Vimeo / Mother
Vimeo / Mother

A Week Without the Internet

Vimeo / Mother
Vimeo / Mother

Mother London enlisted five people for an experiment: they agreed to spend a week without using the Internet. That meant no smartphone, no Twitter, no Facebook, no blogging, no email. Most of the five actually have jobs that typically require them to be online, which makes quitting particularly challenging -- but not impossible, as long as it's just a week (and they appear to have proxies helping them get the net parts of their jobs done). The resulting 13-minute documentary is interesting because it's so relatable. I think most of us can identify these behaviors in ourselves, and one massive "oh crap" moment is when one person realizes she must use paper maps to navigate. That's so last century, and quite frankly, I'm 100% GPS-reliant.

Representative line: "The definition of addiction is trying to control your use, and not being able to." I can definitely relate to the twitchy desire to check my phone, refresh my browser, and so on. Have a look, but be aware that this is rated PG-13-ish (there're a few f-bombs and a glimpse of thumbnail-sized partial nudity visible at an art show):

NO INTERNET WEEK: FULL DOCUMENTARY from Mother on Vimeo.

So what do you think? Is it feasible to take a week off from the Internet every year?

On the other end of the voluntary/involuntary treatment spectrum, let's take a visit to China, where Internet addiction has been considered a medical disorder since 2008, and grim "Internet Addiction Treatment Centers" (read: creepy bootcamps) are used in an attempt to unhook the cord.

This look inside one camp is truly grim, and not just because of the conditions there -- it seems that some of these kids are not actually "addicted to the Internet" as much as they "have complicated relationships with their parents." While Internet abuse is considered a legitimate disorder in many places (including the U.S.), in China things are a bit more intense. Wow:

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How Much Smartphone Use Is Too Much?
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Since the iPhone debuted in 2007, ushering in the age of the phone-as-computer, smartphone use has exploded worldwide, with an estimated 2.3 billion users last year. According to a 2016 Pew Research survey, 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone, and other recent stats have found that users are on their phones an average of more than five hours per day—almost double the rate in 2013. More people now use a mobile device to get online than they do a computer. This is especially true in regions where people may not be able to afford a personal computer but can buy a smartphone.

We love our smartphones perhaps a little too much, and the desire to unplug is growing among people who see 24/7 connectedness as damaging to their mental health. This week, Apple announced new iPhone features meant to curb our dependence on our devices, including a weekly "Report" app that shows your phone and app usage, as well as how many times you physically pick up your phone. (One small study by the consumer research firm Dscout found that we touch our phones more than 2600 times a day.) You can also set customized limits for overall phone usage with the "Screen Time" app.

Many of us feel anxiety at the very thought of being without their phone and the access it offers to the internet. Researchers have a term for it: nomophobia ("no mobile phone phobia"). So how much smartphone use is too much?

That turns out to be a surprisingly difficult question to answer. "Smartphone addiction" isn't an official medical diagnosis. Even the experts haven't decided how much is too much—or even whether smartphone addiction is real.

DEFINING ADDICTION

To understand what's going on, we have to first step back and define what addiction is. It's different from habits, which are subconsciously performed routines, and dependence, when repeated use of something causes withdrawals when you stop. You can be dependent on something without it ruining your life. Addiction is a mental disorder characterized by compulsive consumption despite serious adverse consequences.

Yet, our understanding of behavioral addictions—especially ones that don't involve ingesting mind-altering chemicals—is still evolving. Actions that result in psychological rewards, such as a crushing a castle in Clash Royale or getting a new ping from Instagram, can turn compulsive as our brains rewire to seek that payoff (just like our smartphones, our brains use electricity to operate, and circuits of neurons can restructure to skew toward rewards). For a minority of people, it seems those compulsions can turn to addictions.

Psychologists have been treating internet addiction for almost as long as the internet has been around: Kimberly Young, a clinical psychologist and program director at St. Bonaventure University, founded the Center for Internet Addiction back in 1995. By 2013, addictive behavior connected to personal technology was common enough that in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the bible for mental disorder diagnoses, the American Psychiatric Association included "internet gaming disorder" as a condition "warranting further study." These days, thanks to an abundance of horror stories involving people who were glued to the internet until they died—and living gamers who are so engrossed in their games that they ignore paramedics removing dead gamers—internet rehabs are popping up all over the world.

