How can I forgive myself for wasting so much time?
January 3, 2015 7:37 PM   Subscribe

I basically spent the past nine years of my life skimming forum posts and otherwise wasting my time on the Internet. How can I get past this and stop hating myself?

I got into computers when I was in third grade. I was a "voracious reader", "gifted", etc., etc. I am now a senior in high school. The entire intervening time was basically spent in an Internet fog. While I did read books, learn to write better, and develop some new interests -- gradually and without real focus -- I lost most of that time to just sitting there mindlessly. I didn't even get into gaming or coding or anything -- I convinced myself I was studying interesting things when really most of the time I was skimming articles and forums, with zero focus and little intellectual content.

It is now clear to me that I was/am dealing with an actual Internet addiction. And in recent years the computer has been the only way for me to shut off the depressed/anxious thoughts. But my depression hasn't been as bad as for many/most people, and I keep wondering if maybe if I were less lazy I could have still done at least some actual stuff instead of completely powering off. If it had been alcoholism or hard drugs or something, maybe I'd at least feel like the loss of time was more legitimate. Instead, it was a conscious decision to be lazy every time I sat down at the computer.

I no longer believe in my ability to do anything with depth or genuine interest. Everything I do is just a laundry list of stuff I grabbed off the Internet because I liked the idea of it. Whenever I write or read a book I keep thinking that it's just "surface-level" and that I'm not really immersing myself in it and that I am nowhere near far along enough in this considering when I started and how old I am. (My anxiety/depression is just "surface-level" too.) And I have to fight against these thoughts to recover my dulled interest in reading and other topics.

I know I'm seriously overreacting. And I am being treated for these issues, which will give me a more positive mindset. But I think that this is not only my depression talking. I have no idea how I am going to forgive myself for basically wasting my childhood. How can I get over this?
posted by myitkyina to Human Relations (31 answers total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
One thing to keep in mind is that regret is the biggest waste of time out there. The more time you spend regretting something, the lest time you have for doing other things.
posted by xingcat at 7:38 PM on January 3, 2015 [56 favorites]

Why not think, "hey, at least I didn't totally screw up my health with an addiction to drugs and alcohol?"
posted by salvia at 7:43 PM on January 3, 2015 [16 favorites]

Best answer: You write well. Clearly, with good paragraphing, in your own voice. You must've learned something between third grade and now.
posted by mono blanco at 7:48 PM on January 3, 2015 [23 favorites]

What's done is done and honestly, it's not that bad in the big scheme of things (I am not downplaying your depression).

Right now I would focus on school and make the best of it. Make more friends and enjoy the ones you already have. Try something new. Make more plans. See a movie every weekend with friends, or by yourself. When you go to college, continue to cultivate relationships and put yourself out there. Enjoy people, be adventurous, and make memories. This is really the best time of your life. So what you spent time on forums -- you enjoyed it and it served a purpose. You can cut back if you want to. Right now, you have approximately five more months of high school. Enjoy it and suck the life out of it.
posted by Fairchild at 7:50 PM on January 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't know that you have to "forgive yourself" so much as maybe grow to acknowledge and respect that you experienced certain circumstances in your childhood that were difficult to deal with head-on, so you chose the internet as your outlet.

People have been able to turn things around much later in life, if that is of any comfort to you-- and, while all addictions are challenging, internet browsing isn't the most harmful thing (physically, socially) you could have done, as you and other posters acknowledge above. One type of addiction is not more "legitimate" than another; they all represent some form of emotional crutch and some simply have longer-lasting physical and/or social consequences.

I would suggest focusing your energy on looking forward, because that is how time moves. If you feel like you have lost the ability to focus, maybe you can start setting small, reasonable goals like "I want to read one book this month and talk about it with a friend." Kudos to you for getting yourself into therapy! It already seems like you are on the right track. Now, get off Metafilter (however awesome a forum it may be) and go live your life! ;-)
posted by gemutlichkeit at 7:53 PM on January 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: (a) You're a senior in high school! Plenty of people are in their mid-30s before they realize they've wasted decades of their life on the internet.

(b) Realize that this shame (and the urge to deal with it by posting and reading more stuff online) is also a manifestation of the addiction. As long as you're self-flagellating and navel-gazing and wallowing in regret and seeking our support, you don't actually have to buckle down and, you know, close the laptop and go take a walk.

(c) Thus, don't worry about the "lost years" between 3rd grade and senior year; most of the work during that time was being done for you on a physiological level as your body and brain matured. Plenty of great people throughout history spent the years 10-18 in picking cotton or child-minding or factory work or similarly uninspiring pursuits, then hit a little time to study in their early 20s and took off running. But you do need to get off the internet now. Like, right now. I would suggest a week or two cold turkey, or school-assignments-only, if you can manage it. You'll be surprised at how fast the brain fog will clear and your natural focus and curiosity will ramp up.
posted by Bardolph at 8:03 PM on January 3, 2015 [30 favorites]

Best answer: I have no idea how I am going to forgive myself for basically wasting my childhood. How can I get over this?

