Gaydar, Manhunt, Grindr, Scruff: how many virtual personas do you have? How often do you check them? And what effect is all this white noise having on your heart and mind? We take a look at the rise of internet addiction, a disturbing trend which is being dubbed “the new crack cocaine of the 21st century”
“At the moment I’m on Gaydar, Scruff and Fab Swingers,” says 28 year old Freddie, a music blogger. “They’re all good in their own way, but if I want sex there and then, Scruff is the best.”
Freddie has been using gay social sites, and more recently mobile apps, for almost a decade. He confesses that he checks his Scruff every half an hour while he’s at work – that’s a staggering 80 times in a working week. That’s not counting travel to and from work, or the weekend. Most evenings his home computer is on from 6pm until midnight, with Gaydar always running in the background. In an average week, he meets up with three or four guys.
But Freddie insists he is not addicted to the internet. “Sure, I could live without it. I’d rather be out doing stuff. But if I am online, I am on these sites.” He absent-mindedly picks up his phone, and checks for new messages on Scruff. He laughs sheepishly, realising what he’s just done.
“It’s always there. It’s moreish. When someone’s messaging you, it gives you a rush. I know it’s not healthy, because it takes over your time and you become hyper-sexual. It consumes you. But it’s so accepted now. Nobody is going to stop you and tell you that it’s getting out of control, because everyone else is doing it. Yesterday, I was with my friends at the pub, and there was a moment where none of us had anything to say to each other, and so the first thing we all did was get our phones out, and loaded up Grindr. It was a bit sad.”
Peter, 31, is a flight attendant with BMI. His favourite apps are Grindr, Gaydar, Scruff, Jack’d, Bender and the website Gay Romeo. Most mornings, as soon as he wakes up, the first thing he will do is check his phone for messages. He freely admits that these apps have a negative effect on his life, but he is yet to reach a point where he would consider deleting them entirely.
“It’s an addiction, without a doubt. I’ve always had a high sex drive, but I think these apps have amplified that. Some days I say to myself, ‘I think I’ll give it a rest today’, but within two or three days I am back on them again. I see it like a jar of sweeties – it’s very hard to walk past the jar without opening the lid.”
Peter only meets up with three guys a month, a very low number given the huge amount of time he spends surfing online. At one point, his addiction to apps was so severe, he developed repetitive strain injury in his hand and arm.
“I remember being on a work trip for three or four nights, and I was just constantly on these apps. I remember driving in the car and I had pain shooting up my arm, and I just knew it was from overuse of Grindr. It got to the stage where I was taking my phone to the toilet with me. I couldn’t even go for a piss without taking my phone.”
While Peter can see the signs of addition all around him, he feels there’s safety in numbers.
My friend Carl will come around for dinner and he cannot help but log on to Grindr, because he is in a different neighbourhood to where he lives. Sometimes we all log on as well, but mostly we’re constantly telling him ‘for godsake, can you put your Grindr down!’ You can see him getting itchy if he can’t get online. I’m just thinking ‘oh my god, that’s me’. I’ll often go on work trips to Beirut – you’ll have five or six gay boys from the airline all in the same hotel, and you can see them all switch on their Grindr. I think to myself, ‘god, there are other people who do this’.”
Brett, a 28 year old Designer, is an avid user of mobile apps too. He believes that it all boils down to ego.
“It’s no different to the guys who parade up and down Old Compton Street – they need the attention. You log on and when you see the messages you get a buzz. You think ‘somebody needs me, somebody wants me’ – that’s what Grindr is. It’s like outsourcing confidence. I think gay guys want to stand out, they want to be desired. I think it comes from growing up hiding who you are and feeling ashamed of yourself.”
Matt Shorrock is Clinical Director at Oak Tree Therapy and one the UK’s leading experts in the treatment of internet addiction. He says that this ‘sleeping giant’ has been coined ‘the new crack cocaine of the 21st century’.
“The internet’s darker side is starting to become more apparent. Recent reputable studies from the USA have generalised that at least one in eight Americans experiences significant distress associated with internet addiction. Much more research needs to be conducted to help us fully understand the origin, nature, prevalence and treatment of what appears to be an exponentially rising problem.”
According to Shorrock, if you have a habitual compulsion to engage in a certain activity, regardless of the destructive consequences on your physical, spiritual, social, psychological, or financial well-being, you have an addiction. While the behaviour may offer pleasure, its absence creates anxiety, and so the cycle begins.
“More and more people, especially men, are presenting themselves into my practice struggling with internet related distress,” says Shorrock. He believes that low self-esteem and internet abuse often go hand in hand.
“The seductive allure of the internet provides anonymity and relative safety. Men can embellish their online identity, and connect with men they believe wouldn’t ordinarily be available to them. ‘Real world’ living can seem relatively dull compared to the often thrilling virtual worlds they can occupy, where inhibition is instantly decommissioned, and fantasies fulfilled at the push of a button!”
Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, believes that the internet is literally re-shaping our brains: strengthening certain electrochemical signals, as well as actually creating physical, anatomical changes.
“We human beings crave information in the same way we crave sex, down into the very synapses of our brain,” said Carr at last year’sThe Economist Conference. “Studies show that the discovery of a new piece of information, regardless of what it is, actually triggers the release of dopamine in our brain.”
In more primitive times, this pleasure producing chemical may have helped us survive in nature. These days it is being constantly triggered by what Carr calls “the data deluge”. He regards new technologies act as an eternal distraction, reducing our productivity as well as our ability to retain and make sense of information.
“The brain likes to be efficient, so while it is strengthening connections that are being exercised, similarly it is dismantling and weakening those that were part of old ways of thinking. We begin to lose the facilities that we don’t exercise.” A shorter attention span, poor memory and shallow thinking are some of the negative effects the internet can have on our brains. In short: use it or lose it.
If you’re concerned about your relationship with the virtual world, the first step is as simple as taking time out.
“Purposely set aside some time each day where you don’t use the internet, or your apps,” says Shorrock. “Given the pervasive nature of the internet in the fabric of everyday living, this can be quite a challenge, but give it a go, even if this means turning your phone off for an hour every day. Let key people know you are doing this, and give yourself some quality downtime. Do something that is meaningful, enriching or nourishing.
Then try expanding this period. Play with it. If you are struggling with this, perhaps it’s time to speak to a close and trusted friend, or get some professional support from somebody specialised in treating internet addiction.”
So, will we ever see a day when we can all finally delete our virtual selves?
“Two years ago nobody was on Grindr, and now everyone is,” says Freddie. “You don’t know what the next step is going to be. Gay guys really embrace new technology that leads to you actually meeting people. If I got a boyfriend that I loved and we were monogamous, I would turn them off. I met my last boyfriend on Gaydar in a cruising room. Within two or three weeks he was like ‘so are you going to turn off your Gaydar because I’ve turned off mine.’ It was cute in a way.”
“I don’t know,” says Peter. “They are my security blanket, and being single, it gives me a connection. It gives me self-esteem. If I got into a relationship, I’d be quite prepared to delete them all, because it’s just temptation. But as I’ve seen written on a few people’s profiles, ‘I’m still looking for a reason to delete Grindr’.”
Am I addicted?
- Does the app / internet prevent you from going about my everyday business?
- Are your ‘real world’ relationships consistently being negatively impacted by your time online?
- Are you crossing your own ethical boundaries?
- Are you putting yourself in danger of legal prosecution?
- Do you struggle to apportion a decent amount of time where you don’t use the internet or app without feeling distressed, anxious or irritated?
If you have answered yes to any of these questions, then by definition, you have a problem.