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Issue 25, October 2010

Are you an e-junkie?

15 November 2010
By Ralph Adam (

“(Email) is just another way of being rejected by women”. That’s George’s opinion in the 1998 film You’ve got mail.

For many, electronic mail has a very different image. A survey respondent gives a more usual, less dismissive, view:

“If our email server goes down for even half a day, I feel completely handicapped, like my right hand has been cut off: I’m useless.”

Although the technology originated with the 1930s teletype, the first ‘real ‘email was sent in 1973. Since then, use has grown rapidly – not just for its many academic, business and governmental applications (which are changing work practices), but also for personal contact.

Email’s big attraction is its simplicity and almost-magical speed – a typed message can traverse the world, virtually cost-free, in an instant. Not surprisingly, users feel incapacitated if, even briefly, they are without it and we all know people who cannot resist checking their in-boxes every few minutes or downloading the latest messages from their Blackberrys during a play’s climax; or at a key point in a meeting. It also blurs the distinction between work and non-work time: the bedroom has become an extension of the office. Sundays are now a peak time for emailing.

Such convenience brings problems: many people have difficulty organising their filing – harder than with printed documents as email is often used to store and archive unrelated information. Filing is a difficult cognitive task which depends on imagining future retrieval needs and, in the absence of a formal classification scheme or thesaurus, being able to recall files’ names. We hang on to ‘historic’ folders or maintain folders with too few emails to be of value; in-boxes frequently contain mixtures of incomplete tasks, aged, but unread, items, messages that were too long or required too much thought when they arrived, and items that have already been dealt with. Is it surprising that researchers found the average in-box to contain 3100 items? The ease of sending emails means they are often sent without sufficient consideration, thus adding to the in-box’s volume and leading to feelings of ‘email overload’.

Are those who cannot tear themselves away from their screens really addicted? According to addiction specialist Aviel Goodman, an addict is someone who gets pleasure from an activity, yet feels powerless to control their impulses. As a result they spend too much time emailing, go back to it frequently when they should be doing other things, abandon work or hobbies and become restless or irritable if they are prevented from reading messages. A Centre for Online Addiction (perhaps, not surprisingly, in the USA) already exists to help ‘a growing epidemic’ of sufferers who cannot control their use of the technology, while an Internet Addiction Test is available to check for, what its creator considers to be, a serious disorder.

A British research project found high Internet use to be correlated with depression and introversion while, for some people, email increased their existing feelings of isolation. Suggesting, perhaps, that someone should advise George to seek medical help!

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