Internet addiction is one of those insidious habits that sneaks up on a person. Everybody knows that cocaine is a bad idea, gambling the risk of a stroke or a desperate existence, for a brief high. But growing virtual chili peppers seems innocent enough. How is it possible that playing a cooperative online game can become an addiction? Pretty odd, when you think about it.
Yet behavioral addictions are scary, and do a lot of damage to a person’s life journey already in progress. People awaken and realize that they are more involved in the farm than they planned to be, the rest of life is stalled, online friends are getting annoyed, and yet the path leading out of Farmville isn’t nearly as enchanting as the path leading in. That’s a sign of addiction, when a person doesn’t feel quite right without the activity they happen to enjoy. When something has become so much a part of you that you’re not free to move on, even when you are convinced that it’s time, there’s reason to pause and reflect. Addiction is about being stuck doing the thing one believes to be empty: it’s about loss of freedom.
It’s not just Farmville that poses the odd addiction risk, of course. People have become concerned about their own experience of too much texting, as well as online chatting, shopping, or trading. Part of the ambiguity of behavioral addictions, that confuses our intuitions and our inner warning system, is that the actions are often not themselves risky or dangerous. Farmville does offer fun and challenge. Online shopping is efficient, sparing our life journey its more annoying side trips to the mall, and taking us around the world. Online activities are not a problem until the balance of our lives gets skewed, and we depend upon them to do something they cannot do: make our lives whole.
If internet addiction were like cocaine, we could just quit; but it’s not that easy. We can’t quit the internet in the hope of avoiding addiction, because every aspect of daily life is online now, for most of us. Besides, we could easily find a new behavioral addiction offline, and we generally do. Internet addiction is not very different, really, from addiction to food: we have to eat, and we probably know all we need to about a balanced diet. Yet smart, resourceful people often awaken in distress, to discover that their love of food has taken them to a dangerous place. Food gives them comfort when upset; they agree, and if they are addicted, they just keep eating. If addiction is about remaining stuck doing the thing one believes to be empty, or even dangerous, does addiction explain how it is that we sometimes stay in bad relationships for far too long?
The uneasy truth is that we are all at risk of behavioral addictions, and less free than we could be. If we notice that we are clinging to things in the hope that they will fill our lives, even when we know that they can’t, we have come to a place of awakening. This insight is always the beginning of a new journey. Bring virtual chili peppers, if you like, but know that they alone will not sustain you.