Life in the Age of Internet Addiction

The vast majority of the American population is mildly addicted to technology.

Anyone who spends their day staring at screens can speak to the modern-day epidemic of eye fatigue. But what is our digital obsession doing to our brains?

Researchers have noted a rise in something called Digital Attention Disorder — the addiction to social networks and computers in general.

How does it work? More than 50 years ago, psychologist B.F. Skinner was experimenting on rats and pigeons, and noticed that the unpredictability of reward was a major motivator for animals. If a reward arrives either predictably or too infrequently, the animal eventually loses interest. But when there was anticipation of a reward that comes with just enough frequency, the animals' brains would consistently release dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that (basically) regulates pleasure.

What does this have to do with the Internet? Some researchers believe that intermittent reinforcement — in the form of texts, tweets, and various other social media — may be working on our brains the same way rewards did on Skinner's rats.

"Internet addiction is the same as any other addiction — excessive release of dopamine," says Hilarie Cash, executive director of the reStart program for Internet addiction and recovery, a Seattle-area rehab program that helps wean people off the Internet. "Addiction is addiction. Whether it's gambling, cocaine, alcohol, or Facebook."

"The vast majority of the American population is mildly addicted to technology, and our clinic treats only very serious cases," she told me in a phone interview. "Most of the people that come are young adult males around the ages of 18 to 30 who spend a lot of time on the Internet. Their health is poor, their social relationships have turned to crap, they have no social confidence or real-world friends. They don't date. They don't work."

Cash continued:

Internet and video game addiction starts young. Most young men are given computer or video games when they are five or six years old and therefore their childhood development is profoundly wired for these activities. It's quite different to drug addicts and alcoholics who are usually exposed to drugs or alcohol closer to the age of 15. Internet addicts usually have 15 to 20 years of addiction on them due to starting younger.

The problem isn't just young men, either. "Women are getting addicted, too," Cash told me. "Although women usually become addicted later in life and, more often than not, directly to social media, while men are more adept to becoming addicted to multiplayer games. Women seem to juggle addiction and life better than men."

So how does Cash's program work? According to the website: "Our professionally trained clinicians understand technology related process addictions, and the impact problematic use has on life. We work with individuals, couples and families to promote a better understanding of problematic technology use; assist users in discovering the underlying issues (e.g., depression, anxiety, ADHD, learning differences, stress, family relationship issues, and addictions) that may be co-occurring with excessive use patterns; and work together to design an individualized plan to promote a healthy, balanced lifestyle."

Now, at "just under $20,000" for a minimum 45-day Internet rehab (60- and 90- day options are available), the reStart program may not be for everyone. Indeed, you could always just... turn off your phone and computer.

Still, the new wave of young Internet addicts that Cash describes might be heralding something sinister for future generations: We've all seen the ease at which a toddler can operate an iPhone or iPad. These days, maybe kids are just born addicted to the Internet.

Read the DSM's 8 criteria of Internet addiction here.


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Google's Government-Snooping Data Dump: By the Numbers

The search giant is getting swamped by warrantless requests for users' information.

"It may be easier than you think for government entities to demand the private data you've stored on Google's servers," says Andy Greenberg at Forbes. In its latest biannual Transparency Report, Google has announced yet another rise in the number of government and law enforcement requests for data on users — anything from web surfing habits to identifying who owns an email account to the content of emails — and for the first time broke down the U.S. requests by how the authorities asked for the information. In the vast majority of cases, officials didn't bother with a search warrant — the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) allows authorities to just issue subpoenas for data that's at least six months old.

The king of search complies with about 90 percent of U.S. government snooping requests, "but Google's willingness to reveal this data in the first place should be seen as a credit to the company's respect for privacy," says Greenberg, and one not shared by its peers — Microsoft and Facebook — or wireless carriers. The government authorities asking to peer into your electronic life don't inspire much confidence, either, says Matt Sledge at The Huffington Post. At a tech panel devoted to investigating how the government obtained the emails exposing former Gen. David Petraeus' career-ending extramarital affair, Google legal director Richard Salgado dropped this "depressing and revealing factoid about how law enforcement is actually using its subpoena and warrant powers to get information" about you: "I can't tell you how many requests we get for Facebook."