But in virtually all of the medical literature published so far about internet addiction—including the WHO's forthcoming 11th edition of International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), whose "excessive use of the internet" is built around how much gaming interferes with daily life—there's no mention of smartphones.

According to Marc Potenza, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine, there's a reason for these omissions: Despite the official definitions included in the DSM-V and ICD-11, "there's debate regarding the use of those terms [internet addiction]. Both the ICD-11 group and the DSM-V group chose to focus on the behavior rather than the delivery device."

So while you may feel nomophobia when you can't find your internet "delivery device," the global psychiatric community thinks it's the internet itself that's the problem—not the phone in your hand.

THE REWARDS THAT COME FROM OUR PHONES

We are getting something from our phones, though, and it's not just access to the internet. Receiving a notification gives us a small dopamine burst, and we learn to associate that dose of pleasure with the smartphone. You may pull your phone from your pocket a dozen times an hour to check for notifications—even if you know they're not there because your phone would have, well, notified you.

It's not unusual for people to become attached to an action (checking the phone) rather than its reward (getting a notification). Sometimes smokers trying to quit feel the urge to chew or bite and need to replace cigarettes with gum or sunflower seeds. According to Stephanie Borgland, a neuroscientist and associate professor at University of Calgary, this is called a Pavlovian-instrumental transfer—a reference to Ivan Pavlov's experiments, in which he reinforced behavior in dogs through signals and rewards. Borgland tells Mental Floss that we can become compulsively attached to the cues of phone use. We cling to the physical stimuli our brains have linked to the reward.

There may be an evolutionary basis to this behavior. Like other primates, humans are social mammals, but we have dramatically higher levels of dopamine than our cousins. This neurotransmitter is associated with reward-motivated behavior. So when we get a notification on an app that tells us someone has engaged us in social interaction—which we naturally crave—it triggers our natural inclinations.

HOW TO CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (FOR YOUR PHONE)

The global psychiatric community may not be convinced our smartphones are a problem, and no one has died from checking Snapchat too often—or at least it hasn't been reported. But most of us would say that spending five hours a day on our smartphones is too much. So are there any guidelines?

At this stage of research into smartphone use, there are no specific time-limit recommendations, though some researchers are working on a smartphone addiction scale; one was proposed in a 2013 study in the journal PLOS One. Based on what's said to be coming out in the ICD-11, here's one simple guideline: Problematic smartphone use negatively interferes with your life. Some research suggests Facebook, Instagram, and even online gaming make us feel more isolated and less connected. The more we try to fill that hole by tapping away at our phones, the more we crave social interaction. "There are a number of factors that have been associated with these behaviors or conditions," says Potenza, who is developing tools to screen for and assess problematic internet use and has consulted with the WHO on these issues. "And arguably one of the most consistent ones is depression."

One way to assess whether your smartphone is a problem is noting how you react when you're cut off from it, according to the PLOS One study. The study proposed a "smartphone addiction scale" based on negative responses to being without a smartphone, among other criteria. What happens on a day when you accidentally leave it at home? Are you irritable or anxious? Do you feel isolated from friends or unsafe? Do you have trouble concentrating on work, school, or other important responsibilities, whether or not you have your phone?

While smartphones may not be truly addictive in a medical sense, learning how to use them in a more mindful, healthy manner couldn't hurt. Test yourself for nomophobia [PDF]—knowing how much time you spend online is the first step to identifying how that can be problematic. Block distracting sites or track usage via a timer or an app (beware third-party apps' privacy settings, however). Delete the apps that keep the phone in your hand even when you're not online, like games. If you're still struggling, you could ditch smartphones altogether and downgrade to a "dumb" phone or get a Light Phone, a cellular device "designed to be used as little as possible."

A recent WIRED feature argued that using the internet five hours per day isn't a personal failing so much as a reflection of the way many apps are purposely designed to keep you salivating for more. So perhaps the best measure is to leave your phone behind once in a while. Schedule a screen-free Sunday. Go for a walk in the woods. Meditate. Socialize instead of binging The Office again. Don’t worry—you’ll be fine.

