why the internet is addictive and what you can do about it


“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.” 1 Corinthians 6:12

As long as we are talking about reasons Christians should be careful with social media, there is this one other little thing.

The internet is addictive. Even if you aren’t narcissistic, you are likely to be online more than you should be, or even want to be. This can complicate your life and ministry. And it can complicate the lives of people you love.

So here’s why, and what to do about it.

why the internet is addictive

The why has to do with new research about brain chemistry, which shows that we have a physiological—and pleasurable—response whenever we seek new information. And the internet is the most convenient, and perhaps most addictive, source of new knowledge mankind has ever encountered.

Here is how it work: Dopamine causes us to seek, desire, and search. While it was once thought to be related to our ability to experience pleasure, it has come to be seen as causing us to want it. It makes us curious. It increases desire, not just for food or sex but also information. And in perspective this is a good thing—we are motivated to learn and grow and understand.

So, whenever we learn something new, we feel a sense of satisfaction. There is a little rewarding ping in our brain. But with Twitter or texting, for example, there is a ping on our phone too. As with Pavlov’s dogs, our dopamine system is extremely sensitive to cues that a reward is coming.

And the feedback loop is much shorter, almost as if we are rewarded for seeking information in the instant we seek it, not to mention that the amount of information we get is often so small we immediately seek more information—Google it, text back, ask questions, give it our attention. Dopamine explains how people become addicted to gambling or drugs—and to the internet.  It sets them off seeking the satisfaction, not the satisfaction itself. The thing we are addicted to is often not that satisfying at all.

In this case, it is the seeking of new information. That’s why you go online to look up milk allergies, and three hours later you are reading about Mayan temples. Long after we found what we are looking for, we continue to look. Every click is a a new source of stimulation. Hyperlinks are the brain’s chocolate, and most of us have not figured out how to say no soon enough. Or even if we want to.

how to manage your internet addiction

In the Monday posts to come, I will be addressing the positive uses of social media, encouraging sustained, transparent and constructive uses of these tools. Social media is a powerful tool I believe we must master.

But we must not be mastered by it. So, being aware of the internet’s addictive potential, we should all consider:

Setting boundaries. Don’t take your social media to bed with you. Or to the dinner table. Set your phone face down when you are talking with friends. Make some rules. And keep them.

Turning off notifications. Remember Pavlov’s dogs? Every time your phone dings you don’t have to look at it. Whatever it is, it can wait until you finish driving or reading to your kids. People lived for millennia without knowing their best friend just brushed their teeth.

Getting help. Give a friend permission to ask about your social media (over)use. Or to point out your violations of whatever rules you established. If it is serious enough, see a pastor or counselor. If you have a problem, it is serious and will only get worse. There are reasons for this. But they are not excuses.

As the Apostle put it, “Let your moderation be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.”



For a pop science perspective, see this article in Psychology Today.

Looking for something a little deeper?  Try this article in Atlantic Monthly.

Doing research on this topic?  Start here.

Comment?  You know you want to.  See below.

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