Do You Have 'Offline Stress Disorder'?

Fueled by Facebook and the iPhone, Offline Stress Disorder is state of anxiety caused by knowledge that an Internet connection is not available.
Posted October 14, 2009

Mike Elgan

Mike Elgan

You hear a lot about Internet addiction, or Internet Addiction Disorder. Camps and rehab clinics have sprung up all over China, and even in the United States, to help cure victims.

Internet addiction is diagnosed when excessive use of the Internet interferes with normal life -- job, relationships, and so on. Internet addiction is real. Newsweek reported on a man driven to homelessness by Internet addiction, for example.

I've noticed a related malady -- it has no established name; let's call it Offline Stress Disorder -- which is a mental or emotional state of anxiety caused by not using the Internet, or the knowledge that an Internet connection is not available.

What's the difference? Offline Stress Disorder is anxiety that exists whether one's normal life is interrupted or not. It's not necessarily debilitating. And it's more common. Much more.

I don't believe I know anyone with full-blown Internet addiction, for example. But it seems that half the people I know suffer from Offline Stress Disorder. In fact (if you're a technology minded person with a job, as evidenced by the fact that you're reading this Web site) chances are that you don't have Internet addiction, but you may have Offline Stress Disorder.

It's not my imagination, either. Virgin Media surveyed 1,000 UK citizens, and found that one third felt stressed out if they lost cell phone or Internet connectivity. Two thirds said they felt "more relaxed" when they knew they had Internet access available to them.

Yanks are worse off than Brits. A study conducted last year by Solutions Research Group (SRG) found that 41% of Americans suffer at least occasional anxiety from being disconnected from the Internet, while an additional 27% report "elevated" or acute anxiety.

The study asked respondents to describe how being disconnected from the Internet makes them feel. They said "disoriented," "panic," "loss of freedom," "dazed," "inadequate," and even "empty."

I even did a little "survey" of my own. I asked my own social network friends about whether or not they have Offline Stress Disorder, and many admitted that they do. One reported feeling "empty" and "locked out" when a storm took out Internet access yesterday. Another described "fear that the world is zipping by."

One friend, tech radio personality Carey Holzman, told me a funny story about how he discovered his own Offline Stress Disorder: "When I went to Burning Man I was so desperate to get online and have some communication I climbed to the top of the RV to get a better signal. Climbing an RV ladder with a laptop in your hand isn't as easy as it sounds. I realized then, I have a sickness... :)"

I've been thinking a lot about Offline Stress Disorder lately. What I've noticed is that unlikely people are getting it.

Sure, you might expect Offline Stress Disorder from hardcore technology fans, news junkies (I happen to be both) and others who make their living from or find enjoyment in knowing about breaking news or current trends.

But in the past two years, I've noticed that even quasi-luddites slipping into the OSD frame of mind. The same kind of people who used to feel anxiety when online now feel it when offline.

I blame two things for this trend: iPhone and Facebook, and for very different reasons.

Why iPhone causes OSD

Cell phones have been able to access the Internet for years. What's different about the iPhone is the combination of big, high-resolution screen with the compelling nature of iPhone applications. The iPhone makes getting Internet data very easy, either with the Facebook or Twitter applications, or any of thousands of iPhone apps.

One of the most compelling "apps" on the iPhone is the App Store app itself. Everyone who carries an iPhone is convinced that among the 80,000 (or whatever it is this week) iPhone apps is a few dozen apps they don't know about but would absolutely love to use.

The iPhone, in other words, has become (among other things) a connection machine. We grow accustomed to being very connected all the time, and that acclimation leads to anxiety when the connection is unavailable.

Why Facebook causes OSD

I wrote a piece in this space about a year ago called, "Social Networking: What Are 'Friends' For? " In that column, I wrote that the chief benefit of social networking sites like Facebook is not to improve the quality of relationships, but the quantity.

In the Real World, you can maintain maybe a hundred real relationships with other people -- maybe 200 for hard-core social butterflies. Some people get by with a dozen or even fewer.

But on Facebook, you can stay in touch with thousands of "friends." By simply checking out your home page, and occasionally browsing the profiles of friends, you can find out very quickly who's doing what, and to whom. Look, your former co-worker just had twins. Your brother- and sister-in-law are on their way to see "Couples Retreat" (they'll regret it). An old high school buddy is training for a marathon.

Trivial things connect human beings. Social networks take our innate and central desire for social connection, and multiply it numerically. The result, however, is that some people can feel stress when disconnected from this beehive of social chit-chat.

Do YOU suffer from Offline Stress Disorder? If so, how does it make you feel, and what's causing it? I'd love to know.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to check Facebook on my iPhone. RIGHT NOW!

Tags: Facebook, Google, social networking, networking, iPhone

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