THE EMPEROR IS DEAD.

“The Royal Guard has been scattered. And a false king sits upon the throne. Execute the emperor’s final edict: hunt the traitor lords and bring ruin to their people.”

The phrases appear in a stately sequence, capitalized white letters on a solid black background. Then, the ship. There’s a screen in the center, providing magnified images of the enemy fighters and other targets I’m supposed to hit. A brilliant star burns somewhere nearby in the orange-streaked purple sky. Its brightness sends shadows sliding across the cockpit as I do slow turns. Tilting my head one way, then the other, I can see domed glass (presumably space-proofed and at least somewhat resistant to cosmic radiation) above me and metallic wings on either side of the ship’s body. Asteroids loom large and dangerous outside. A mechanical, Vader-esque exhalation seems to be the sound produced by whatever protective mask I’m wearing, and shooting my guns or cannons produces muted booming sounds. With a slight gesture, my spacecraft is rolling so convincingly that vertigo nearly sends me out of my seat. Everything in my field of vision has incredible depth. It’s nothing like watching an image on a flat surface. It’s immersive, like reaching into a painting and finding that you can actually touch the canvas’s occupants, walk around them, or crouch down to see their world from the ground.

Playing “House of the Dying Sun” with an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset makes me feel as if I really were executing the emperor’s last edict. It’s so novel an experience at one point I feel the hairs on my arms rise in excitement. But the level of verisimilitude also worries me. What happens when the virtual world becomes just as realistic (and far more exciting) than the real world?  

American adults spend nearly eleven hours per day with various electronic gadgets, and teenagers aren’t doing much better (about nine hours of entertainment media per day). In 2015, the global internet included 3.2 billion people who generated more than four million Facebook likes, uploaded three hundred hours of Youtube video, and streamed seventy-seven thousand hours of Netflix every single minute. I’d crunch out those numbers for you in daily, weekly, and yearly increments, but honestly, they’d be too big to impart any sense of meaning. When we start getting into quad- and quintillions, the density of zeros gets hard to look at, let alone contextualize. Let’s just say we’re creating what basically amounts to a universe’s worth of data in an incredibly short period of time—and there are a lot of very real questions about this rapidly evolving human behavior that we have no idea how to answer.

First, the good. Broadly speaking, the internet has revolutionized communication, education, and opportunity. People separated by oceans and continents can engage in what almost feels like a tête-à-tête using Skype. Researchers from different countries can collaborate on international experiments in labs on opposite sides of the world. Entrepreneurs can start businesses from home, students who can’t afford college can access numerous courses online (though, whether it’s a perfect substitute for going to class in person is a whole other question). There are abundant sources of news, free maps that will get you almost anywhere you need to go, and precise local weather data that instruct you on what sort of clothing to wear. Banking is much easier, as are everyday tasks like finding a ride home from the bar or identifying the song you’ve had stuck in your head for the past three days. These last few are trivial examples, to be sure, but daily life is a series of trivialities, and the fact that we’re dramatically changing how we interact with people on a basic level is important.

Next, the bad. Nearly half of all women experience abuse or harassment online, from revenge porn to death threats. (For a particularly poignant example, watch the #morethanmean video on YouTube.) Nearly twenty percent of high school students experience cyberbullying, and in extreme cases this has led to teens committing suicide. There have even been examples of people dying from spending too long playing video games.

Wrapped up in all these activities is a more perennial human problem: addiction. The issue has been on the minds of physicians and philosophers for thousands of years, since the time of Alexander the Great and Aristotle—the former consumed great quantities of alcohol throughout his life, the latter described the effects of alcohol withdrawal. If there is a substance that offers a shift away from the real world, a brief respite from mental discomfort or physical pain, there’s someone who’s been addicted to it. And psychologists are starting to discover that the myriad diversions of the internet are engendering addictive behaviors across large swathes of the population.

The problem is that all the research on internet addiction is about ten years behind current technology, due to the lengthy process of proposing and funding studies, then replicating them. Meanwhile, our technology is advancing faster than ever before. While researchers are still busy assembling data about cellphone usage and screen time, companies like Baidu, Facebook, and Google are pioneering technologies that will only further immerse us in the digital ocean. Some examples: Baidu is perfecting advanced voice interfacing that will make Siri look clumsy by comparison; Google is working to create a device that can identify and respond to hand gestures done a short distance away from it—a sort of touchless screen; and Facebook is investing in 360-video technology since it owns Oculus Rift.

