If you have teenagers, you will know what I am talking about. Parents have to limit “screen time” lest their offspring go into their rooms, turn on their computers and never come out. Children and grown-ups alike can become glued to their screens and hand-held devices with the zeal of a small child holding an ice cream cone.
As of this moment the virtual world is changing and growing with unprecedented speed—giving its users access to undreamed-of possibilities to explore, encounter, win, lose, plan strategies, and fulfill every fantasy. So what’s the problem? From my perspective there are two challenges to unrestrained Internet usage that remain as yet unanswered. The first is that, paradoxically enough, imagination itself becomes restricted. In a virtual world the challenges are laid out for us. We are given weapons and strategies and characters to manipulate and we can certainly be creative in our use of them. But they do not nor can they ever replace the gift of human imagination. It is an unfettered amalgamation of sight and sound, smell and taste, pain and pleasure and human touch which combine in infinite permutations to give us the world’s great literature, art, dance music and sculpture. The virtual world makes it easy to depend on the creativity of another mind. That being said, if we use the tools that the computer provides to create new art forms that enhance the beauty of our world we have taken a huge step forward for everyone.
The second issue as I see it is that people can retreat to a screen universe as a substitute for human relationships. As human beings we grow and change as we encounter the other human beings in our lives. We can experience emotion while sitting at the computer but there is no other human being to respond to our feelings. We can also predict and manipulate the emotions on the computer or we can just turn it off if we don’t like it. We can’t do that with a parent or a BFF or and BBF. They react in annoyingly unpredictable ways. When Internet usage becomes a stand-in for human relationships we will all be in trouble.
So when a child becomes increasingly isolated—alone in his or her room I invite parents to do an inventory of the climate of the family. Are parents off into their own interests as well? Parents can be in engaged in any number of activities that engage their best energy—from housecleaning to tinkering with cars to playing video games of their own. When a young person finds the most stimulating and validating life experiences come from the Internet, that is where he will go.
Can it be addictive? I don’t think we have an answer to that question. It is my view that, in addition to biological factors, people are susceptible to addiction when the drug of choice, whatever it may be, provides a more reliable sense of well-being and calm and validation than anything else in their lives. If that becomes true of someone’s relation to the Internet then it may qualify as an addiction.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.