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Beyond Boaty McBoatface: 9 Public Naming Contests That Ended Badly
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Boaty McBoatface is the little vessel that could—and did—change the internet. McBoatface was the people’s choice in a 2016 contest to name a research ship in the U.K., and although it was ultimately named after Sir David Attenborough, Boaty’s impact has been far-reaching. While this event didn't start the trend of trolling public naming contests, it arguably encouraged the practice.

Earlier this year, an Australian boat that had purportedly been named "Ferry McFerryface" by the public got swept up in a political scandal when the transport minister revealed he had ignored the popular vote in choosing McFerryface. He had hoped the name would garner "global attention" and, to some degree, it worked. There have also been reports of an owl named "Hooty McOwlface," and a recent naming contest for a pipe-inspecting robot in Kansas City generated suggestions such as "Botty McBotface," "Probey McProbeface", and "Pipey McPiperson." (Seemingly sick of this shtick, the public opted for “Jeff" instead.)

JSTORDaily even broke down the linguistics of “dishonoric epithets” like Mister Splashy Pants and Boaty McBoatface, explaining that we find them so funny because they’re “a kind of extended cutesy baby talk.” For more on Splashy and other internet naming contests that went horribly and hilariously awry, keep reading.

1. MISTER SPLASHY PANTS

Long before Boaty McBoatface, another public naming contest captured the collective imagination of internet users with too much time on their hands. In 2007, environmental group Greenpeace solicited name suggestions for one of the endangered humpback whales it had tagged. The organization hoped the contest would call attention to the Japanese Fisheries Agency’s plan to hunt 50 whales, but to their dismay, “Mister Splashy Pants” claimed 78 percent of the vote, beating out more serious suggestions like "Aiko," "Aurora," and "Shanti." One participant apparently figured out that they could submit two votes per second by disabling cookies, and they did so for 38 straight minutes, according to The A.V. Club. Users of Reddit and other sites soon discovered the contest and threw their support behind Splashy, and the rest is history.

Greenpeace initially bemoaned the results but eventually ended up embracing the humor in it, calling the whale “The Splashy-Panted One” in an article announcing the winner. Plus, the publicity surrounding the contest convinced the Japanese government to call off its hunt. A win-win for everyone, including the whale with the splashy new name.

2. S.S. SHOULD'VE BEEN A BRIDGE

BC Ferry Services, a transportation company in British Columbia, got a rude awakening when it asked customers to name three of its ferries back in 2015. Some commuters, who were less than pleased with recent fare increases, used the poll to voice their distaste. Among the 7100 entries were “S.S. ShouldveBeenABridge,” “Spirit of the WalletSucker,” “Queen of No Other Choice,” and “The Floating Crapsickle.” Ouch. Fortunately for BC Ferries, the rules stipulated that the winner be chosen by the company and not by popular vote. In a tribute to British Columbia's indigenous Coast Salish population, the vessels were named “Salish Orca,” “Salish Eagle,” and “Salish Raven." The company didn’t write the contest off as a complete catastrophe, though. Mike Corrigan, CEO of BC Ferries, told Business in Vancouver that the sardonic suggestions “really promoted the naming contest" for them.

3. FRED DURST SOCIETY OF THE HUMANITIES AND ARTS

Fred Durst in 2000
Lucy Nicholson, AFP/Getty Images

Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst has lent his lyrical talents to timeless nu metal hits such as Nookie and Break Stuff, and he nearly lent his name to a solid waste department in Austin, Texas. In 2011, residents participating in a public naming contest overwhelmingly voted in favor of a suggestion by 24-year-old local Kyle Hentges to rename the department the “Fred Durst Society of the Humanities and Arts.” It received 27,000 more votes than the runner-up, “Department of Neat and Clean.”

“I thought naming the department after Durst would surround the unflattering service with some humor," Hentges told the Austinist at the time. "We’re picking up garbage and he’s been producing it for 20 years. It made sense.” Durst himself reportedly gave the name his blessing, but Austin wasn’t having it. They ultimately went with “Austin Resource Recovery" in a move that would neither offend nor intrigue.

4. STEAGLE COLBEAGLE THE EAGLE

Talk show host Stephen Colbert is the master of hijacking online naming contests. In 2009, NASA held a poll to find a new name for Node 3, one of the modules of the International Space Station. “Colbert” was the uncontested winner, thanks to the comedian’s loyal fan base, but NASA instead opted to name the node Tranquility after the moon’s Sea of Tranquility, the landing site of the Apollo 11 mission. However, NASA did name a treadmill in the space station in his honor, dubbing it the “Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (C.O.L.B.E.R.T.).”