Cranky old man, here: childhood is kind of a waste of time. You didn't miss anything, outside of a lot of vapid movies and parties. Actually, to be honest, it kind of sucks you missed out on the parties and making friends, but you can make up for lost time now and in college. (And even with the friends thing, the people I know who had "lots of friends" in high school later dropped them when they decided that a lot of them were shallow and not that bright, which I found to be a lot of messed up-edness in and of itself).

As someone else said here, your writing is really high quality, compared to a lot of crap you see on the Internet. You didn't spend your childhood playing WoW or Call of Duty, and for that you should be thankful.

What it sounds like happened is that you had a lot of anxiety issues and wasting time in Internet forums provided a feeling of relief from the anxiety, so you kept doing that rather than pursuing other more useful things.

Going forward, to get ahead, you probably will want to create a lot more structure for yourself so that you have less opportunity to get caught in these black holes. In your last question, you even state that it is the unstructured time where you are the worst off, even though you so well in your classes.

Take on more responsibilities and structured tasks/classes/socializing so that you can enrich yourself and leave yourself fewer opportunities to waste time simply because it provides you anxiety relief.
posted by deanc at 8:11 PM on January 3, 2015 [9 favorites]

Another old fart here that is only now learning the truth of the saying,"anxiety doesn't fix today and it only fucks up tomorrow". Just try to do better and when you fail, collect yourself and try again. Pursue interests that aren't "studying". Things like dancing, woodworking or theatre are activities that engage the body or the hands while developing the intellect.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:31 PM on January 3, 2015 [11 favorites]

You might hasten your self-forgiveness by reading critiques or alternative viewpoints of the concepts of productivity, busyness, and achievement. Who says you have to be "productive" anyway? For instance, here's a review of a book called The Secret World of Doing Nothing. (There are probably better critiques, but I don't know them offhand.)
posted by salvia at 9:03 PM on January 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Start taking small, manageable steps towards the life you want. The satisfaction of building new habits and working towards accomplishments that excite you will help you let go of your disappointment with how the last few years have gone.

The internet is a powerful antidote to anxiety. What you think of as a clear decision seems more like a compulsion to seek relief, imo. Finding ways to manage your anxiety that don't put you in conflict with yourself might help.
posted by bunderful at 9:03 PM on January 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I know people in their 30's who have spent the last 9 years in an internet (or other type) fog. Which is a lot easier to do as you get older because time starts moving really fast. Before you know it 2 years are up and you wake up and wonder what the hell you even did the past two years. You're in highschool. You have time, Relax.

If you really feel you have an escapism problem (I prefer that term to addiction when a substance is not involved even though substance abuse is also about escapism). The best thing you can probably do is disconnect the internet in your immediate area. You'll be surprised how much you get done if you do this. Can your parents help? One idea is maybe you can put a computer without internet in your room to write and do homework on. And keep the interneted Computers (yes, I just made interneted a word) in a locked room. Ask one of your parents to keep it locked and keep the key with them. Then when you must use the internet for research or something, take an index card and a kitchen timer. Write down on the index card what sites or things you want to look up and put a time limit next to it. Example: Facebook 5 min; Homework research 30 minutes etc..Only AFTER completing the index card should you go to your parent and ask for the key to the room. Then set the timer and do not under any circumstance go over that timer limit. Do not allow 6 minutes on facebook and never go back to facebook again that day. Make it a daily limit. Make it a game for yourself.

The compulsion to go online is virtually impossible to break if you always have access to the internet.
posted by manderin at 9:23 PM on January 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As someone who had a similar experience, but didn't deal with it and let the regret spiral into college, one thing I wish I'd realized is that once you get to college or your first job so much of high school just doesn't matter. By this I mean, you can literally still do virtually anything with your life once you get there if you make the most out of it and regardless of how much time you wasted prior, it won't matter if you do well now. Seriously, you could still theoretically end up at an Ivy League grad school or I dunno, Any Awesome Thing. Your future is virtually unrestricted. I did not realize this and ended up wasting college as a result because I'd felt so bad about wasting my life---which leaded to me really wasting my life and getting really depressed. Don't feel ashamed. Almost no one did anything particularly great between ages 8 and 17--really.

I would go cold turkey on the internet, or maybe put up a timed blocker on your browser that allows you to only spend a certain interval per day on the internet. Check your email and do HW at the library or on a family computer instead. Then, pick one of your "surface interests" and explore it. Second semester senior year of hs is actually a great time to explore these interests if you have a lighter courseload. Then DEFINITELY get treatment or more intensive treatment for your depression/anxiety because as I said above, you don't want to carry this with you too far out of high school. In fact if it's still a big problem for you after your graduate and you are college-bound, I would seriously consider delaying any 4-year college experience because it's much harder to cope with in that environment.

