“It’s probably easier to answer how much time I don’t spend on the Internet, which would probably be the time when I’m sleeping, so I guess about four hours”. Childish Gambino.
The first iPhone was launched in 2007. Many of us will have had one of these powerful pocket-sized computers on our person, connecting us to the rest of the world for 16 years. 2007 delivered western society with an undoubtably game-changing technology. Life suddenly felt faster. I remember a small but significant paradigm shift in my own work life. I went from saying to colleagues, ‘I’ll read your email when I get home’ to an expectation I would read and rely on the fly, all via a smart phone that had the internet, my emails, and a workable keyboard. It was the start of having the world at our fingertips.
As the internet and technology developed, it started delivering much more than work emails, but served as an instant dopamine delivery service. Apps, games, and social media all designed to keep you engaged for long periods of time while delivering small doses of dopamine, a chemical in our brain rewarding us for points, likes, re-tweets and friend requests.
For some men this makes the internet a welcome place. It’s a place where they can be alone and connected at the same time. If a man struggles to name an uncomfortable feeling, then seeking a dopamine hit is a fast way to shift their internal world to a place that feels more comfortable, more gratifying. I compare this to smoking. When a situation feels uncomfortable, then stepping outside for a smoke can bypass confronting the uncomfortable feelings. Stepping into the internet can do the same thing. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. However, for some men, this can lead to behaviour that is difficult.
For some, online pornography, gambling or browsing can provide this hit of dopamine. Smartphones mean these can be seconds away, 24/7. Although adult gambling or using pornography that is not extreme may be legal, the internet makes them so accessible that searching for that dopamine hit can become compulsive for some men. Chat rooms such as Reddit or Discord have a similar effect. Men – many vulnerable, can connect anonymously. Again, this may not be inherently bad, but they can be dangerous for spreading ideas, anything from misogyny to online grooming (online grooming crimes have risen 80% over the last four years1). The more compulsive these behaviours become; the further away men get from identifying the uncomfortable feelings that sent them there.
It is, of course, not all bad. Many men on the internet have connective experiences. For minorities, such as transmen, who face violence every day, the internet can be a safe place in the digital company of their peers. Apps, such as TikTok are often demonised, but for all the negatives, they also share information and bring together communities and platform experts through lived experience.
As therapists, it can be easy to jump to conclusions about our male patients and their use of the internet. Using pornography, gambling or apps can raise alarms of destructive behaviour or avoidance. We need to be mindful however, compulsive behaviours for some may be perfectly healthy for others. Tuning in to the individual across from us in the therapy room is the best way for us to know what normal distraction is and what may be a compulsive move toward the internet and away from emotional discomfort.
1 NSPCC news blog. 2022 https://www.nspcc.org.uk/about-us/news-opinion/