Prior to that, “Colbert” won both a bridge-naming contest in Hungary and a mascot-naming contest in Michigan in 2006. In the former instance, Colbert announced on The Colbert Report that he had beaten out "Chuck Norris" and “17th-century Hungarian hero Miklós Zrínyi,” but the Hungarian government opted for another name because monuments in Hungary can only be named after dead people. In one of the rare instances when the results of a public naming poll were actually honored, the Michigan-based junior ice hockey team Saginaw Spirit christened their mascot “Steagle Colbeagle the Eagle” after the Colbert nation “vote-bombed” their website.

5. SOYLENT GREEN

When your target market happens to be teenage boys, it’s probably best not to let your customers pick out a name for a new product. The makers of Mountain Dew learned this the hard way back in 2012 when it hosted a “Dub the Dew” poll for a green apple-flavored soda. As the suggestions started to roll in, they went from bad to worse. Some, like “Sierra Mist” and “Soylent Green,” were relatively harmless when compared to the names that topped the leaderboard, like “diabeetus” and “Hitler did nothing wrong” (which claimed the top spot). Mountain Dew apologized for the "compromised" promotion and quickly shut it down.

6. A GIRL NAMED CTHULHU

An figure of Cthulhu

Chase Norton, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Imagine growing up and learning that you’re named after an ocean-dwelling, tentacled monster from an H.P. Lovecraft story. That could have been the case for one baby girl who was nearly christened “Cthulhu” after her parents called upon the internet to name their newborn in 2014. There were conditions, though. In an addendum to the online poll on the website NameMyDaughter, the father wisely wrote:

“Hi, My name is Stephen and much to the disbelief of my wife, I have decided to let the internet name* my daughter. Yeah that is an asterisk. Unfortunately, internet, I know better than to trust you. We will ultimately be making the final decision. Alas, my daughter shall not be named WackyTaco692.”

As Business Insider reported, they ultimately went with the runner-up, Amelia, which was surprisingly normal compared to some of the other suggestions, including "Megatron" and "Streetlamp."

7. THE HARRY BAALS GOVERNMENT CENTER

When the residents of Fort Wayne, Indiana, voted to name a government building “Harry Baals” after an actual mayor who served the town in the 1930s and then again in the 1950s, local officials weren’t convinced that they did so out of a shared admiration for the late politician. While some voters were genuine fans of Baals (whose descendants changed the pronunciation from "balls" to “bales”), local officials scrapped the suggestion to prevent the town from becoming a laughing stock. “We realize that while Harry Baals was a respected mayor, not everyone outside of Fort Wayne will know that,” Deputy Mayor Beth Malloy told the Associated Press in 2011. It was ultimately named Citizens Square.

8. JOHN CENA ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

At John Cena Elementary School, one would imagine that the children are taught The Champ’s signature wrestling moves, from the Five Knuckle Shuffle to the Running One-Handed Bulldog. Indeed, one school in Austin, Texas, nearly shared a name with the WWE champion in 2016 when the district decided that its Confederate-inspired name, Robert. E. Lee Elementary School, should be consigned to history. In a public naming contest launched by the district, "John Cena" was one of several suggestions that trailed behind "Donald J. Trump Elementary," the most popular choice. Other suggestions included “Bruce Lee Elementary,” “The Adolf Hitler School for Friendship and Tolerance,” and of course, “Schoolie McSchoolface.” The school board, unsurprisingly, rejected those ideas and instead named the school after photographer Russell Lee.

9. HARAMBABY

A bronze statue of a gorilla and her baby
John Sommers II, Getty Images

Much like Boaty, Harambe was the viral joke that won't go away. In 2016, three months after a gorilla named Harambe was fatally shot at the Cincinnati Zoo when a boy fell into the animal's enclosure, the internet predictably suggested that a newborn gorilla at the Philadelphia Zoo be named after the fallen ape. Before the contest was even officially announced, Twitter users started to proffer some suggestions, including “Harambe McKongface,” “Harambaby,” “Harambae,” and “Harambe’s Revenge." The zoo was quick to clarify that it would pre-select a few names before putting it to a public vote, and the winner ended up being "Amani," meaning "peace" in Swahili.

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