If your family/friends are supportive, recruit them to help you with this (particularly family, maybe they can help find you treatment, and your friends can get you out of the house/away from the internet). The lack of interest in stuff is probably due to depression and with proper treatment, none of this will necessarily have any bearing on your ability to develop into an awesome and productive adult. Forgive yourself by moving forward, seeking help, and getting off the internet! Sorry if this was long/unhelpful but you just reminded me a lot of myself. Do PM me if you want to talk.
posted by hejrat at 9:24 PM on January 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

You know what the nice thing about the past is? It's over.

Whatever you'd spent the last nine years on, you'd be in the same position you're in now: deciding what to do with tomorrow. What you did with yesterday is immaterial.
posted by bac at 9:30 PM on January 3, 2015 [13 favorites]

The way that you deal with the mistakes of the past is by being different immediately. Self forgiveness is necessary (loving and accepting yourself are necessary, and in fact are probably more of a pre-existing condition that contributed to how you spent your time in the past rather than a consequence of it) but self-forgiveness is NOT necessary in order for you to be able to do something differently immediately - and it has to be immediately, always, because immediately is the only time in which the possibility of doing things exists.

You already know what differently means. You already know what the things are. You don't need to believe in your ability to do anything. You don't need some brilliant new attitude or perspective on it all. You just need to stop. Understand that you are right here, right now, and there is no other place to be and nowhere else in which to do the things you know you need to do (surely you have a long list. Don't have a long list? Make a long list). Do something. Doesn't matter which. Doesn't matter whether you succeed or fail. You will have to relearn this lesson constantly forever, and that's okay.
posted by nanojath at 10:31 PM on January 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

You are obsessing about this, which you have said in the past you are in treatment for. If you've not been assessed for ADHD and related focus issues, it's probably time - you need to tackle all the contributing aspects as parts of a whole - but it's also possible that your internet use pattern has been a manifestation of compulsive behavior (and possibly simultaneously a sort of self-medication). There are techniques you can practice to reduce your use, though the best treatment is often just plain old doing something more interesting away from the computer.

If you are having a bout of the late-night-despair that strikes us all sometimes but may be sharper and more persistent for you, you might try reminding yourself that you're just 18, and most kids fritter away lots of free time on something - media, teenage drama, sports, drugs and alcohol, bands both really great and really awful, and even noble but ultimately not terribly useful academic-related pursuits. To some extent, it goes with the territory of brain development. It's okay, and it will be okay, and it's something most people have to wrestle back on track (many times in a full adult life) periodically.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:40 PM on January 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

I am in the same place, but with gaming. I've now given up video games completely, as it became an addiction. It's been about three-months cold turkey at this point and it was definitely the right decision. I've replaced *some* of that time with internet, so I'm not fully there yet.

The problem is that most of my hobbies, skills, ways of communicating, and so forth, are all digital, so I'm always at the computer at work and at home. I need a job that involves the computer less, and I need to manage my time more wisely at home too. I'd be accomplishing so much more with my life.

I've started, at least. I meditate, I do more reading, I play guitar. I clean / simplify my life as best as I can.

I have 100 things I've done that I regret (and still feel the real effects of), but I don't dwell on the regret, because the past cannot be changed. All we have is "now". Changing the "now" will help change our future. Don't wallow in regret, it will get you nowhere. I can safely say I wasted about 10 years of my life mostly to video gaming. I got good grades and a decent job, so I guess I balanced it pretty well, but I still feel like all that time was wasted and that I'd be FAR more ahead by now... but I can't worry about regretting it. All I can do is change things now. In this present moment.
posted by kup0 at 11:57 PM on January 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I don't think you were wasting your life; I think you were self-medicating for anxiety and depression.

As far as vices go, this one isn't entirely without value. You were probably exposed to a variety of topics, personalities, opinions, writing styles, rhetorical tactics, etc. I agree with others that your writing is great (superior to that of many college students') and I'm not worried about you because you seem bright, thoughtful, articulate, self-aware, and proactive in addressing your problems. And I wouldn't worry about being shallow-- 10-18 year olds (even the laughably earnest ones reading Kafka and DH Lawrence like I did) are not actually developing deep rich intellectual lives anyway even if their source material is more "valubale" than yours. They're just trying things on for size, like you did.

You are way ahead of a lot of people much older than you because you've been able to identify a problem and are willing to work on it; that's the hardest part. And you're so young. So screw the guilt. Beating yourself up about this is what will keep you stuck.

