Time Online: How Much Is Too Much?

There’s a new survey released by Rasmussen Reports — most commonly known for their political polling — that describes peoples’ perceptions of online use. The bottom-line statistic is that 23% of adults surveyed believe that they spend too much time online. Drill down the numbers, and it gets more interesting.

Seventy-one percent (71%) disagree and believe the amount of time they spend this way is appropriate.

Seventy-five percent (75%), however, believe young children spend too much time on computers and other electronic equipment.

[…]

Adults ages 18 to 29 are much more closely divided on the question of personal use than those in any other age group: 44% say they spend too much time online and using mobile devices, while 51% say they do not. But 80%-plus of those 50 and older don’t think they spend too much time like this.

Non-married adults worry more than those who are married that they’re spending too much time this way.

Here, of course, is the question behind the question: how much is too much? Everyone is going to answer this question differently, leading us to the increasingly common tendency in our culture to describe excessive Internet use through the model of addiction.

And here’s where I’d like to encourage you to think a little differently, because it can be easy, following an “addiction” mindset, to go down the following paths:

“I didn’t think I had a Problem at all…. until I hit some sort of wall and realized that I do have a Problem.”
“I am ready to say that yes, I am an Internet Addict.”
“I thought my Internet use was Harmless, but now I see that it is Harmful.”
“I admit that I am powerless over my Internet addiction.”

The problem with these principles is that they’re all-or-nothing. You either are an Addict or you’re not — completely. The Internet is either a completely positive presence in your life, or a thoroughly harmful one. And if you decide, given the evidence of harm, that the Internet is a Bad Thing in your life, does this imply that total abstinence is the one and only answer?

I would say no.

A much more realistic way to assess this (or, really, any) element of your life is to recognize that it’s a mixed bag, with both positive and negative elements. Here’s an example of how one person might evaluate the pluses and minuses:

“Spending a lot of time online is a lot of fun, feeds my curiosity, puts me in touch with distant friends, and sometimes calms my nerves or gives me a comforting escape. On the other hand, it can result in losing sleep when I stay up surfing or chatting at all hours, I find myself neglecting important offline tasks that need doing, and I’m preoccupying myself online lately to keep from feeling some sad things I’m going through in my life right now.”

Your own experiences and values might match the above example, or not. What’s important here is that you judge your time online not by an arbitrary number of hours, or by some theoretical principle of how much is “too much,” but by the actual effects on your life, both positive and negative.

There’s much more to say here, and I do this sort of work with clients around these types of concerns, but let me leave you with this question: if you determine that the negative effects of excessive online time are serious enough that you want to make a change, are there practical ways for you to reduce the harm while keeping the benefit?

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Posted in Internet addiction, Mental Health, Online culture Tagged with: ,

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