“Common sense tells us there’s danger here,” says clinical psychologist Chris R. Mazzarella, who works at Heritage Professional Associates, LTD, and has been treating internet addiction for more than a decade. “But it’s similar to smoking early on, when it became popular and socially acceptable. It was only later and through research that we discovered it contributes to lung cancer and people die from it.”

■ ▲ ●

“You’re always with the machines.”

Voiced by the parent of a friend, this sentiment resonated profoundly with A.Y. (the name with which we’ll refer to the Chicago software developer who asked to remain anonymous because of concerns about his career and personal life). He felt like the statement encapsulated everything he’d experienced as an avid gamer: the generational and cultural gap between him and his parents, immigrants from North Africa; the way millennials seemed to accept video games as part of life, while older generations scorned them; and the stigma attached to playing too much.

The statement also seemed, in a way, like a fundamental misunderstanding. Playing video games wasn’t isolating him from his friends; it was what brought them all together. Going on raids in World of Warcraft, or battles in DotA (Defense of the Ancients), or challenging other players in capture-the-flag- or king-of-the-hill-style matches on Team Fortress 2. Throughout A.Y.’s teen years, all of his friends spent hours every day gaming. Sometimes they’d tell each other that they’d been playing too much, maybe they should take a break for a couple days. They’d all pretend to stop for twenty-four hours, maybe forty-eight hours. But no one ever did. It was especially awkward when you’d told the others you wouldn’t be online, and then they happened to run across your character playing on anonymous mode elsewhere in the game. But really, there didn’t seem to be anything strange about it. Everybody played video games, right?

It wasn’t until A.Y. got to college and saw people who did things other than eat, sleep, study and game that he began to wonder if he might be over-reliant on gaming. But even then, the pull of the machines was too strong. “If I wasn’t investing time in either not being on the streets or not being in jail, the rest was delegated to playing games,” A.Y. says.

He was constantly late for everything, constantly lying about how much time he spent playing and constantly appalled by his inability to play less. His parents were concerned, of course—they’d been concerned for years. But what to do when the games are so readily available everywhere a child might choose to go?

It’s becoming an increasingly pertinent and worrisome question, says licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist Joslyn Jelinek, who saw her first case of internet addiction in 2002. “The best way of being able to treat internet addiction is if the person actually wants to get help for it,” Jelinek says. “Otherwise, it’s not going to happen.”

Part of the problem is the widespread lack of awareness about what constitutes addictive behavior. Nearly everyone plays video games at one point or another, on their phones or computers or gaming systems, and nearly all of us who have access to the internet abuse it from time to time. Maybe it’s the ten-hour “How I Met Your Mother” binge on a weekend when the weather isn’t particularly nice (a common occurrence in Chicago). Or maybe two hours have passed since you got online to write a quick email and all you’ve done is scroll endlessly on Facebook. Neither of those things in and of themselves are indications of internet addiction.

“People tend to over-generalize the word ‘addiction,’” says Brittany Ott, corporate services clinician at the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery. “What most lay-people mean when they use that terminology is, ‘I use this too much, or I feel guilty for using this.’ I could probably say I watched too much TV this week, does that mean I’m addicted? No, I just made a poor choice. Someone with internet addiction continues to engage in the addiction-related behavior despite consequences.”

Ott also emphasized that, by itself, hours spent online don’t define whether an individual is truly addicted, and not everyone who overuses the internet will become addicted. The combination of genetics, neurobiology, and social situation operating in their bodies combines with whatever gratification the internet is providing—be it from pornography, gaming, gambling, or social media—and overwhelm choice, replacing it with unstoppable compulsion. In other words, people with internet addiction lose the ability to choose. Reasoning and willpower have nothing to do with it.

Like with chemical addiction or other process addictions, the illness is chronic and progressive. Initially, accessing the internet for gaming or pornography is a choice. But it eventually becomes debilitating for those at risk because of other psychological, genetic and physiological factors. It often overlaps with anxiety, depression, or ADD. Unlike drug addiction or alcoholism, where a person in recovery can go about his or her life while abstaining from the substance, it’s nearly impossible to totally disengage from the internet. Modern society mostly doesn’t allow it: You’d be giving up too many benefits. As A.Y. says, “There are professional video game leagues. You can’t be a coke addict and hope to be a professional coke addict, but you can play video games and aspire to make millions of dollars a year.”

“You can’t be a coke addict and hope to be a professional coke addict, but you can play video games and aspire to make millions of dollars a year.” —  A.Y., an internet addict who wished to remain anonymous

So how is it that some people become addicted to activities on the internet, while others are able to use it throughout the day without having any trouble turning it off to do other tasks? Ott says it’s a complicated question.