Your life is going to change a great deal once you graduate, so this is actually the perfect time to phase out the addiction since all your usual routines will be shaken up anyway. I don't advocate cold-turkey abstinence in this case, because unlike heroin, the internet is probably always going to be part of your life so you have to learn to live with it. If you give yourself, say, an hour and then eventually half an hour, of internet fuck-around time per day, AFTER you have done some reading or exercise or writing or guitar playing or socializing or volunteering or what have you, you might find that approach easier to incorporate into your life than an outright ban
posted by kapers at 12:34 AM on January 4, 2015 [9 favorites]

I find your post, myitkyina, both sad and hopeful. Sad because such realizations are hard but hopeful because you're ready to take the next steps, ones that will surely take you towards living a life you enjoy more than your current one.

You're in "good" company here at MetaFilter: I would venture to say that most of us at this [awesome, geeky, nerdy] messageboard have had times in our lives where we got sucked into the great vortex of the internet, realized it, and were able to make some changes for the better (while still enjoying online community and activities.) Many of us have also dealt with anxiety and/or depression, either in the past or currently, and can empathize. To say nothing of being living proof that, while life has its ups and downs, it generally gets better as we get older and wiser. Actually, you already sound quite wise -- intelligent, educated, and self-aware -- so it's really more of an issue of getting exposure to those outside experiences that will lead you to being happier with who you are as well as what you're doing. Of course, that's why you wrote in the first place!

Senior year is actually a great time to take these steps, and people have already listed so many great ideas. I would assume your college applications are in or that you're at least in the process of applying to a community college? That should be a big relief and a chance to focus more on your social activities. Have you continued the therapy you mentioned before? Good for you for seeking it out and good luck sticking with it; if the current treatment isn't working, then perhaps it's time to try something else -- a different counselor, a different medication, etc. -- because you deserve to be happy, at least way happier than you are right now.

It sounds to me like having friends -- or even friendly acquaintances -- is what you'd really like. People who share your interests in person and care about you, too. (There are lot of people who care about you here!)

- Is there a club or two that you'd consider joining at school? I say two because the themes are important but not necessarily as important as the people in the group.

- Do you ever chat with classmates in, before or after class? If not, how about making the goal to say hi to three people every day at school and eventually asking a question, like "How was your weekend?" or "Did you study for the test last night?" or "Have you seen any good videos on YouTube lately?" Chances are, the vast majority of your classmates have a positive or neutral impression of you and would be glad to have an in for a chit-chat. If you already chat with people, how about inviting one or two to go to a movie sometime? Or go to a low-stakes school event where you can just sit in the crowd but not necessarily need to talk much?

- How about getting a part-time job? Something technology-related would be awesome but pretty much any job would give you a chance to meet new people (outside of school!) and share the comradery that comes from working together.

- Is there a teacher you could talk to about this? I'm a hs teacher and I see a lot of students in your shoes: I'm sad they're so sad and see how they're using technology or gaming to avoid dealing with other stuff but that they're surrounded by nice people and possibilities if only were ready to start. You're not looking for a counselor but rather someone who knows you well and can give you a push. I don't know all students but know the vibe of different groups and could advise shy students on which ones might be a good match. I can't -- and would never -- force friendships but I can sit people with classmates they feel comfortable with, etc. If you ask someone you feel positively about, I'm sure they feel equally positive about you and will be glad to give you a few ideas.

- Is there a family member you could connect with? Maybe it's not a parent, although I'm glad s/he/they are supporting you with counseling. How about a grandparent or aunt or uncle? Someone you could meet with twice a month for a chat or activity? If you're not feeling ready to ask friends to the movies yet, how about asking a family member for a start?

- Do you exercise right now? Joining a class or sport, perhaps something like tai chi, or even just walking a mile a day could help?

Finally, two links: I enjoyed reading this piece by Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, and Scarleteen is focused on sex ed but has good general life articles and relationship pieces, too.

Happy New Year, and the best of luck to you!
posted by smorgasbord at 12:44 AM on January 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

A friend from high school went through something similar, only we were older than you when it happened. He dropped out of college, gained a ton of weight, and did nothing but play games online for years. His parents finally gave him an ultimatum- get a job or get out. He did, and now, he's a really, really successful computer programmer. You are only a senior in high school! High school isn't this magical time that American culture makes it out to be. So many people coasted through high school without, like, volunteering, or curing cancer, or making straight A's and getting a full ride to Harvard, or whatever. So that's how you forgive yourself. You were set severely depressed and weren't able to make the most of your childhood the way you maybe wish you could have now, but you still have a lot of life left to achieve everything you want.

Are you going to college in the fall? If so, make sure that you continue being treated for your depression and anxiety, if you think you're about to fall back into your old patterns.
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 2:29 AM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have no idea how I am going to forgive myself for basically wasting my childhood.

By reminding yourself that everybody does this. The reason we old farts go around grumbling that youth is wasted on the young is because everything we see young people doing reminds us of us at their age.

How can I get over this?

You're already doing it. First step is to notice that it's a problem; you've just done that, so check it off the list. Next step is to ask for advice. Done: but leave that one on the list, because it's usually a good idea.

