Ola Kacinska’s heart was racing as she watched the Charlottesville rally unfold back in August 2017. While taking in the events on Facebook, the fourth-year Ryerson professional communications student wanted to look away, but couldn’t bring herself to stop scrolling.
“It had such a huge impact on my mood and outlook on humanity,” she said of seeing white nationalists bearing tiki torches, neo-nazis chanting “blood and soil” and the video of Heather Heyer being murdered.
This compulsion to be perpetually logged in is internet addiction (IA) and a disease, according to the Ryerson Centre for Student Development and Counselling (CSDC) IA pamphlet, that affects students more than any other demographic.
In 1995, Dr. Ivan Goldberg, renowned psychiatrist and founder of PsyCom.Net, pranked the members of his site by posting about a fictitious mental illness he thought too satirical to ever be taken earnestly. The parody disease, “internet addiction disorder,” included symptoms of “activities being given up or reduced because of internet use,” “fantasies or dreams about the internet” and “involuntary typing movements of the fingers.”
Today’s “netaholics” – not unlike the fictional ones in Goldberg’s spoof – experience sleep deprivation over smartphone notifications, allow social media to distort their grasp on reality and suffer from tactile hallucinations like phantom vibration syndrome.
Although this phenomenon isn’t recognized in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, experts like Wade Sorochan, the author of Unsocial Media: Virtual World Causing Real World Anxiety, insist it’s “one of the greatest threats to our mental health right now” and will likely be added to the next DSM as an official illness.
“I don’t think we were made to process human suffering on this scale,” Sorochan said. He describes the present as an especially anxiety-inducing time to be online, with timelines saturated by political conflict, reports of natural disasters and uncensored graphic footage of mass shootings, terrorist attacks and police brutality.
“The more you enter the darkness of the virtual world, the less you feel good about your own life.”
For many students and other sufferers, “the internet is a form of escape and is used as an inadequate strategy for coping with stress,” reads the CSDC pamphlet. The web can be a maddening (if not downright unbearable) place to be, Sorochan argues, and those addicted need a retreat from their retreat.
On Twitter, U.S. President Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric often finds itself sandwiched between the memes and Kardashian pregnancy announcements we consume as relief, creating an “emotional roller coaster” of newsfeed juxtaposition more stark than ever. “Nowadays [the internet] is a constant tug of war,” echoed Kacinska. “Sometimes it’s inspiring or empowering me, and other times it’s destroying me.”
As previously reported by The Ryersonian, social media itself has long been known to compound mental illness and encourage feelings of inadequacy by inviting the constant making of social comparisons. For many with eating disorders, like Kacinska, who has struggled with one for much of her adult life, it can be triggering to see content like “ideal” body shapes and sizes in the “after” pictures of before and after collages that frequent the internet.
“I used to follow lots of health and fitness bloggers telling myself that it was a way of me putting my health first,” she said. “I didn’t realize I was doing the opposite and ended up hating myself and my body more.”
Making social comparisons often means comparing your behind-the-scenes to somebody else’s highlight reel, says Ryerson psychology grad student Alyssa Saiphoo.
“The idea of social media is that people are unedited, capturing and sharing right in the moment,” she said. “But that’s not the reality of how it’s used.” Just like many use the internet’s contrived presentations of perfection as barometers of beauty, success or happiness in their real lives, they now have recent tragedies weighing on them like personal crises.
“I don’t live in the States but I’m so invested,” said Kacinska. “Reading what people say [online] really upset me and made me feel powerless as if our future was doomed.”
If the internet has been a getaway for some, experts suggest it’s now more of an emotional danger zone where users can jump from cooing over dog videos to fearing nuclear holocaust in an instant.
Sorochan urges that viewers must become their own filters while attempting to maintain the balance between staying informed via a 24/7 stream of real-time updates and unplugging at the risk of falling into cultural ignorance. “There is enough human suffering in our own lives to deal with,” he said. “You have to control it before it controls you.”
If the #MeToo trend triggers your own trauma of sexual assault, he explains, you don’t always have to click. If footage of high schoolers hiding from an active gunman gives you nightmares, you don’t always have to watch. And if being online all together is no longer the enjoyable distraction from class, assignments and exams it once was, you should sign out.
“You’re not being heartless, you’re just protecting your mental health.”