What is Internet Virtue and Internet Use Disorder(Vice)?

Virtues are habits we develop through repeated action, mastering our impulses in ways that make it easier to develop good relationships and to seek and maintain the common good. Vice is disorder, a lack of self-mastery that damages and destroys social life and personal well-being. For example, a lack of mastery over alcohol leads to drunkenness, alcoholism, child and spouse abuse, broken marriages, and cirrhosis of the liver, etc., whereas virtuous use of alcohol can foster social interactions, wholesome family celebrations, and a healthy heart. The virtuous use of the Internet is similar.

Just as the beer, wine, and spirits industry has no interest in self-mastery of alcohol consumption—the more people get addicted the more they buy and consume, increasing the industry’s profits. This is why the Internet and social media industry spends billions of dollars to make their platforms more appealing and addictive, especially to young people—the younger they get addicted, the more people will consume and the greater the industry’s profits. 

Because alcohol and screens produce dopamine, cortisol, and adrenaline they impact our brains, especially the developing brains of children and young people. A recent study showed how alcohol specifically impacts teens, decreasing their ability to learn, their short-term, long-term and verbal memory, their general cognitive and executive function, while increasing impulsivity and risk taking. Similar studies show how excess online activity, computer games, and social media—especially in young people—impacts sleep, the brain’s reward system, short-term, long-term, and verbal memory, attention span, and increases impulsivity, risk taking, and bullying. Now medical professionals identify Internet and TikTok Use Disorder (IUD and TTUD) as chronic addictive brain disorders alongside Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).

What are some of the recognizable symptoms of Internet Use Disorder? It boils down to lack of virtue, a lack of self-mastery and control. Do you see any of the following signs in you? 

• Irresistible cravings to connect to the Internet via phone, tablet, or computer; feeling locked-in or controlled by electronics;

• Staying online longer than intended; failing in efforts to reduce screen time; being secretive or defensive about usage; being online instead of doing activities you once enjoyed; a sense of powerlessness to do something else.

• Neglecting work, school, or home responsibilities due to screen-time; fewer face-to-face encounters with friends and family; use of electronics at meals and social gatherings; feeling that it is the only way to form social bonds; 

• Poor decisions and risky behavior online and offline; sharing online things you never share face-to-face; using phone, etc. in risky situations, such as while driving; 

• Insomnia, poor or insufficient sleep; using screen time when stressed or unable to sleep;

• Staying online despite feeling anxious, sad, or unlovable; fear of being a fish out of water or missing out (FOMO); envious of the looks or experiences of others online; 

• Mood swings, lack of motivation, periods of being “spaced out;” loneliness;

• Experienced restlessness, irritability, or angry outbursts, depression, stress, anxiety, panic, or shaking when unable to be online for a time.

This is why virtue is so important. Virtue is power and self-control enabling us to love and do something worthwhile with our lives. Without virtue we become a target of manipulation techniques used to psychologically entrap Internet users, shaping our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to reap ever-greater profits. Social media numbs us to the problems of life, providing short-term, superficial escapes from pressing issues.

We need to be comfortable in our own skin as our self-worth is not based on how many “likes” we get on a post or how many followers we have online. Our identity and self-worth is based on real person-to-person relationships, beginning with our relationship with God.

So let’s discover ways to develop order in our Internet usage, and develop Internet virtue instead of vice.

Fr. John Waiss