Next step is to start acquiring, one by one by one, mental and physical habits that replace the ones that currently leave you miserable.

Biggest bang for your buck at this stage will probably be learning to derail the habit of beating yourself up after you've chosen instant gratification over medium-to-long-term gratification. Because that beating-yourself-up process is truly the most useless waste of time it's possible to indulge in, and it doesn't even feel good.

So, each time you notice yourself telling yourself you're some kind of asshole for choosing something you just chose, do this:

1. Stop.

2. Set one of your devices to make a noise ten minutes from now.

3. Sit down and close your eyes.

4. Focus intently on the inside of your nostrils. Pay close attention to the feeling of the breath entering your nose and the feeling of the breath leaving your nose. Don't control your breathing or count your breaths or do anything except pay close attention to the physical sensation in your nose as breath enters and leaves your body.

5. When your device makes its noise, get up and go on with your day.

THIS WILL BE DIFFICULT. That's how you know it's a skill worth practicing.

During step 4 you will certainly find that you repeatedly become distracted from the task you've set yourself. In particular you will probably spend at least some time telling yourself that you're bored and this is all a stupid waste of time or what was that noise or my leg itches and my back hurts and what's for lunch and this is just more surface-level bullshit I found on the net so what's the point and anyway I'm not really immersing myself in it and I am nowhere near far along enough in this considering when I started and how old I am and if only I'd started doing it at five years old and on and on and bla, bla, bla.

Here's the thing: that's fine! That's to be expected: it's part of the game. So as soon as you notice that you have not in fact been paying attention to the feel of the breath but have instead been thinking about something else: note without judgment that distraction has arisen, put it aside, and return the whole of your attention to the feel of the breath.

Most people, when presented with this suggestion, will immediately reject it out of hand as a sheer waste of ten minutes. But in your case I'm sure you'll agree that ten minutes spent consciously doing nothing but sit and observe your breath has got to be less useless to you than ten minutes spent doing something else while busily reminding yourself what a hopeless case and generally worthless person you are. Because that's a lie, and to lie to yourself really is to waste your time.
posted by flabdablet at 4:47 AM on January 4, 2015 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I'm not sure it's even possible to "waste your entire childhood". Like, the point is just to become somewhat socialized and literate/numerate.

Pure speculation here, but you're a senior in high school who probably just finished filling out college applications. Are you feeling the pressure because you believe you aren't "well-rounded" enough, or wish you had done more extracurriculars? Or perhaps you've gone on a college tour and heard the horrible phrase "well-lopsided", meaning they want to accept students who engage deeply with a certain field or activity, and you feel your shallower engagement is going to count against you.

It is all bullshit. Most people I know (including myself) dropped their bullshit high school extracurricular interests when they got to college. Mostly it just has to look like "deep engagement" on the application. The exception is recruited athletes; even most good high school varsity players who didn't get recruited tended to give up on their sports at college.

I don't think your life is ruined. Academically and professionally speaking, you still have time to pursue literally any field you want. (Just to take coding as an example -- many people come into college with no prior experience and come out with a CS degree and a Silicon Valley job. This is the pattern for basically any field). Basically, whatever "depth" someone had in their high school interest, they most likely didn't learn that much, and their professors are probably going to be unimpressed. Intro classes are built with the assumption that you have no knowledge coming in.

There are some things that won't happen for you. You most likely can't be a professional athlete (unless you are being recruited D1 and don't mention it). You can't be a professional quality classical performer -- but it was really too late for this by 3rd grade anyway. (You can still play sports at a high level if you work at it, and probably even make a living in music.) That's about it, though. Literally all human endeavors are open to you. You have not handicapped yourself; you can start now and still get somewhere.
posted by vogon_poet at 5:51 AM on January 4, 2015

You can't be a professional quality classical performer

Not necessarily true. Teddy Tahu Rhodes started as a high school senior.
posted by flabdablet at 6:14 AM on January 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

You know, the high school years are really hard. You have a lot of seeming pressure and responsibility. ("Seeming" because everyone is right; very little that happens in high school is set in stone.) At the same time, you don't have much in the way of power or autonomy. Even if you get along with your family, you are probably dependent on them. It's hard to have a feeling of ownership over your own life. A lot of people feel chaotic and adrift at this time. And, as people have also alluded to, this often carries over into college.

I'm not telling you this in order to suggest you have no problem-- at your age, it frustrated me incredibly to be told this by teachers and therapists. On the contrary, I'm telling you this to suggest that this is a really hard time you are going through, and one that is rarely acknowledged as such. Adults think everything is peachy for you because you are taken care of in a material sense; your younger self envies you for being older and soon to fly the coop. Meanwhile, you are at kind of an agonizing in between stage.

