One of the problems with our always-connected lives is that many of us are becoming addicted to stuff on the internet. Porn is easier to access than ever before, and even small kids can come across content which was once unavailable to anyone under 18 years of age. Even for those who stay away from porn, social media presents a different, but just as addictive trap which people cannot stay away from (hello Snapchat streaks).
Author A.N. Turner shares his story of digital dependence and how he broke free in his new book, Trapped In the Web: How I Liberated Myself from Internet Addiction and How You Can Too. The “digital diet” Turner talks about can be put into practice by anyone who is suffering from their social media or porn habits. The goal is to create healthier habits and help people reconnect with family, friends, school and other parts of “real life.”
We got the chance to interview the author about his experiences with porn and internet addiction. Read on for some fascinating insights into how companies get us addicted on purpose, plus a real person’s struggle and recovery.
Before we get into your book, please tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
I went to the University of Pennsylvania and played varsity squash. I interned at a partner of Facebook working on advertising technology, then did similar work at Overstock, and soon will be starting again at an advertising technology company in New York. I researched and wrote the book during my junior and senior year at University, and I also worked on it while working in tech. I took a semester off my senior year to focus full time on it. I wrote it while I was correcting my own behavior and relationships with my devices.
Thanks. You worked on software used by some of the largest companies in the world in order to convince people to buy stuff. Could you explain in layman’s terms how this technology works, and what are the potential pitfalls for the end user?
Facebook offers software called Power Editor that any individual or business can use to run ads on Facebook (look it up!). However, some of the largest companies have needs that warrant their own software. For example, because they run many ads across Facebook and it’s other platforms, they look for tools that streamline the creation of ads. That said, Facebook’s out of the box software has been catching up with features offered by its partners and is increasingly better and better able to be used by large companies.
The software allows companies to quickly create, manage, and measure advertising campaigns on Facebook and it’s platforms. In no other advertising system is there the reach, the precise reach, that Facebook has. It lets you precisely target a large number of people who have characteristics relevant to your product or service. Those characteristics are determined through the data that you share as you use the service as well as the data that, at least in the past, has been acquired from third party data brokers. These data brokers are people that sell data on you, to Facebook, that you didn’t give to Facebook when using it, but that helps advertisers target people more effectively. The idea is to optimize the exchange of information between businesses and individuals.
This has tremendous economic value. But it has a cost in that, rather than with a monthly subscription model, with an advertising business model there is every incentive to hook users. This lets more ads be sold, and lets more data to be collected to make the ads more valuable.
What is your book Trapped in the Web about and why did you write it?
My book helps people understand the costs of things like social media, how those costs are connected to the business model, and how they can change their relationships with technology to improve their lives. There are a lot of economic resources dedicated to hooking people, and so it’s difficult to free yourself and warrants understanding in order to break free. This is told through the first person: through my journey realizing I was hooked, realizing that social media and digital entertainment has every reason to hook you, and realizing that my life would be better if I withdrew from that.
I made changes to my life that I share. The results were amazing, and I highly suggest people wake up and do the same. However, it’s not just about withdrawing from digital abuse. It’s important to improve the quality of your real life. For me that involved spending more time with other people, spending more time on work I enjoyed, and spending more time in nature, among else.
While in the short term you get a burst of pleasure from this digital entertainment, there are underlying costs like subconscious peer comparison and paranoia of surveillance and meaningless and fleeting external validation that NEED to be considered and factored into the time spent. Most people don’t factor in the costs, because they are not aware. I have tried to make people more aware of the costs. There are 100 citations in the book alongside the personal story.
What is the biggest takeaway you would like teenagers to have from the book?
What’s scarce is attention span and confidence. This is the currency of the future. Digital entertainment wears these down. It’s worth spending energy resisting these temptations in order to have the greater benefit of being free from them. It’s important to be able to focus on singular things for sustained periods of time.
And instead of turning to social media and porn and video games when lonely, relationships need to be nurtured. This is what’s going to be best in the long run.
Unfortunately sexual disability is not uncommon among young adults due to the “environmental” influence of porn. The research suggests it wears down dopamine receptor sensitivity, which screws up your ability to have meaningful sexual relationships. This is why drugs like Cialis have become very popular among young adults. The stats make it even more clear. The emergence of free porn tubing sites were easily abused by young adults and have changed the numbers of erectile dysfunction cases drastically.
The greatest competitive advantage you can have is to understand and control these things. Be confident that the energy spent is worth it, because it is. It is really hard as a teenager to do that. Almost impossible. Which is why I think schools and parents need to be involved in regulation. You will be the stars. Find other more productive outlets like real relationships, self reflection, and interests.
