Digital Overload

Season 2: Episode 2

What does it mean to grow up online? We investigate how the www is changing our bodies and our brains. A college student shares his experience at rehab for Internet addiction. Bestselling author Nir Eyal breaks down what apps borrow from gambling technology. Writer Heather Schwedel talks about taking a cue from Kanye and breaking up with Twitter. And blogger Joshua Cousins talks about the Internet as a lifeline, in the wake of recent natural disasters.
Published: January 22, 2018

Show Notes

Looking to reset your relationship with the Internet? Check out our digital detox kit. And if you still need something to stop your phone’s constant beep boops, we have the next best thing: an IRL ringtone.


Melissa Gardinetti: So, my name is Melissa Gardinetti and I have been using a smartphone since 2007.

Meighan Donaldson: My name is Meighan and I’ve been using since 2010.

Tariq Leslie: My name is Tariq and I have been using since 2007.

Marg Hernandez: My name is Marg and I have been using for maybe 12 years.

Veronica Belmont: and my name is Veronica Belmont and I have been using a smartphone since 2007. Like the four people you just heard from, I’m hooked on my phone. Maybe even addicted?

Meighan Donaldson: Not having my phone with me gives me a sense of anxiety.

Melissa Gardinetti: I go to set an alarm for the next day and then 20 minutes later I’m like in my brother’s ex-girlfriend’s cousin’s Instagram 200 weeks deep and I’m like, oh fuck. I was supposed to set my alarm. Sorry. Can I swear?

Tariq Leslie: It’s created an addictive mechanism that it’s hard to shut off in the way that we used to.

Melissa Gardinetti: It’s just 100% a part of my life.

Marg Hernandez: That’s healthy, right?

Veronica Belmont: Hate to break it to you, Marg, but no. It’s probably not healthy. There’s been some anxiety-themed news lately about our constant smartphone use, particularly when it comes to kids. At the start of the year, two big Apple investors asked the company to build better parental controls for its devices. And over in France? They’re banning mobile phones from classrooms as of September. But really, it’s not just kids who are hooked, is it? So we tried something. The IRL team asked Melissa, Tariq, Marg, and Meighan to agree to a small experiment.

IRL Team: I’m going to ask you to please just sit there and not touch your phone.

Meighan: I just have to sit here with my own thoughts?

IRL Team: For 30 minutes.

Meighan: That’s dark. Okay.

IRL Team: All right?

Tariq: No matter what my phone does, I take it.

Marg.: Okay.

Melissa: So you just want me to sit silently?

Veronica Belmont: 30 minutes without touching the phone. Will they get through it? We’ll check back in on our brave volunteers a little later in the episode. Meanwhile, I admit it. I have felt separation anxiety when I’ve left my phone at home. I’ve checked the likes on my Instagram post literally 15 seconds after I’ve posted them. I’ve tunneled down obsessively into my Twitter mentions, hoping to find … You know what? I don’t even know. The point is, my online life isn’t just some extracurricular activity. It’s a major part of who I am, yet if anything else took up this much time and brain space in my real life, I’d probably have some serious self reflection and therapy coming. Because it is easy to overdo it. To overload on internet. Okay. I am surely to blame for my bad habits. But, so are the people making the things. Today, we look at how our constant internet use can be both totally fine and totally problematic. This is IRL, online life is real life, an original podcast from Mozilla. So why is it that we can’t really seem to stop ourselves? Do we need an intervention? Does it become an addiction when you check your phone in a grocery store checkout line like 17 times? What about when your internet habit means you start failing your freshman year? Is that a sign of addiction? That’s what happened to Max Grosshandler.

Max Grosshandler: I guess I realized I had a really serious problem when in the first week of college, I got a zero out of 25 on the first math quiz.

Veronica Belmont: Yeah, that’s pretty bad. What were you doing that whole first week?

Max Grosshandler: All I was doing was just being on the computer. I would pretend that I would go around and have a normal day, eat, go to class, get back from class, pretend to do homework. But then, while I was doing these things, I would just always be on my computer or my phone. About 12 to 14 hours per day. On any given day, I would have a YouTube video opened up in one tab, I’d have an online chat open as well, and then I’d also have a game open. And I would basically constantly jump between those and sometimes open a news article if I find anything interesting from my chat rooms. That’s what I thrived on. I kept trying to get that information fix. And all I knew was that when I did it, I didn’t feel sad and that was the most important part. When I was binging on information, I would just forget about all of that.