The one thing I would suggest is more reading. You're spending a lot of time reading as it is, but more reading of BOOKS. Lovely, nourishing books. Get off the computer, sit on a couch or in your bed with a book. Some of them even speak to your situation. A friend was reading The Dead Girl, by Melanie Thernstrom, which is about Thernstrom's best friend from high school who was murdered. It is a strange, uncensored, some might say self indulgent book. My friend said, "You know, I like this book because it tells me it's OK to feel awful." There are a lot more books out there that can give you a feeling of connection somewhat like the one you get from browsing the internet, but different. Just try switching to books for a while.
posted by BibiRose at 6:19 AM on January 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

Hi! Rory here, professional time-waster and Internet denizen. For the last eleven years, meaning from the age of thirteen on I have generally had a more robust online social life than I had an offline one. Until a couple years ago, I described my life THE EXACT SAME WAY as you did — "Internet addiction", regret for a life not lived, fears about my future, yadda yadda yadda yadda yadda. Now, thanks to a few realizations (below) and a few life changes (also below), I've gotten over that gap and can serve my true purpose as your Ideal Question Answerer.

The answer, in short? You've been living your life all along. Stop worrying.

Experiences you have in front of a computer screen are just as valid as experiences you have away from one! They aren't EQUIVALENT experiences, meaning they are literally entirely different things, but neither is more valuable than the other! In fact, there are a few very significant advantages to spending most of your youth staring at a screen:

The Internet is a great space to think and to write. It is shockingly difficult not to think while using the Internet. Philosophical discussions erupt with astonishing frequency even in chat rooms discussing, I dunno, awesome time-wasting mobile games. You know how it is.

When you use the Internet in the manners you describe, you wind up being a better person for it. A lot of my personal growth is directly attributable to my participation in online communities. (The rest of it? Mostly video games.*)

A side consequence of this is:

Internet people are better than your peers. Know how many people willingly spend time around teenagers once they stop being teens. Nobody does. Your peers are generally awful. I'm 24, and I'm still wary of spending too much time around people my own age, because yech, twentysometimes, amirite? Meanwhile, the Internet is a melting pot of people from all sorts of backgrounds, ages, histories, yadda yadda you get my point. It's fascinating! No duh you want to spend more time with them than you spend with people your own age? Know what "life experiences" you're missing out of because of your Internet habits? I promise you, the vast majority of it is mind-numbingly dull.


Internet Green is People.

Erm, ahem. What I really mean is:

Internet people are people too. Seriously! All those people you've spent your years interacting with, they were real! At whatever point that you decide you want to experience actual human whatever, those have been actual humans that you can invite along to share your experiences! And more often than not, those actual humans are awesome.

Some relevant non-statistics from my life:

— Some of my favorite people in the world are people I talked to for years on online forums without us ever meeting in person.

— I'm seeing a bunch of em in New York City next weekend! Check MeFi IRL.

— Thanks to Internet friends, I've gotten to see incredible shows, attend concerts, visit new states, and share a lot of unforgettable moments.

— All my awesome 24-year-old peers? Turns out they're awesome because they spent all their time on the Internet too.

— Every single person on the Internet is really cute. I don't know if this matters to you, but in case one of your latent fears is missing out on all the Cute Person Supply, never fear!

Finally, and this one may or may not be important:

The Internet is a fantastic networking tool. No shit, right? But it really is fantastic for, say, if you're looking for work and need contacts to help you with your search. I actually moved cities thanks to an online friend's encouragement because they offered to help me look for work; once I got there, another online friend worked with me on my resume, and I landed the second job I applied for after that.

I've also gotten direct job offers from people online: a friend in an old RPG-making forum hired me to write lore for his game, a start-up picked me up because I posted a lot about what I thought about their rivals, and I've gotten a ton of freelance jobs here and there just by asking. I think I still have an outstanding offer from a guy in New Zealand, which is one of those facts the family just loves to hear at the holiday table.

Okay. That's all the good stuff. In summary: you're living a good life and sharing it with people who mostly all rule, and your life is not ruined. Now for the other stuff!

First of all, yeah, real life is pretty awesome too. You realize this. There's loads to do! And there is literally no reason for you not to do all of it. The Internet, luckily, can help you out there! Search for goings-on in your town; I promise you there will be things. And as with browsing Internet forums, some of the things will be totally bizarre and fascinating! I never knew that my hometown was a recurring visiting location for the National Butterfly Society (sic) because who the hell learns about that kind of stuff? I regret not going to their last event, since everything about that sounds like it's a blast.

Search around. You'll find things.

Second, the Internet favors certain modes of interactions over others. That doesn't put you at a disadvantage per se, because every subculture and community does this similarly. However, you may find yourself in real-world situations where you find yourself thinking, "Agh I don't know what to say or what to change the subject to, and I'm talking too much and this is so so so so weeeeird." That's just because lots of non-Internet things are way less centered around the sorts of communication that fly on the Internet. Takes some getting used to, but knowing that'll make it a lot easier to settle into whichever vibes you come across.