“Having family members with any type of addiction could increase the risk fifty to sixty percent. Family history of anxiety or depression is another major risk factor,” Ott says. “Age of onset, accessibility of use, level of gratification. What’s tough about internet addiction is there’s no diagnostic criteria. Even though we use those as a foundation and we’ll go through similar questions for other addictions, there’s no defined diagnosis. So we focus on distress.”

And according to some of the studies done on how gaming and high internet usage affect the brain, it seems that distress is more than surface level. Some studies have found excessive internet use leads to depression, irritability, poor grades in school and impulsiveness to go online more. People who use the internet with high frequency and fit some of the criteria for addiction show significantly lower moods after using the internet than people who use it less frequently. One study looking at university students suffering from internet addiction (with the admittedly small sample size of only twenty-seven students) concluded internet addiction “may be an under-appreciated problem among U.S. university students and warrants additional research.”

After years of spending a bulk of his time gaming, A.Y. knew it was a problem. He was miserable, lonely and felt socially awkward. He recognized the games were just a way to distract from voids in his life, so he tried moderating his time on them. But it never worked. Then he tried to quit altogether, but for the first couple attempts, something would send him back—a post in a Reddit thread about a new game, a request from a friend to play. In July 2014, thinking he needed the support of others, A.Y. joined the Chicago branch of Computer Gaming Addicts Anonymous (CGAA). It provided community encouragement and a space without judgment. Everyone there had issues they were working through, trying to mask the pain by playing video games. It was with the help of other members of the group that A.Y. finally quit gaming for good about a year ago. He’d graduated college and got a job working in software development and began going to the gym more regularly. He did the laundry and went for groceries. Normal adult life maintenance. He was living in the physical world again.

“My parents consider me the one person in my generation of the family that no one expected to turn out decent, who turned out decent,” he says. “A true underdog story.”

At the CGAA, A.Y. also met Susan, a fifty-four-year-old woman who felt she’d lost years of her life to computer games like Minesweeper and Spider Solitaire, and then to mobile games like Words With Friends. Like A.Y., Susan (the middle name of our source who also wished to remain anonymous) spent hours on end trying to get higher scores or beat her opponents. She lied to her husband about the time she spent playing games, tried to set up rules for how long she could play, and felt disgusted when she inevitably broke her own rules.

“A lot of people like me, it doesn’t look that serious,” Susan said. “I felt smart because I was really good at it.”

But in the end, after numerous attempts at moderating her time playing games the way A.Y. had done, Susan realized she needed to quit altogether. “I aspire to so much more,” she says of how she found the willpower and motivation to quit.

Today, A.Y. and Susan are the only consistent members of the CGAA; though, they’re positive that far more people need and would benefit from joining the group. When A.Y. was in charge of the group’s email, he regularly received notes from worried parents. Since the group has an eighteen and over policy, he shared his phone number with the adults and answered their questions in calls or texts.

“It’s a rough, rough place,” A.Y. says. “It’s funny because I talk to them on the phone and I hear a lot of things my parents said when I was growing up. It’s the same old story. If you’re a parent, you have to let (over-gamed teenagers) know it’s not okay, but you understand where they are. Maybe you figure out what’s making them upset. Gaming is a way of coping, and once they’re able to identify what it’s for, they can help them through.”

But even with all the progress he’s made, A.Y. doesn’t always feel perfectly content. There’s so much more time, and freedom, and he knows he made the right choice, but …

Look at the technology that’s just coming out! All the amazing games people will be able to play! He very briefly tried a game on the HTC Vive (another virtual reality headset like the Oculus Rift) and thought it was incredibly cool—and incredibly dangerous. Certainly it would be much more difficult to resist than other types of games, which in itself is frustrating. It doesn’t seem fair that he’s one of the people who can’t play at all because the sensation sucks him in too much. It doesn’t seem right that the games should have power over him that they don’t have over other people. And there’s nothing, nothing in the world, that fills the void they left behind. “Life is boring compared to video games. Holy shit, it’s boring,” A.Y. says.

Someone on a gaming addicts forum asked A.Y. when the dullness would end, when that feeling of, “Is this really all I can expect from life?” would cease. His response: “It hasn’t yet. This is life. This is what baseline feels like.”

He says permanently cutting out video games is like putting a muffler on guitar strings and hearing the muted notes instead of the clear ones—knowing what the bright, free notes sound like and knowing that you’ll never get to hear them again.

