The Internet Did It

Ya’ll, Kate Harding is back!  Yay!  Last week, she wrote a brilliant screed about the media treatment of Tyler Clementi’s suicide, and today she is back with another “TFA (Total Fucking Asshole) of the Week.”  She makes the essential and so frequently missed point that whenever the media encounters a horrifying story in which people do evil things to each other over the internet, they mistake the context for the cause, the medium for the real problem.  The narrative becomes, essentially, “the internet did it” rather than “the internet was the tool by which a malignant narcissist and total human fail inflicted unspeakable psychological pain on another human being.”  By this logic, the perpetrators are transformed into victims themselves, “good kids” (and in some cases adults) who were corrupted by the heinous influence of Facebook, video games, 4chan or whatever, as if the Wild West environment of the internet were powerful enough to override the myriad forces of socialization that somehow teach most people that it is perhaps not ok to torment a dying child or film two people having sex and posting it online without their consent.  I mean, I grew up a “digital native” and continue to be a pretty avid user of the internet and social media (as well as a fan of certain reality shows and video games), and yet it would never occur to me that this sort of behavior was even remotely defensible.

The same fallacy appears in most popular discussion of “internet addiction,” which, as research psychologist Nick Yee points out, is a problematic term for a whole host of reasons:

The primary objection to this methodology of creating psychological disorders is that for any given media form, hobby, or activity, it is probably true that some percentage of people will fall into this criteria of “addiction”. The only difference is that researchers choose only certain activities to investigate for addiction disorders. And thus, we have IAD and we are asked to believe that people never watch TV too much, never play golf too much, and never work too much. The Internet is dangerous whereas other activities are wholesome and good. But if any and every activity can have its very own addiction disorder, it’s not clear that such a notion is meaningful. On the other hand, picking and choosing which activities we deem “addictive” seems more and more arbitrary.

Yee specifically studies what he terms “problematic usage” as it pertains to online games (think Everquest or World of Warcraft).  His extensive research shows that problematic usage occupies a space in a dialectic between the attraction of the medium (how fun or rewarding it is) and external factors.  In other words, the achievement-oriented nature of a game may provide a player with a sense of power that they lack in their own lives.  Similarly, the relationships that multi-player online games may foster can be as rewarding (and in many ways less risky) than outside relationships.  As Yee says in another article,

It would also help to acknowledge that oftentimes, other factors such as depression, low self-esteem, mood disorders, high stress, or traumatic events such as unemployment or marital crises can make a person more susceptible to developing a dependency on a variety of potentially destructive behaviors, including playing online games. It would help to mention that behavioral dependencies in general share many common features and predisposing factors, and that creating loaded terms for specific technologies can make it harder for people to understand and help resolve the problem when the rhetoric focuses so singularly on the technology. And finally, it would help to mention that behavioral problems seldom have simple and single causes, but rather are typically produced from and sustained by a variety of inter-related factors. It doesn’t really help anyone when the entire issue often boils down to simplistic “yes/no”, “good/evil” stances in media reports.

Furthermore, this lack of general understanding (both by the public and by clinical psychologists) of the external factors involved in problematic usage make certain forms of treatment counterproductive:

The difference between Attraction Addiction and Motivation Addiction parallels the difference Dodes makes about physical and psychological addiction – whether a real life pressure exists that pushes the individual into this particular outlet. In both contexts, because the psychological pressure or problem is far less visible than the physical drug or the game, the main cause of the addiction might be blamed entirely on the tangible aspects – the drug or the game, even though it is only a part of the problem. Because Motivation Addiction can masquerade as Attraction Addiction, it gives observers the illusion that taking away the game will resolve the addiction. But because it is not the game that is causing the Motivation factors in the first place, taking the game away forcefully oftentimes compounds the problem because now the individual has no outlet and feels even more vulnerable and helpless.

We’re all quick to chuckle at a video of a child freaking the eff out (TW for psychological distress in a minor) when his parents take his games away and frequently either label that child a deviant or make general pronouncements about the perils of internet usage or gaming without asking the all-important question:  what the hell is going on in this child’s life that makes this such a traumatic experience?

At various times in my adult life, I’ve been involved in certain online gaming communities.  It’s something that my partner and I enjoy doing together, and it is a fun way to stay in contact with friends from across the country.  We have also met some pretty extraordinary people in online games:  professors, district attorneys, ministers, high-functioning adults of all sorts.  However, games have also occasionally put us into contact with people who use games in problematic or anti-social ways.