Here's a numerical look at how often U.S. and foreign governments try to tap into the e-lives of Google users, and how often they succeed.

21,389 = Government requests for data worldwide from July to December 2012

33,634 = User accounts targeted in those searches

66 = Percent of those requests that resulted in Google handing over at least some data

20,938 = Government requests for data from January to June 2012

70 = Percentage rise in number of requests for data since 2009

8,438 = Requests from U.S. government authorities and investigators from July to December 2012

68 = Percent of those requests that came through subpoenas instead of court-issued warrants

88 = Percent of those requests Google complied with

22 = Percent of requests that were through search warrants, usually approved by judges under the ECPA

88 = Percent of those requests Google complied with

10 = Percent of requests from "court orders issued under ECPA by judges or other processes that are difficult to categorize"

90 = Percent of those requests Google complied with

2,431 = Data requests from India

66 = Percentage of those requests Google complied with

1,693 = Data requests from France

44 = Percentage of those requests Google complied with

1,458 = Data requests from the UK

70 = Percentage of those requests Google complied with

97 = Data requests from Russia

1 = Percentage of those requests Google complied with

149 = Data requests from Turkey

0 = Percentage of those requests Google complied with


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10 Acronyms with Unintended Double Meanings

The Wisconsin Tourism Federation realized in 2009 that geek-speak had made its acronym WTF pretty laughable.

In 2010, New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority announced that it would be rearranging some of its subway signs because they resembled a slightly naughty bit of internet slang. The signage for the F, M, and L lines read "FML," which savvy web users know as self-deprecating shorthand for "F*** My Life." The double meaning of its signs caught the transit authority off guard, but they worked quickly to switch around the letters. New York's subways are hardly the first victims of acronym problems, though.
According to Ethan Trex in Mental Floss, here are 10 other organizations, places, and businesses that have realized a bit too late that their initials meant a little more than they had intended.

1. WTF
In 2009, the Wisconsin Tourism Federation's biggest problem wasn't finding a way to attract more people to the metropolitan Kenosha area; it was the realization that its initials mirrored the slang abbreviation for "What the F---?" The WTF from America's Dairyland has been around since 1979, so it likely predates the vulgar WTF. In the end, though, you can't fight an internet meme. The organization changed its name to the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin.

The WTF's only consolation must be that it's not alone. In 2008, the North Carolina DMV allowed drivers whose license plates contained "WTF" to swap out their tags free of charge. The DMV also had to change its website; the sample plate pictured on the site was "WTF-5505."

2. DOA
In a move that must have been unsettling for thousands of Iowa's seniors, the state changed the name of its Department of Elder Affairs to the Department on Aging, or DOA, in 2009. Something's telling us that the change hasn't helped Iowa's elderly sleep any easier. The organization now goes by IDA, for Iowa Department on Aging.

3. AIDS
When Joan Woehrmann started her ambulance company in Whittier, Calif., in 1955, she hit on a pretty brilliant acronym: AIDS. The letters stood for "attitude, integrity, dependability, and service," which are all great qualities for an ambulance line. The name was also easy to remember in times of crisis.

She didn't foresee the name eventually signifying one of the greatest medical catastrophes of the century, though. By 1985, The Los Angeles Times reported that Woehrmann's drivers were being taunted and that the public mistakenly started to think that the line only transported AIDS patients.

Finally, she had enough and changed the line's name to "AME," even giving up the ambulances' customized line of "AIDS 1" and "AIDS 2" license plates.

4. SUX
While FAA identifiers for airports aren't technically acronyms, the three-letter codes can give rise to their own headaches. Just ask the Sioux City Gateway Airport, which the FAA saddled with the unfortunate designator "SUX." Airport authorities petitioned for a new code, and the FAA — "this is not a joke" — offered them "GAY" as a nod to the "Gateway" part of the airport's name.

Sioux City decided that switching to GAY probably wouldn't save them much sophomoric taunting, so officials decided to make the best of the SUX situation. Now the airport markets playful t-shirts emblazoned with slogans like "Fly SUX."

SUX might not even be the worst airport code. According to a 2008 Los Angeles Times story, Fresno's is FAT, and Perm, Russia's is PEE. The big winner has to be Fukuoka, Japan, though. We'll let you guess how that one gets abbreviated.