This is a spectacularly geeky answer to the possible issue here, but I find that the notion of "mindfulness" has been really useful for me as far as teaching myself to get my thoughts out of one process and into another. The Internet favors an analytic, abstract mode of thinking, but if I take a deep breath and push my awareness towards what's happening around me, not interpreting it but just observing it all and noticing my own reactions to it, it's easier to both release some of the feelings that make me unhappy and to notice all sorts of delightful reactions I'm having to my environs. People may all look with you, but a lot of the time their headspace is planets away from you. Get out of your head a bit! Or rather, use your head to immerse yourself in your goings-on. Maybe you'll find other people around there too.

Third, sometimes you've just got to step away from the Internet. Leave the phone at home. Go outside. Computers will never lead you anywhere that isn't a computer, no matter how much you tell yourself that the answers to your problems involve some sort of web browsing sequence.

This sounds really silly, but it happens to people all the time, and learning to step away is trickier than it seems.

Regarding reading and writing books: books are really hard to read and write. I've written books (well, A book, with number two on the way). Extraordinarily difficult! Shit, I've directed movies before, and those are the most infuriating and miserable things to work on ever, and movies are still easier to work on than books are. As for reading, while I've been an avid reader my whole life, I notice that my threshold for what I want to spend my time immersed in goes up and up and up over time. So, yeah, that's all difficult.

Which isn't to say your computer isn't getting in your way. Again, computers don't lead you to non-computery places. Take a book and go to the library or the park. Walk around a bit before you open it up. Your mind needs some time to get out of that jittery computery mood, so don't just thrust yourself at a book thinking it'll magically click for you. Take your time!

Hmm... What else? Oh right.

Computers can lead to social experiences. Instagram. Snapchat. Twitter. The trend is away from computer-contained experience and towards using computers to link you up with people elsewhere. Tumblr is wildly popular for this sort of thing, if actually being social is not your thing (I won't go near Instagram and Snapchat, eurgh), though I dunno how easy it is to discover a robust Tumblr community.

Oh! If you want to meet a lot of Internet-minded strangers who also like hanging out in real life, read Homestuck. I'm not even kidding. Not only is Homestuck a good two months of solid wasted time, but its fans are fiercely social, in the sense that anybody who reads Homestuck enough to care about it is almost certainly Exactly Like You. And Homestuck meetups are some of the most delightfully diverse affairs you can care to imagine.

Something to keep in mind: your experiences may lead to your preferring certain kinds of interactions over others. In college, I just couldn't do the frat scene. There're some social outings that just hold no interest to me. Whether or not I feel that way because I Internet or I Internet because I felt that way is kind of a chicken-and-egg-type thingie; I generally think that conversations and inside jokes and shared interests and all the things the Internet facilitates are freaking amazing, and that I'm not missing out on much. But if you feel otherwise, then this is worth taking note of.

One last, thing, and this one is pretty significant:

Depression is real, and you should take it seriously. If you're depressed, then you're depressed. Feeling bad about yourself for being depressed is part of the depression, which is a difficult sinkhole to avoid.

I do find that computers get in the way of the things I do which make me feel happier. Things like:

— moving around a lot
— being outside

...are difficult to accomplish with a computer, you know? So, again, leave your computer behind sometimes. When you get up, put clothes on that you'd feel comfortable leaving home in (if that's a thing you don't already do), so that when you feel yourself getting unhappy, you can just up and walk out the door. I'm presently writing this advice as much for myself as I am for you. These pajama pants are fluffy, but they are not ideal outdoor movement material.

At the end of the day, you don't want your computer to be at the center of your life. Which is how it starts to feel to me, when I get in moods like the one you're presently in. You want to hold yourself separate from it, a little bit. You want to always have a layer between you and your computer going, "Is this really where I want to be? Could I be doing something else with my time instead?" For me, a lot of the time the answers are yes and no respectively, because I do like computers a lot, but it is seriously seriously important to develop that ability to say Fuck it and walk away when it's time to walk away.

The rules I find most useful there, because I know how difficult that kind of regiment can be to follow, are: until you think you have control, turn your computer off an hour before you go to sleep, and don't turn it on for an hour after you wake up. Make your bed. Do some dishes. Walk outside and say hello to whomever happens to be standing there (easier in the morning than at night). Read a book. Roll around on the floor (always a good idea). Again, the human mind is pretty ritualistic, in the sense that it only switches modes when it's given a good reason to. Establishing some space between yourself and your computer is important even if, practically speaking, you jump right on it again. Stick to the habit, without letting your subsequent computer usage break it, and slowly you'll start seeing your computer as just one device within a room, and not the world that's slowly eating you alive.