Veronica Belmont: What was the breaking point? When did you decide that you needed to get help?

Max Grosshandler: My math teacher had just told me that if I didn’t do exceptionally well on the second test, I was going to fail the class and I realized that there was literally no way I was going to be able to pull that off, so on Friday night, I called my parents, sobbing, and told them the whole truth.

Veronica Belmont: Max’s parents knew he spent a lot of time online. When he was younger, they had to actually hide his laptop. But they had always assumed he could handle it. Once they realized how wrong they were, they found a treatment center for gaming and internet addictions up in Washington state. It’s called Restart, and Max went willingly.

Max Grosshandler: I do remember my mom crying, crying out of joy, not of anger. I think they were beating themselves up over not have figuring it out sooner.

Veronica Belmont: And so, did you tell yourself, I have an addiction?

Max Grosshandler: I guess I didn’t really define myself as an addict until a few months into treatment. I knew I had a problem, but I, at the time, defined it as more of an obsession.

Veronica Belmont: Walk us through your first week there.

Max Grosshandler: Every week is very structured with a lot of activities going throughout the day. So you don’t really have free time. There’s fitness four times a week. There is a lot of different groups that help talk about the neurobiology of addiction and things you can do that do not involve the internet, as well as a group where you can communicate with other clients if something is going on.

Veronica Belmont: That must have been pretty difficult. What, for you, then was the most difficult part?

Max Grosshandler: At one point in the outpatient or phase two of the program, I actually had my smart phone and then everything was going fine for about a month and a half and then I started to use more than my allotted time every single day and then eventually, they just took it away from me. It felt really, really bad and I realized that, especially near the end of it, that I was just having … I was not in control of my mind and my actions by that point. Just the device was winning.

Veronica Belmont: Did they have technological safeguards against your over-usage? Were they able to shut down your devices or know how much time you were spending?

Max Grosshandler: Of course. Yeah. Because there’s some stuff you can’t do in the program, even with your smart phones. You can’t look at pornography, you can’t gamble, you can’t play games on your phone, you can’t play games at all, actually.

Veronica Belmont: What stage are you in your recovery right now?

Max Grosshandler: I’m in phase three of the program, which is outpatient but winding down on recovery, where I do not go to as many groups per week in outpatient and I have access to technology again. Monday through Friday, I go to school and then some days I work out, some days I go play Dungeons and Dragons. And Friday nights, I go swing dancing.

Veronica Belmont: That’s awesome. I also take swing dancing classes, so that’s pretty cool.

Max Grosshandler: I’ve become so much more social. If you had told me a year ago that I would start going swing dancing and like it, I would have laughed in your face.

Veronica Belmont: That’s Max Grosshandler. He’s 20 years old. Internet addiction isn’t an officially diagnosable condition in North America. Not yet, anyway. If Max were living in South Korea, he might have been sent to a government-run rehab center. They take this problem seriously there and treat it like a substance addiction. But, the United States does recognize gambling disorder. It’s the only non-drug form of addiction that’s clinically accepted. Think about that when you think about our attraction to social media and shiny online things. It’s like the web is built to work just like how a casino works. To get us coming back for more and more and more. I’m not just saying that. Silicon Valley is very invested in building habit-forming technologies. One fellow who helps them do it is Nir Eyal. Nir wrote a book called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. I know. Subtle, right? He describes how to do it using something called the hook model. So, let’s break it down a little bit. You talk about how the hook model starts with triggers.

Nir Eyal: Let’s take Facebook. So the hook for Facebook would start with an external trigger and these are the dings and pings and notifications that tell you, “Hey, something just happened on Facebook. Come check it out.” Gives you some piece of information. Then, the action phase of the hook is the simplest behavior done in anticipation of a reward. So, in the case of Facebook, it’s just opening the app and scrolling the feed. Now, when you do that, when you do that simple action of opening the app and scrolling the feed, you are taken to the third step of the hook, which is the reward phase.

Veronica Belmont: So what kind of reward can I get?

Nir Eyal: It’s all about uncertainty. All about the variability about what might happen next. So as you’re scrolling that news feed, you might see different videos, different posts, what are the comments going to say? How many likes does something get? High degree of variability.