5. SLUT
In 2007, Seattle opened a new streetcar line connecting the South Lake Union neighborhood to the city's downtown. While the project was officially called the South Lake Union Streetcar, local residents began ribbing it as the South Lake Union Trolley, or SLUT. Although the city and the line's developers did what they could to dispel the notion that the line had a bawdy name, residents still refer to it as the SLUT; in 2007 the Seattle Post-Intelligencer even reported that a coffeehouse was selling t-shirts that read, "Ride the SLUT." Cringe.

6. CCRAP
In 2000, delegates of Canada's United Alternative convention needed a name for their newly formed political party. They came up with Canadian Conservative Reform Alliance Party, which in addition to taking roughly six minutes to pronounce was abbreviated CCRAP. Organizers quickly realized the blunder and changed the party's name to the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance.

7. WPPSS
In 1998, the Washington Public Power Supply System chose to change its name to Energy Northwest to discourage people from pronouncing its unfortunate acronym as "Whoops!" The old name left the utility open to quite a bit of taunting in 1983, when the WPPSS defaulted on $2.25 billion worth of bonds. Whoops indeed.

8. POOF
In 1990, the Philharmonic Orchestra of Florida decided it had heard just about enough kidding about its acronym, POOF, which resembled an old offensive term for a homosexual man. The musicians changed their name to the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra.

9. THE C-WORD
In 2002, Microsoft had to do a little rearranging on the fly. It quickly and quietly changed its ribald "Critical Update Notification Tool" to the more family friendly "Critical Updated Notification Utility."

10. NIC
What's wrong with NIC? In English, nothing. In Arabic, a whole heck of a lot. When the Coalition Provisional Authority began planning new Iraqi armed forces in 2003, they originally called them the New Iraqi Corps. They hit a big snag, though. As ABC News reported, in Arabic "nic" is "a colorful synonym for fornication." The coalition quickly changed the name to the New Iraqi Army.
Go to the NetLingo List of Internet Acronyms & Text Message Jargon!

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Do your texts make you sound old?

Younger generations are far more adept at textspeak, a rich and subtle form of communication, according to Arika Okrent in The Week.

When people talk about textspeak — the acronyms, abbreviations, and emoticons used in electronic communication — their arguments (complaints, really) are usually framed around the idea of a generational decline. Kids text too much. Kids are forgetting how to spell and use proper grammar. College students are turning in term papers littered with textspeak!

It's the latest iteration of the same old story: Youngsters are ruining the language, and we are all doomed. But of course, just as in every previous iteration of the story, the language will be fine, and we are not doomed. Well, the youngsters aren't anyway.

English professor Anne Curzan, who in 20 years of teaching has never seen an essay using textspeak, writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how textspeak in the classroom can be a great teaching tool. She describes an exercise she does with her students to help them discover the implicit rules of their electronically mediated communication or "EMC" (not a textspeak abbreviation but an academic one). Rules? critics might say. Isn't EMC just a random, disorderly corruption of English? Apparently not:

One student noted that his dad texts like a junior-high-school airhead. His dad, it appears, doesn't yet have control of the stylistic choices that constitute 'sophisticated texting.' For several semesters now, I have asked students to compile with me a list of EMC etiquette rules, and I am struck by how detailed, creative, and consistent the rules are. Anyone who says that text language is chaotic isn't paying enough attention to the system of rules that users have developed to move real-time conversation into written form.

If students notice when the rules are being broken, then there must be rules. Older people, who don't get as much exposure to the conventions, get the conventions wrong. Do you use too many acronyms and abbreviations? Do you miss the subtle distinction between "ok." "ok!" and "ok…"? Do you still use LOL to represent laughter when it often means "just kidding"? ("hahaha" is a better choice for laughter.) Then you might be showing your age.

That's okay. It just means that if you don't want to be judged for not knowing the rules, you need to spend some time being exposed to them. The same goes for people who don't want to be judged for not knowing the rules of formal written English. Curzan, as an English professor, has the job of being that expert for the youngsters she teaches, and she has found an ingenious way to use what they know to help them learn what they might not yet know. Once they go through the exercise of discovering the rules of the systems they are most comfortable with, they can see "that the conventions of formal academic writing are just another set of rules for writing well in a specific register — maybe not as 'fun' as EMC but not in any way an alien exercise.

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