Why You Can’t Quit the Internet

July 19th, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

A scientist offers an explanation for what’s pulling you into the Internet’s rabbit hole.

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The Responsibility Project

Spending hours and hours on the Internet is either productive or unproductive, depending who you ask. We’ve noted the school of thought that claims technology disrupts your sleep, your productivity and even your biological ability to connect one-on-one. But then, there’s also the idea that a “digital distraction” can give your brain a break between tasks, actually increasing your productivity.

But whatever lured you from your research “to Wikipedia, to [finding] out whatever happened to Depeche Mode” says Tom Stafford, a cognitive scientist at the University of Sheffield in the UK, it’s not the content, it’s the structure of the Internet that sucks people down the rabbit hole.

In fact, Stafford asserts in an interview with LiveScience, email and social media have the same reward structure as that of a casino slot machine: You’ll have to pull the one-armed bandit plenty of times, but “every so often, you hit the jackpot – in the case of the Internet, a tidbit of juicy gossip or a heartfelt email [….] The instantaneous payoff only strengthens the Internet pull.” Eventually, Stafford says, the Web’s unpredictable payoffs result in a Pavlovian response, conditioning us to seek a social rush over and over. And that rush is virtually limitless, he adds, since there are no boundaries between tasks. The article notes that while studies suggest there is actually a willpower muscle to flex, the fact that the Internet is always on means that you can flex it to exhaustion.

Stafford gives the tips of committing to work until a certain task is complete before surfing and then allowing five minutes of Web surfing. And there are many other tips online about how to stop surfing (just surf for them…).

Do you feel that the lure of the Internet helps or hurts your productivity – and do you have a personal protocol for surfing? Share it here.