Veronica Belmont: And so now, I’ve had this trigger, I’ve had a reaction. I then go on to do the thing. I get the reward. So I can see how that can get me using a product for a little bit, but how do you go on to grab me for the long term?

Nir Eyal: Perhaps the most important part of the hook is the investment phase. So the last step of a hook is where the user puts something into the product to improve it with use. And the world has totally shifted in that you are co-creating the product with these platforms. And you do that with the data you give these companies, with the content you upload, with how many followers you have or friends you have or people you follow, with your reputation you’re literally making the product better and better and better with use. All this, these four steps in aggregate, serve to create a connection called an internal trigger, so that through successive cycles through this hook, you’re not even triggered with these external triggers at all. You don’t need them. Now you’re triggered whenever you feel a negative emotional state. So when we’re bored, we check Facebook. When we’re lonely, we check Tinder. When we’re uncertain, we check Google. So, the holy grail of these habit-forming products is to attach to some kind of negative emotion so that the product provides at least temporary relief.

Veronica Belmont: So it almost does sound inherently manipulative in some way, since it does manufacture this desire. It sounds almost like an addiction cycle.

Nir Eyal: Right. So there’s a big difference between addiction and habit, because an addiction is a persistent, compulsive dependency that harms the user. That harm is super important. Because the kind of products that I help people build, eating healthier, exercising more, saving money, these are not products that harm people. Quite the opposite. They improve people’s lives. The same exact traits, the same properties, the same neural pathways that help us form habits can be used for good. We should assess for ourselves, is this product serving me? Is this habit serving me or am I serving it? And if it’s not serving you, stop. Let’s break those bad habits. Uninstall Facebook. I’m all for that.

Veronica Belmont: So you’re putting it on the consumer of it to recognize when a regular habit, a healthy habit, becomes an unhealthy, obsessive habit?

Nir Eyal: Well, I think that it’s up to the user to figure out harm. So I think in that respect it is a personal responsibility issue.

Veronica Belmont: So when, if ever, does a company have an ethical obligation to make sure that people aren’t using their products in an unhealthy way?

Nir Eyal: I think the line comes when a company knows someone is using their product to an extent where they are abusing it and refuses to do something. So, I’ve written now for several years that companies need to have what I call a use and abuse policy. These gaming companies know exactly how much you’re using. They have personally identifiable information. So what I want companies to do is to say, look, let’s set some kind of number. And if you exceed that number. Give me a number. 40 hours a week. 50 hours a week. Whatever that might be. We’re going to reach out and say, hey. You’re showing the usage pattern of someone who might be addicted, who might have a problem with this product. Can we help?

Veronica Belmont: There are certain companies Nir won’t consult for. He says no to alcohol and porn, for instance. I’m glad that he tries to use his powers for good and not evil. But I do wonder about the faith he puts in the willpower of us mere mortals. We put restrictions on smoking and gambling. Would it be so shocking if we said we needed help managing our impulses? At least, we can mute our devices. Turning off notifications can nab you a little peace of mind. Otherwise, if you let the default settings rule your device, it becomes a noisy chaos of attention-demanding triggers, which is exactly what’s happening to our four smart phone-free volunteers from earlier in the episode. They’ve been sitting alone with their thoughts, banned from touching their devices, no matter what those devices do. Let’s see how they’re holding up.

Melissa G.: Well, I’m feeling anxious, but that might just be because of a lot of things. Not just my phone.

Meighan: But I am thinking about who texted me. I was wondering who that was.

Tariq: Who is that?

Marg: I don’t know who that would be.

Melissa G.: My mom. My parents are in New York right now.

Meighan: When I quit smoking, it was easier for me to quit smoking than it is for me to quit my phone.

Marg: I was fine when the phone was quiet and not when it started making sounds, yeah.

Meighan: I almost died playing Fruit Ninja once. You know the game Fruit Ninja? I loved it. I was walking across the street and I didn’t realize that I shouldn’t have been walking and a car stopped like this close to me. It was like this huge thing. Yeah. They had to slam on their brakes.

Tariq: Do I feel a twitch almost like a Western gun fighter? Like that kind of … yeah. A little bit. Yeah.

Veronica Belmont: Okay. So far, they’re resisting temptation, but next, let’s give Meighan’s phone a call. See what she does.

