According to Dr. Jerald J. Block, writing in the March issue of The American Journal of Psychiatry, those of us who constantly check our in-boxes, refresh Web-sites for new headlines, or spend hours on Twitter or Facebook may actually be suffering from a compulsive-impulse spectrum disorder. In other words, Internet addiction. For those of us also suffering from information overload, the idea that we crave the very thing that is arguably the cause of the crushing weight of information that looms over us may seem counter-intuitive, however, just as any other addiction, both the Internet and technology cast a strange spell over us.
Dr. Block identifies four components of Internet addiction that are worth examining, all of which are, no doubt, eerily familiar to knowledge workers who ply their trade through increasingly electronic means.
First, and most obvious, is excessive use. Trying to determine what is deemed excessive is problematic, but the established criteria are the following: a loss of sense of time, or the neglect of basic drives. So if you missed dinner because you were buried in work and lost track of time and didn’t realize that you were hungry, then it might be time to take a break.
The second trait is withdrawal. Any knowledge worker who has found it next to impossible to go all weekend without checking e-mail or using the Internet, will be familiar with the feeling of being disconnected and frustrated. In information overload terms, we know that the pile is just getting bigger and bigger the longer we stay away, and we seem to prefer to chip away at it a bit at a time.
Next, a more subtle symptom, is tolerance. This explains why we always think our Internet connection is too slow, that if we just had one more piece of software things would really start moving along, and why the shift from only using a computer for a specific task (often turning it on and off to do one thing) to being constantly on-line seems so natural to us. We have built up a huge tolerance to the Internet, and technology in general. This is why we are able to deal with up to 500 e-mails a day, when only ten years ago, we struggled with perhaps as few as 100.
Finally, and most importantly, Internet addiction is marked by negative repercussions. For knowledge workers, this is where maintaining a healthy work-life balance comes into play. When Internet and technology use leads to arguments, lying, isolation, or fatigue, then it is time to reexamine the work-life balance. This is increasingly difficult in today’s interconnected and wired world, but needs to be a priority.
What do these components of Internet addiction mean to the knowledge worker? They are the indicators, the red flags that we need to be aware of; not just for ourselves, but for each other. Managing knowledge workers effectively means understanding the importance of encouraging responsible and healthy use of technology, and the value of unplugging and disconnecting from time to time.
Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.