Our Access to Information May Give Way to Separation Anxiety
> 3/20/2008 8:35:37 AM

The internet is everywhere, and the influence of our greatest information technology will only continue to grow, re-shaping our lives in mostly positive ways. More than 70% of the United States is now online at home, and that number has doubled in the last decade. While the benefits of our advancement are limitless, these new technologies can prove problematic for some. Millions spend hours a day surfing the web, and recent surveys highlight one of the most observable side-effects of an over-reliance on the internet: a phenomenon one group is calling "disconnect anxiety."

The amount of time some devote to online pursuits borders on the compulsive, but they may not even be aware of the effect that this behavior has on their quality of life until they're deprived of it for some time. As an ever-increasing number of devices allow for internet access, the web becomes a constant presence at home, at work, and on nearly every daily commute. Most techies do not need psychological interventions to forcibly tear them away from BlackBerries or Second Life campaigns, but a considerable percentage of the population relies on their networking gadgets to the degree that they experience separation anxiety on losing that access. The average citizen may believe that he or she can easily go without these e-tools and suffer no consequences, but a long-running series of collected surveys and interviews of nearly 5,000 Americans by the Solutions Research Group reveals that more than 1 in 4 users experiences a heightened state of disconnect anxiety and that a 68% majority feel some degree of related stress when they can't use their favorite web tools. The 32% who denied such concerns includes most of the respondents over the age of 50, and this group is naturally less likely to spend exorbitant amounts of time online or become dependent on their networking devices because the net hasn't always become as central to their lives.

Think about it: anyone can remove him or herself from the internet for a certain period of time, but that access is a near-constant, and the uncertainty of a broken connection can become quite stressful in a matter of minutes. It's one thing to turn off a web-ready cell phone while visiting the gym, watching a movie or taking a walk. One can be secure in the knowledge that that connection is waiting at the simple touch of a button. But many understandably grow upset when disconnected from the source and unsure as to exactly when their access will return. The problem is not limited to online poker players and teens Facebooking their crushes: the over-50 set, while less subject to disconnect anxiety, still made up 10% of the most affected sample. Given reasons for web-loss panic are reasonable, if exaggerated. The most common fears revolve around the possibility that a lost connection will impair one's safety, navigational skills, necessary social contacts, or the ability to complete work-related tasks as needed. It's true that we may miss important information if we don't check our connections on a regular basis, but this problem has clearly been blown out of proportion due to the sense of powerlessness that often follows a lost connection.

The proliferation of these technologies has affected the daily lives of nearly every citizen, and instant access to such a sea of information offers both endless possibilites and new sources of stress. The group behind this study has offered these simple questions to help individuals decide if disconnect anxiety may be a problem for them. Many Facebook users access their profiles every day. A considerable majority of citizens take their web-ready cell phones with them wherever they go. And who hasn't sent text messages or accessed the internet via laptop on a Saturday evening? The best response to this anxiety "epidemic" is to laugh it off as evidence of an increasingly web-friendly society and take a brisk walk outside whenever it strikes, but a friendly intervention or systematic reassessment of one's habits may prove helpful for those whose tech compulsions run deepest. Do you really need to check your email ten times a day? Probably not. But that desire and its comorbid anxieties are undeniable.

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