Meighan: If that’s important, they’ll call back. I don’t know that number.

Veronica Belmont: Yep. Definitely going to answer it.

Meighan: I have to touch it.

Veronica Belmont: Oh, Meighan. Smartphone test fail. Phone free for exactly 16 minutes and 43 seconds.

Meighan: Was that all it was?

Veronica Belmont: That’s all it was.

Meighan: Well, you know, it’s better than 15.

Veronica Belmont: That’s one down, three to go. And the experiment continues. Find out how Tariq, Marg, and Melissa do at the end of the episode. This is IRL, Online Life is Real Life, an original podcast from Mozilla. Our smart phone test is a goofy way to show how hooked we are to the internet, but for some of us, a tech binge is about a lot more than leveling up on Fruit Ninja. Sometimes a person needs to overload on internet because of an urgent need to share their story. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last year, it destroyed the power grid. Cell phone service was cut. There was no internet to speak of. It’s an unfortunately familiar story for Joshua Cousin, because back in 2005, Joshua was a teenage blogger in the suburbs of New Orleans.

Joshua Cousin: Blogging for me was basically an online diary and it was things that I had on my mind that I just felt like getting out of my head. It was for me to express my thoughts.

Veronica Belmont: But then, Hurricane Katrina hit and hit hard.

Reporter: Katrina is expected to cause catastrophic damage. We keep using that word catastrophic.

George W. Bush: We’re dealing with one of the worst national disasters in our nation’s history.

Joshua Cousin: So the first thing I did was write that down in my blog and it wasn’t that big of a post. It just was like, okay. We ain’t scared. And the power went out. I was like, well, that’s it. We’ve got to wait this thing out.

Veronica Belmont: For the first time since he’d started blogging, Joshua couldn’t tell the world what was happening. All that mattered now was surviving.

Joshua Cousin: After the storm had passed, the flood had just started to happen and the water was rising and so, my cousin Greg, he decided to leave. He said, “You know what? I got to go and get my daughter.” But this guy was in the water and he must have lost his footing and so my cousin Greg went to try and help. And Greg really couldn’t swim. He went under the water, he grabbed this guy, put him to safety and he went underwater again and that happened maybe two or three times and he didn’t come back up the third time. There was a guy who came around and he took us on his boat and said, “Hey, we’ve got to get you all out of here. The water’s expected to rise even more.” It was likely the only way we were going to be able to get rescued. I wanted to blog but I couldn’t. I didn’t have the access to the internet. We didn’t have cell phones or anything back then, so you couldn’t make a Facebook post because there was no Facebook. While we were on the bus, you could see people laid out … They had sheets and things over. We could see people trapped in their locations. When we got to our destination, which we found out eventually that it was the Astrodome … When we got there, it was thousands upon thousands of people. It was scary. There was a computer center in there that I was able to get to and start blogging. I decided, I’m going to tell people what’s going on. My initial post was basically just saying that, hey, I’m alive. So I would just go in whatever time I woke up … I would just go in and stay as long as I could, take a break, go in and eat, come back. It was just a daily routine of mine. I had no track of time. I blogged about my whole experience from the time the lights went out to the time we made it to Houston and one of those things just so happened to be about my cousin Greg, since that was the only loss that we had in the family. And that way, I started connecting with people who I had obviously never met and some of them were willing to help me and my family personally just by seeing what they saw that I was writing about. Blogging, in that time, gave the public, whoever was doing it, the opportunity to not only tell their story but it was you telling the news and not the news telling you.

Veronica Belmont: Being able to get online to overload on it, actually, is how Joshua could cope with and make sense of how Hurricane Katrina had changed his life and his city completely. That’s why, in Puerto Rico, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, got a license to send internet balloons to hover over the island and allow people to connect after Hurricane Maria had done her worst. The value of an always-there internet feels more crucial now than ever. It makes me wonder if that desire for a digital detox to log off from it all isn’t some kind of holier than thou exercise. You’ve read about this kind of thing. Often, it’s a story of a celebrity raving about their internet sabbatical. I know they mean well. I know. And yes, it can be inspiring to hear someone like him talk about it. But for most of us, quitting the internet like that just isn’t possible.

Heather Schwedel: It would be great if celebrities could stop talking about the joys of unplugging.

Veronica Belmont: Slate Magazine staff writer Heather Schwedel is with me on this one.