The following story merits a trigger warning for discussion of suicide.  Skip down a few paragraphs if you wish to avoid it.

For example, one evening, the sole teenager in our group–a mature eighteen-year old that looked to some of us as mentors–logged on and and announced that he had just taken an overdose of Ativan and various other sedatives.  He was logging on to say good-bye and to tell us that we were all like family to him.  As you can imagine, we wigged out.  I knew from personal conversations that this kid lived in my state, just a couple of hours away, in fact.  A friend of mine happened to have his phone number, so while I called the police department, my friend called him and kept him awake and talking until paramedics arrived at his house.  After a brief stint in the hospital, he survived.

Many people would have looked at this kid’s life and said he had a gaming addiction.  He played constantly.  Sometimes, he would stay up for 48 hours at a time playing, and not even doing the fun stuff.  He would devote his time to repetitive activities in game that I would consider mind-numbingly boring.  He would often make jokes about how much he played, simultaneously wearing it as a badge of honor and yet acting a little bit ashamed of himself.  Most people would probably say that this kid’s parents just needed to take his computer or internet connection away. Some might have said that it was his gaming that made him depressed or some such nonsense.

In fact, this kid had a severe case of bi-polar disorder as well as a host of other mental illnesses (he reported hearing voices at times, for example).  It was the manic phases that kept him up for days at a time and the depression that kept him from leaving his room.  Furthermore, he was not receiving adequate treatment.  His parents didn’t understand or really believe in his disorder.  They sent him to doctors to be “fixed,” and offered him very little personal support in his treatment.  Those doctors frequently played musical meds.  Those of us in the group who had experience with mental illness were often rather horrified by what he told us about his experiences with doctors and therapists.  To make matters worse, this kid was about to graduate high school, and his parents had just announced that they would not be able to send him to college (financial constraints probably played a significant role in the under-treatment or mis-treatment of his condition).  In other words, had this kid not been an avid gamer/internet user, his life still would have objectively sucked.  There were a host of external factors contributing to his usage, not least of which was a longing for human connection and understanding that was almost entirely unavailable to him in what we problematically call “the real world.”  While it is certain that he was playing too much, taking away his games entirely probably would have made matters worse.

Similarly, I am not sure that depriving the tormentors of Tyler Clementi of their Facebook account would have made them less sadistic or assholish.  Kids have been inventing ways to publicly humiliate their peers long before the internet made it marginally easier.

After the suicide attempt, both his parents and doctors got more aggressive about his treatment.  I still worry about the guy, but he and I have long since stopped really playing much, so I don’t know what’s going on in his life right now (which on his end, is probably a good sign).  Last I heard, he was receiving decent treatment and had enrolled in massage therapy school, which he was enjoying immensely (he had wanted to study physical therapy in college).

TW lifted from this point on.

“The internet did it” is a convenient way of deflecting responsibility for various personal, familial, and social problems onto a medium that already incites fear and paranoia.  As Yee says,

Creating labels such as “online gaming addiction” gives us the illusion that we’ve identified a new problem in our society instead of talking about the real and chronic problems in the world we live in. Instead of talking about why our education system is failing us, or why a tedious 9-5 existence is inevitable for so many, we have created a way of not talking about those problems. People who find empowerment in an unsatisfying world are labeled as “addicts”. We brush aside the larger social problems by labeling their victims as deviants. And along with that, all the nuances, complexities, and multiple factors in behavioral and psychological problems are ignored in favor of a simplistic single factor model.

Talking about internet or gaming or social media as social evils is a way of not talking about why people with mental illness continue to be demonized and treated as “problems” in the medical system, why it is so difficult for children in reduced means to obtain the healthcare that they need to survive.  It is also a way, in the Tyler Clementi case, of not talking about why even in the supposedly liberal and permissive spaces of college campuses, identifying as LGBTQI continues to be so unspeakably shameful.  It is also a way of not asking where the hell the responsible adults are in any of these situations.  How is it that the sadistic abusers of Tyler Clementi got to the point where they go do such an evil thing and not even see a problem with it?  Why is it that “responsible adults,” including their parents and lawyers, continue to make excuses for them?  Is it really because we are supposed to feel oh so sorry for these kids, whose promising lives have been cut short by one stupid act?  Or is it a way of avoiding complicity, avoiding the fact that by ignoring warning signs, by failing to label horrific behavior as what it is, by refusing to champion children who are being physically and psychologically tortured, by persisting in victim-blaming, the “responsible adults” have failed to fulfill their trust and have revealed themselves to be either ineffectual or completely sick themselves.


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