● ▼ ■

In 2011, a bestselling sci-fi and dystopian novel by Ernest Cline was published. “Ready Player One” tells the story of a world in ruins, with most of the population impoverished, suffering from the ravages of climate change, and unable to access energy sources that might make life more tolerable. The only thing most people have to live for is the OASIS, a massive virtual reality where people can shop, meet with friends, go to school, and play endless games. The OASIS—and the book itself—was the perfect escape. Combined with its geeky adoration of all things eighties (the Star Wars trilogy, movies by John Hughes, and coin-operated arcade games), it’s no surprise that the book became a success. I read and enjoyed it, but also found it deeply troubling. More than ninety percent of the book’s action takes place in a virtual world. When the main character comes to the end of the story, he says, “It occurred to me then that for the first time in as long as I could remember, I had absolutely no desire to log back into the OASIS.” On its face, this isn’t surprising. The book’s real world is pretty horrible, and virtual life is so full and engaging. But for me, that line felt like a smack in the face. He lived his entire life without ever wanting to interact with the real world. Without wanting to talk down the street to a neighborhood grocer, or climb a tree, or meet with friends over real coffee. Instead, he was strapped into the better-made equivalent of an Oculus Rift or a Vive.

I want to reiterate here that I regularly use and thoroughly appreciate the internet. I’m far from suggesting we need to get rid of it, because I struggle to imagine what the world would look like without it. But playing “House of the Dying Sun,” reading “Ready Player One,” seeing how ensnared people can become by their devices sometimes worries me. Everybody knows technology has changed the world. Nobody is sure how much it’s changing us.

Everybody knows technology has changed the world. Nobody is sure how much it’s changing us.

All the psychologists I spoke with were certain that research was moving forward in order to better treat internet addiction. Yes, there are a lot of questions we need answered. Understanding how the brain is chemically and physically affected by prolonged exposure to the internet and games would be a major step forward. Jelinek wants to see imaging studies to see what a brain on technology looks like compared to a brain healing from technology. Ott wants more long-term comparisons of individuals. All of them want to see internet addiction listed in the DSM-5 (the updated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders by the American Psychiatric Association). While internet gaming addiction is already in the manual as a condition warranting more research before it can be added as a formal disorder, none of the other variants of internet addiction appear there. Right now, insurance coverage for the malady can be tricky because insurance companies need to see a diagnosis to cover the cost of patient care. But there are ways around that (such as diagnosing the person with depression and seeing the internet addiction as a symptom of depression that needs to be treated).

And there are useful ways to treat people suffering from internet addiction. Most popular is cognitive behavioral therapy, where patients talk to psychologists about their addiction and together work out ways of being more mindful of avoiding certain behaviors. There are also luxury retreats for business people to get “unplugged,” and the country’s first inpatient treatment program for internet addiction opened in Pennsylvania in 2013. Parents can learn to model positive digital behavior to their children, and schools may start integrating such lessons into their classrooms as well. We’ve still got a ways to go when compared to China, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, where the illness is widely recognized and there’s been enormous outreach to help individuals. But the researchers I spoke with were hopeful and reiterated that the internet is far from an all-encompassing evil. In most cases, it’s a hugely positive technology.

But that doesn’t stop them from worrying about how humans will react in the future. Mazzarella in particular was concerned on a personal level about our need to constantly engage with machines. “I’d say we’ll continue to adapt, but I think we’re losing something fundamental of what makes us human,” Mazzarella says. “We’re driven by stimulus, we’re constantly distracting ourselves, which causes us to be reactive people. We’re losing the ability to have in-depth thought. I think we’re kind of losing our souls.”

“We’re constantly distracting ourselves, which causes us to be reactive people. We’re losing the ability to have in-depth thought. I think we’re kind of losing our souls.” —  Chris Mazzarella, a psychologist at Heritage Professional Associates

It’s a heavy topic, one worth sitting down with and pondering. But there are so many things for you to do on any given day, and so much information available at your fingertips. Distraction is cheap and easy. Dissecting difficult subjects and holding nuanced discussions takes too long. Instead you can take to Facebook with dire warnings about the future of the human race, or head to Twitter and scoff at all the Luddites who demonize technology. And when you’re done with that, you’ll find some other issue to chew on for ten minutes, or a game to play with friends, or a photo with a silly filter to share on Snapchat.

Life is a series of technological distractions. So, one must wonder, is there a point in worrying about the world we live in, since it’s too late to change it now?

About the author

The Ohio native is a new Chicagoan, arriving with a master’s in journalism from Columbia University to go with a bachelor’s in creative writing from Miami University. Her narrative nonfiction book, “The Last Voyageurs,” was published in early 2016.

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