Heather Schwedel: It just sounds so annoying when people are like, “Oh. I’m quitting the internet.” I think it’s kind of a new, “I don’t have a TV at home.”

Veronica Belmont: So which of these celebrity “I quit the internet” stories has you rolling your eyes the most.

Heather Schwedel: Let me see. I was just looking at Kanye West’s quote. He once tweeted, “I got rid of my phone so I can have air to create.” I think that just sounds ridiculous. I mean, it sounds like what world do you live in where you can get rid of your phone? It just reminds us of the space between them and us.

Veronica Belmont: So how realistic is it for any of us at this point to actively quit the internet? Is that even a possibility or can we go off the grid completely and still have a semblance of a normal life?

Heather Schwedel: Not forever, certainly. And even if you go off for a few months and take a hiatus, I think if that’s something you want to do and you think would be good for you, maybe you should pursue it. Unfortunately, the challenge is going to be talking about it without sounding sanctimonious.

Veronica Belmont: Is there any part of you that, when you hear about someone going completely off the grid, is like, “Ooh. That actually sounds pretty wonderful.”

Heather Schwedel: It sounds like a nightmare to me. I love the internet and mostly I think it’s great. So I’m not the person that’s like, “Oh wow. That sounds like zen being at one with nature.” Like no thank you.

Veronica Belmont: Heather Schwedel writes for Slate. I love the internet too. Obviously. And it’s like this, when you’ve got a weight problem, you don’t stop eating entirely for 30 days. You manage your intake. Moderation. So, how about we check in one last time with our smart phone deprived guinea pigs. 30 minutes of no phone shouldn’t be too tough. Then again, Meighan already caved. Oh, and there’s Melissa’s ringtone.

Melissa G.: No. I’m going to check. No, because I have to. Because I don’t know who that person is. Probably the wrong number. Melissa speaking. Hello? Hello? How long had it been?

IRL Team: 25 minutes.

Melissa G.: Are you proud of me?

Veronica Belmont: Oh Melissa, so close. Couldn’t let that phone call go to voicemail. That leaves Marg and Tariq. And here comes the IRL team to get them to the finish line.

IRL Team: It’s been 30 minutes. You passed the test. You can now look at your phone.

Tariq: Seriously?

Marg: Yay.

Tariq: No. That went from feeling interminably long to feeling short. There was never a question of whether I could do this, like just go the 30 minutes. But I was wondering about why do I need something like this to do something like this.

Marg: I definitely thought of having phone breaks. Having a smart phone takes you away from the present. So when you’re having coffee or dinner or what have you. But then you feel the dread and you go to the bathroom or you excuse yourself because you need to check your phone but don’t really want to do it right in front of them.

Tariq: I should do this anyway. I should just sit in a chair and just let my mind wander and float from one idea to another.

Veronica Belmont: Well done, Tariq and Marg. You may now return to your regularly scheduled internet overdose. It’s not easy sticking to a balanced media diet. I’ve been struggling with it. Right now, it’s my number one mental health issue, just managing information overload. I deleted the Twitter app from my phone and that’s helped a bit. Now, instead of getting a dose of angry comments every few minutes, I look at Instagram and get a dose of puppies and my friends’ babies. I’m not going for monk status here. I just want a slightly saner outlook. Less toxic outreach, more goldendoodles. So that’s where I’m at and as much fun as it is to blame a bunch of unregulated developers who design apps that we just can’t put down, staying accountable to myself is probably more productive. How are you managing your digital overload? Have you taken breaks? Called it quits? Smashed your phone against a wall in a fit of despair? Check out the show notes to this episode to learn more about detoxing your digital habits by checking the website. Online. Oh, and hey! Are you sick of your phone’s incessant beeps and boops but still need those notifications to keep you informed? We’re trying to smooth that out for you just a little bit. How about you try using your very own IRL theme ringtone? That beauty’s yours for free. Find it in the show notes at IRL is an original podcast from Mozilla, the nonprofit behind the all new Firefox browser. I’m Veronica Belmont. I’ll see you online until we catch up again IRL.

Meighan: Mmm…I like just checked my phone, so I’ve got like 20 minutes before I start like shaking, sweating and foaming at the mouth

Veronica Belmont: (laughing)

Meighan: You’ll know when I need to check it, it will be very obvious.