Teens are literally addicted to their devices. They go everywhere and check them constantly. What are some of the effects of this addiction?
The effect is reduced life satisfaction, reduced mental health, and reduced physical health. This was suggested recently in a paper related to social media use. However this likely extends to other use cases as well. That said, social media is particularly bad. It gets people hooked on the fleeting high from an artificial external validation of likes and hearts. And there’s the subconscious peer comparison underlying the dopamine hit from seeing information from your friends on the news feed. It’s so concentrated, it gives you a rush. But the concentrated peer comparison is harmful. You now want more external validation, or you want to buy some clothes from ads you see on the side.
Attention spans have reduced, and many young adults turn to drugs to combat that. Many academics believe this is a product of environmental change. Meaning, now our environment — what we interact with — is digital. It’s constantly updating, constantly distracting us, in a powerful, and completely unpredictable way, like the slot machines.
Again, your attention span is everything. It’s what’s going to let you do great things, and have great conversations. This is what’s important for the rest of your life. Don’t sacrifice it with this stuff. The medication is a temporary fix, and will leave you irritable and anxious and also addicted. What are the consequences going to be for these young adults using it so often? Time will tell.
How do companies manipulate us to get us addicted to social media?
Social media companies want you to be hooked. They make more money that way, and the shareholders want them to make more money, so they literally have somewhat of a fiduciary responsibility to do so. They do this through the cycle I reveal in the book, which has never been identified before.
The cycle is streamlined peer comparison on the news feed, which leads to insecurity, which leads to the desire to upload content for validation, or the desire to purchase products in the ads. The validation from the likes and hearts is meaningless and fleeting, and often leaves you more empty than before. So now you’re seeking that next hit, or trying to escape reality through the dopamine from the news feed, which only leads to more peer comparison.
You are not connected. You are alone. What you need to do is see people in the real world and as minimalist a life as possible on social media. Sorry, I said it.
What do you think the danger is from watching porn online?
The danger is really large. You can get a massive dopamine spike from the novelty you can browse through. You can watch multiple videos in one sitting. You can fast forward and rewind. You can toggle between videos in different tabs at once. This is not natural. But this is easy to do, and hard to avoid. So then your receptivity to sexual stimulation reduces and you become more apathetic.
Your consumption of novelty may escalate to support the constant dopamine highs you are expecting. All of a sudden now you are watching content you may have previously found disgusting and this is really tough for people. The difficulty is it’s easy to escalate, difficult to resist, and thus needs to be completely resisted.
I think it also messes up your relationship with your computer, a source of productivity. Don’t excessively deplete your energy. Save it for what’s important and keep the ability to have real relationships. You may not be able to have an erection or ejaculate as a young adult if you continue to use it.
If you had the power to regulate the Internet to prevent some of the bad effects you talk about, what would you suggest?
I think education is important. To be prepared for life as a young person you need to understand these issues. Integration in curriculum would be helpful. At a certain point, people will always have opiates and similar versions of opiates, and the important thing is to be able to moderate them if you think it’s worth it for your life to do so. My belief having reviewed the research is that it is for the vast majority of people.
How did you break free personally?
I broke free by gradually reducing the digital stimulation in my life while making my real life more meaningful. So, gradually reducing use of social media and porn, among else, while also having more relationships, going out more, and spending more time on interests. It has been invaluable.
Now I use social media moderately, in complete control. And I haven’t watched porn in over two years. One of the things that helped most with social media, and sorry I haven’t mentioned this yet, is stopping checking notifications. No more notifications. They are random, unpredictable reward, which leads to obsession. You reduce anxiety over who interacted with your profile. The benefit isn’t worth getting hooked.
Make your profile more private by changing your settings so you have less obsession about this. Have less photos and friends. Only real friends.
Where can people find out more or get help for their own social media or porn habits?
Your Brain on Porn by Gary Wilson is a great resource. He reviewed my book after publishing and he is quoted multiple times.
There is not much else on social media. Reading Hooked by Nir Eyal can help you understand why you feel addicted, which can help you escape. Mary Anne Layden at UPenn has done great research on this topic. The forum NoFap on Reddit has 300K+ subscribers posting about the topic of porn specifically. Your parents may not understand these issues, and your friends may not talk about them, but you are not alone.
What do you have coming up next?
I’m promoting this work so that people who need it will see it. I soon start working again and will no doubt get new perspectives. I pursue my interests and focus on being social to offset these addictions.