In a Twitter tizzy...

Toula Foscolos
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Addicted to the temporary high of the momentary distraction

It started innocuously enough at first. More and more, I noticed that I needed to incessantly check my Twitter and Facebook accounts. Before even getting out of bed, before going to sleep, on my way to work, at work, while watching TV, while having dinner with friends…

Toula Foscolos

I didn’t think much of it initially. After all, staying informed was – and continues to be-- an integral part of my job, and since I oversee a number of newspaper-related social media accounts, there was nothing disconcerting about my behaviour. On the contrary, I prided myself on my work ethic. No matter the time of day, I was in cyberspace. Connected with the world…

Then, this past Saturday, I took a book to my local breakfast hang-out, and between sips of coffee, attempted to catch up on some solitary reading. Every couple of minutes, I caught myself glancing over at my iPhone, left in clear view on the table, occasionally picking it up to see if anything had happened in the mere five minutes I stopped following the world so I could catch up on my book. A book, I must add, that wasn’t an easy read. Treating a complicated subject, it required my attention and the discipline to turn everything else off and focus on what the author was trying to communicate. Instead, I would pause with every notification that someone “liked” my status or my Instagram picture; with every “ping” of a text message coming in.

I became frustrated with my complete and utter inability to concentrate at the task at hand, and wistfully reminisced about my years as a child and as a teenager. Days when I would lose myself in a book so completely, so obsessively, that re-immersing back into reality felt like a violent jolt back into a world I had temporarily forgotten even existed. Now, that world can’t seem to get off my back.

That very same weekend, I went to spend some time lounging by the Sir Georges Etienne Cartier Public Pool in St. Henri. When I pulled out my phone to – what else? - fiddle around on Twitter, the young lifeguard quickly reprimanded me, informing me that no devices equipped with a camera were allowed on the premises. The part of my brain that understands the logic behind this decision applauded the South West borough for enforcing what many other public pools do not. The other part of my brain - the part that’s addicted to a mind-numbing churning out of information- momentarily panicked. I’m not exaggerating to make a point. I momentarily panicked. I came to realize that I can’t stand not being informed, entertained, occupied, fed stats, and challenged every second of every day. Like Pavlov’s dogs, every time I hear the bell I’m salivating. But in my case, the bell is the mere sight and interaction of the web. It’s addictive. And it’s dangerous.

“Future generations will look back on TV as the lead in the water pipes that slowly drove the Romans mad,” Kurt Vonnegut once said, referring to the overload of trivial information and entertainment provided by the Boob tube. He would have been terrified if he had lived to see how he had accurately predicted the avalanche of trite and inconsequential facts we’re bombarded with on a daily basis via social media.

A journalist friend of mine – one who makes her living on the web, no less- confessed recently that it’s taking a toll on her. “I can't focus on anything anymore. My attention span is ridiculous.”

In a recent Newsweek article journalist Tony Dokoupil asked the question: “Is the Web Driving Us Mad?”

I’m no scientist, but based on my behaviour (and of those around me), I’m going to go ahead and say yes. It’s not an insane “mad”, of course, but there’s a maniacal, excessive, frustrating quality to this behaviour that’s troublesome.

“Research is now making it clear that the Internet is not “just” another delivery system. It is creating a whole new mental environment, a digital state of nature where the human mind becomes a spinning instrument panel, and few people will survive unscathed,” writes Dokoupil.

When the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is released next year, Internet Addiction Disorder will be included for the first time, albeit in an appendix tagged for “further study. I predict that future studies will also indicate higher- than-average addiction rates for journalists and those who, because of their personalities and the demands of their jobs, need to be the first to share a story.

More than a hundred years ago, author, philosopher, noted naturalist, and lover of a simple life, Henry David Thoreau, said: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” He was, of course, referring to material possessions, but the message remains just as relevant today as when it was first written.

This constant barrage of information, this all-pervasive onslaught of links, this non-stop pulling at our attention… we can’t afford to let any of it alone, because we’ve become addicted to the instant gratification and the temporary high of the momentary distraction.

A journalist friend of mine – one who makes her living on the web, no less- confessed recently that it’s taking a toll on her. “I can't focus on anything anymore. My attention span is ridiculous.”

It’s so strange that a medium, which has enabled us to have the world at our fingertips, is also responsible for our inability to focus on any of it.

It’s a strange, co-dependent, obsessive-compulsive place to be. I don’t like it, but I’m also not sure I want to live anywhere else at the moment.  If that’s not addiction, I don’t know what is…

Organizations: Newsweek, Twitter

Geographic location: South West

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