TMI (too much information) used to be the case when someone, casually over lunch, disclosed their recent struggle with a rectal itch. Now, however, we have truly moved beyond the Information Age to the Too Much Information Age. Sometimes too much information at our disposal can fuel obsessions and make you suffer!
How does this happen? Let’s look at a few examples.
It used to be that many relationships in our lives had a beginning, middle, and an end. The end of a romantic relationship, for example, typically involved a severing of that relationship—painful, but done. Closure could be achieved following a length of healthy grieving. Today, however, relationships often don’t end. You may no longer be sleeping with your ex, but there’s a good chance (at least among today’s tech-oriented young adults) that he or she is still your Facebook friend. You may still receive occasional texts, pokes, tweets, or e-mails. You continue to see their lives played out via photos and videos placed on their Facebook page.
Not only does this make it difficult to move on, but some people become obsessed with checking online information about their ex. They may then come to idealize that past relationship, which may jeopardize their happiness in their current non-idealized relationship. Fantasies of reconciliation can be further fueled by reading too much into their ex’s online gestures (Just what did that ;0 mean?).
Some people take this to an extreme and begin “Cyber-Snooping” on their ex. This may involve spending hours a day analyzing every detail of their online information, trying in vain to find certainty about whether their ex is open to taking them back or trying to find out as much as they can about their ex’s current romantic pursuits. This can go on for months or years and makes the person with the obsession miserable with uncertainty. Some will know their ex’s website logins and passwords, (note- after break-ups it is important to change these) and will also check their bank and credit card statements, phone records, and much more.
Maybe it is okay for relationships to end. Maybe we don’t need to keep ex’s as online friends, followers, and so on. Do they really need to be on the receiving end of that group tweet? So—let them go, grieve your loss, and change your passwords. It may be more painful at first, but in the long run you can reinvest your emotional energy in a new relationship.
For people with health anxiety, the internet is often a source of torture. They search desperately for some piece of information that will convince them that they are not suffering from a catastrophic illness. However, they can never get 100% certainty—and Anxiety demands nothing less than that. They go from website to forum, to listserv, to chat room, to website. Perhaps they find a hopeful shred of information here and there and feel some fleeting relief. It doesn’t last long, however, and soon they are back to the web, desperate for their next reassurance fix. The more they check for certainty, the more uncertain they remain. More than one client of mine has described it as “hell on earth”.
Perfectionists are drawn to the internet by the hope that they can achieve perfection if they can just get enough information. If they are going to buy a TV or purchase airline tickets, they might spend hour upon hour for months trying to ensure they are getting the perfect product at the perfect price. This is a hopeless attempt at achieving certainty. Other people may spend hours researching information just for the sake of NEEDING TO KNOW. It can be upsetting to them to have imperfect knowledge or an unanswered question. The problem is that we can’t know everything and we can’t know anything perfectly—no matter how much we try. Perfectionists are often chronic contemplators, wanting to make a decision, but since they cannot be guaranteed that they will make the perfect choice they put off making the decision in favor of more and more internet “research.”
Porn in the internet age is popular—no doubt. For some, however, the never ending stream of novel sexual stimuli begins to eat more and more time out of their daily life. This can create an “addiction” to novelty. I read somewhere recently (sorry I do not recall the source) that this is like having “sexual A.D.D.” In other words, nothing sexual can hold their attention very long. This can keep them coming back for more, newer, and more novel pictures or videos. The cost is that monogamy to them really becomes synonymous with monotony. How could one person (or a hundred for that matter) possible compete with an endless stream of novelty? It is not uncommon for people to lose sexual desire for their partners altogether.
The internet can be a wonderful thing, but has the potential to foster obsessive and anxious rumination. The research into the consequences of this is in its infancy, but therapists are seeing increasing instances of cyber-obsessions. Treatment involves learning to use the internet in ways that are adaptive and not destructive.
Eric Goodman, Ph.D.