think of it as "information" addiction not because I'm actually informed by what I'm looking at (though some content does provide genuinely useful info) but because it gives me the same feeling of satisfaction as learning something, becoming more informed about something.

I'm the same. I classify youtube/forums and even tv/movies as largely the same process of mindlessly ingesting the creations of the minds of others. I rarely pause to contextualise what I'm ingesting to expand my own knowledge in the way that happens when I'm being introspective or reading books.

I eventually came to a sort of epiphany where I believe it is better to come to conclusions and build knowledge from my own experiences, even if this is 're-inventing the wheel' from base principles, than it is to mindlessly accept and agree with the conclusions of the brightest minds of this and past generations. When you think of something yourself, you grok it in a way that is impossible if it was fed to you. This is also how you really grow your own mind and get closer to your full potential.

Internet companies spend billions building systems to hijack your attention. If you want to succeed, you need to re-shape your environment to combat their tactics, because you aren't going to be making purely rational, well thought out decisions on a moment to moment basis.

I occasionally go through phases where I limit my technology use in various ways in order to "reset" what I'm acclimatized to. Here are some things I've found effective.

  1. Password lock screen on phone AND full information in notifications on lock screen: I can see my messages don't need an immediate reply, and opening my phone to use it is slightly annoying. This means a random email that dings me won't lead to me instinctively opening reddit.

  2. Uninstalling apps for specific platforms: If I'm trying to take a break from reddit, I'll uninstall the app and only visit the site on my computer. That leads to significantly less use, and when I do use reddit I am more likely to engage with text-based content.

  3. Read-Logging: I've done this for a few months at a time a few years ago. I logged every article I read with a short summary, from 1 to five sentences. Maybe more if I really liked it. This dramatically improved the value I got back while reducing the skimming I did, but I found it mentally draining.

  4. Background music: I often take short breaks. If I navigate to a website, that short break has a tendency to become a long one. Instead, I keep background music playing and I try to enjoy the background music during my short break. My work stays on screen and I am much more likely to return to it sooner.

Read-Logging: I've done this for a few months at a time a few years ago. I logged every article I read with a short summary, from 1 to five sentences. Maybe more if I really liked it. This dramatically improved the value I got back while reducing the skimming I did, but I found it mentally draining.

I have done similar thing but only briefly. But I regret I did not continue it. My memory is probably worse then average, so writing something about an article makes me remember it better. But it is indeed mentally draining. That should theoretically incentivise me to read only that which is worth the effort. But that is sadly only known after I have already read it. So in practice I stopped.

But I will try to go back to writing short summaries as well as responding more on the Motte. Not only do I remember things better. But writing things down is a little different than just thinking the ideas in your head. And my in turn improve/change my thinking.

I don't support the use of strategies like apps that automatically cut off your access during certain times of the day.

One problem I have participating in sites like TheMotte is the "Red Queen effect" whereby I feel compelled to reply to comments quickly if I want them to be generally visible. If I unilaterally limit my engagement to 1 hour per day, I'll often find that the discussions I want to join have already been buried under newer content by the time I get to them. This is a zero-sum game, because everyone else is doing the same thing.

In an ideal world, everyone's comments would get posted in bulk at 6AM every day, so I could read the day's content over my morning coffee, contemplate how I'd like to reply, and then post those replies at my leisure later in the day. This would make participation much less addictive in nature. If everything on the internet worked like that, I would only need to actually go online twice a day, while still getting all the benefits of engaging in discussions. In fact, I could just swing by a library or cafe and I wouldn't even need a home internet connection!

(I'm not seriously suggesting that TheMotte should do this - there are enough technical kinks to work out as it is.)

I don't feel like TheMotte is that fast of a forum. The CW thread only gets a couple top-level comments per day. You can also reply to any comments in the CW thread throughout the week and continue conversations with people that way.

In an ideal world, everyone's comments would get posted in bulk at 6AM every day, so I could read the day's content over my morning coffee, contemplate how I'd like to reply, and then post those replies at my leisure later in the day.

That sort of reminds me of the system that Stallman has:

I generally do not connect to web sites from my own machine, aside from a few sites I have some special relationship with. I usually fetch web pages from other sites by sending mail to a program (see https://git.savannah.gnu.org/git/womb/hacks.git) that fetches them, much like wget, and then mails them back to me. Then I look at them using a web browser, unless it is easy to see the text in the HTML page directly. I usually try lynx first, then a graphical browser if the page needs it (using konqueror, which won't fetch from other sites in such a situation).