This is a complicated subject matter, and this is just an assortment of immediate reactions to what you wrote. If you want to talk further, you can always reach me at; MeMail is probably not your best bet, but I respond to emails pretty reliably.

I can promise you that when you look back upon your life, you will not see it as a series of opportunities wasted. You have been living your life, don't worry. Now go out there and live it even more.


* My pride requests that I clarify that these were INTENSE RUSSIAN PHILOSOPHICAL video games, and not like Call of Duty or whatever.
posted by rorgy at 7:12 AM on January 4, 2015 [36 favorites]

Best answer: I no longer believe in my ability to do anything with depth or genuine interest.

OMG, no, don't think this. I was just like you in high school, only we didn't have the internet back then, my depression wasn't treated, and my family didn't have a lot of money so I passively listened to music on the radio for hours and hours. Then I got to college and got a chance to DJ, which helped me with public-speaking and now decades later I have a career where I give presentations & train researchers. Who knew?

Everything I do is just a laundry list of stuff I grabbed off the Internet because I liked the idea of it. Whenever I write or read a book I keep thinking that it's just "surface-level"

I've heard this referred to as being "an inch-deep and a mile-wide" but not in a negative way. It means you are multi-faceted in the things you know and can talk about, which sets you up for being able to make small-talk with folks and make connections. (Even with the depression/anxiety you've got good assets for connecting with people - your communication skills are excellent and you come across as very mature.)
posted by wheek wheek wheek at 7:31 AM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Don't worry you have so many lifetimes yet to do something awesome. Forgive yourself, you've learned what you don't want to do with your life, you don't want to waste it in a fog, it takes some of us several lifetimes to learn that. Now you can go on & do & learn anything you want.
posted by wwax at 10:06 AM on January 4, 2015

Just to add to some of the thoughts already given -- I recently canceled my home Internet service. I'm not necessarily recommending this (and it's not an option for you right now in any case, as I understand it) but I was amazed, after a little time had passed -- a week? ten days? -- at how much a certain kind of immersive focus returned. I read and remember differently now, and it's only been a month or so. I felt much like you: that I'd broken my ability to take things in somehow, that I'd operant conditioned myself into endlessly clicking refresh and digging into the bottomless bowl of M&Ms that is a lot of our current Internet content experience (including, at times, MetaFilter). There's nothing wrong with this, or with you! But it's good to redraw your boundaries from time to time and see if the habits you build and the things you let in are contributing to the life you want to lead. My chin-up advice is that even small steps in this direction, after a few days of discomfort that attend changing any long term habit, will be quickly felt. No permanent harm has been done.
posted by deathmarch to epistemic closure at 10:57 AM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Wow, lots of good advice here. Just wanted to nth the advice that regretting the past is a total waste of time; that you are special in many ways but not in the spending-too-much-time-online way; and also mention that I have a friend, who is 60, who could pretty much say what you said about yourself--only he's still doing it and not trying to change his life.

I, myself, have many difficulties with focus and distraction (courtesy of ADHD) and, thus, I am about to turn on Self-Control to take a 24-hour break from this and other online hangouts. I am also reading The Now Habit, which other MeFites have recommended. I'm finding it useful and I'm a veteran procrastinator. (Here's a PDF of the top points.) Yay hive mind!

It's easy to despair. Be kind and gentle to yourself and heed the wisdom of rorgy et. al. as you work toward the life you want. As folks say in 12-step programs, constantly looking in the rear view mirror is a terrible way to get to your destination. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 2:01 PM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Just regarding "these interests are all superficial!" - everything is superficial until you do it for a while. Passion and skill and deep interest don't spring fully-formed from nothingness; they are developed over time by exposure and practice.

This isn't to say you can't seek depth. You do that by taking the thing you're learning about and asking questions, and thinking about the answers, and seeing if you can explain it. And sometimes you will think you understand something and someone will ask you about it and you'll realize that you have a pithy explanation but don't really know what it means; that's part of the process, happens to everyone, it's a sign to go back and look at it again. Part of what's soothing about the internet is that it doesn't force you to engage on that level - discourages it, even - but it can be very fulfilling once you get there with a few things.
posted by Lady Li at 3:09 PM on January 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The last fifteen years of my life have been internet forums and chat. From IRC to AIM to texting to Gchat to Facebook Messenger. I've met partners on fandom chatrooms, OKCupid, and more. I've anonymously blogged, tweeted, tumbld, and beyond. I've posted fanfiction of ridiculous sorts. I might regret individual content, certain choices, but the time I've spent has never truly been a waste. I've learned, either from the external world or just from my own reactions.

You have nothing to be ashamed of, you did learn interesting things.

Forgive yourself and move forward.
posted by RainyJay at 6:49 PM on January 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I don't know if it helps or not, but I recently drew a cartoon about this line of thought. The upshot: everybody wastes a bunch of time, including the people you admire.
posted by the phlegmatic king at 11:06 AM on January 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

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