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Health Chat

Dr. Helen Petrie

A chat with an Internet addiction expert

Helen Petrie was born in Melbourne, Australia where she studied for a degree in Psychology. She came to the U.K. to continue her studies and completed a master's degree in Information Technology and a Ph.D in Cognitive Psychology. She now teaches and conducts research at the University of Hertfordshire, just outside London, where she is a senior lecturer in Psychology and director of the sensory disabilities Research Unit.

For the past decade she has conducted research on human-computer interaction, concentrating on the design and evaluation of computer-based systems to assist disabled and elderly people and on adaptions to give people with disabilities access to mainstream applications. She is also particularly interested in people's attitudes to new technological developments such as the Internet and the World Wide Web.

The following is an edited transcript of a chat conducted on Friday December 18, 1999 with Dr. Petrie.


Chat Participant: Helen, many people are skeptical of the Internet. Research that connects it to depression is fueling this thinking. Is it fair to place blame on the Internet?

Dr. Helen Petrie: I don't in any way blame the Internet for people's depression. I think the Internet is a great thing. But my research found that people who used the net a lot also showed symptoms of depression. It could be that people who are depressed are turning to the net to cheer themselves up.

Chat Participant: Why would women addicts be more prone to depression than men addicts?

Dr. Helen Petrie: It wasn't that women addicts were more prone to depression, but women who said that they were addicted to the net showed higher usage and attitude patterns than the men.

Chat Participant: Helen, how do women use the Internet differently than men?

Dr. Helen Petrie: Our research found that women used chatrooms and e-mail more than men, whereas men play games more than women. Both men and women surf the Net about equally.

Chat Participant: If the case is that women who are already depressed turn to the net for interaction and community, is it working? Does the net cheer them up?

Dr. Helen Petrie: My research so far hasn't looked at whether the net can cheer depressed people up. That's something I'd like to look at in the future.

Chat Participant: Helen, what is the current accepted definition of the term addiction?

Dr. Helen Petrie: Addiction is very difficult to define. We asked people whether they thought they were addicted, but obviously some people are "in denial" and don't realize that they are addicted to something. But we also asked people questions such as "Do you feel anxious if you don't go online every day?" We didn't divide people definitely into "addicted" versus "non-addicted" groups on this basis, but looked at differences in people's scores.

Chat Participant: What I'm really wondering is if chatting and e-mail creates a real sense of interaction with others, thus providing a sense of connection to others and happiness, or does the net serve as an inadequate substitute even exacerbating the sense of disconnection that is often associated with depression?

Dr. Helen Petrie: Christina, I think you've made a good point, chatting and e-mailing are great, but they arenít the same emotionally as talking to someone face to face and hearing their voice, seeing their body language. I'm not saying it's less, but it's different and we need to be aware of the implications of the differences.

Chat Participant: It depends on the message. The medium is NOT the message if you are merely trying to communicate what time you will meet for lunch. Does it make a difference if you are trying to communicate love or hate? Does a love letter stay with you more than a verbal exchange? They both have advantages and disadvantages. To imply that a certain way of communicating may be part of an emotional disorder may not be appropriate.

Dr. Helen Petrie: I do think we need to find ways of expressing body language over the Net. There seem to be a lot of misunderstandings in chat rooms and e-mails because people only see the text and don't get the other messages.

Chat Participant: Helen, how did you become interested in study on human-computer interaction?

Dr. Helen Petrie: I became interested in human-computer interaction because I was trying to teach psychology students how to use computers. They found it really difficult and I began thinking about how we could make them easier for "ordinary" people to use.

Chat Participant: Helen: People express their body language by saying lol, lmao, shrug, perk, pout ;) ;( et al.

Dr. Helen Petrie: Yes, you're right. The symbols make a lot of difference to a message. Maybe we should all have a menu of them on the side of our email package so they'd be easier to add.

Chat Participant: Why the focus on women?

Dr. Helen Petrie: My research didn't set out to focus on women, but we found some interesting results on women using the Net, so that's been picked up by a lot of newspapers and CNN.

Chat Participant: Helen, What are the solutions to depression?

Dr. Helen Petrie: The solutions to depression aren't easy. Having good support, people to talk to, things to occupy your time meaningfully all help.

Chat Participant: Helen, how big was your control group?

Dr. Helen Petrie: The sample asked was its own control group. We asked people whether they thought they were addicted or not. 46% of the people thought we were, the others were clearly big Internet users, but did not consider themselves addicted. So then we compared responses from the people who thought they were addicted with those who didn't think they were.

Chat Participant: Helen, in your studies have you found a greater number of men or women are Internet addicts?

Dr. Helen Petrie: We found that there seem to be about the same number of men and women addicts.

Chat Participant: Helen, is there any indication that certain countries or parts of the world have more people who would be classified as "addicts?"

Dr. Helen Petrie: It's very hard to say at the moment whether people in different parts of the world are more likely to be addicted, because the rates of connection to the Net are so different. Most of the people who said they were addicted in our survey were in the USA, Canada or the UK, but I think that because that's where most of the users are.

Chat Participant: Helen, is addiction to the Net considered better than being addicted to drugs, or is the determination "addiction is addiction" no matter what?

Dr. Helen Petrie: I think it's much better to be "addicted" to the Net than to drugs! Psychologists distinguish between substance addiction and behavioral addiction; things like being addicted to gambling and so on. Chemical addictions are much harder to treat than behavioral addiction.

Chat Participant: Helen, should we take seriously the concern that intense Internet usage can break up marriages and families, or is that just overreacting?

Dr. Helen Petrie: I don't think we should take too seriously the concern that intense Internet usage can break up marriages, etc. Many things break up marriages; the Internet is just another pressure in a relationship.

Chat Participant: Helen, do you think access to the Internet should be controlled? Would you agree with anyone who thought that after looking at your study?

Dr. Helen Petrie: No, I don't think access to the Net should be controlled.

Chat Participant: I have found in my own life that addiction has meant having some external thing. It can be a person, a substance, or an activity that I thought I absolutely needed to be happy; that without this thing I couldn't be happy. It seems a larger issue of feeling out of control, of managing how you feel in your life.

Dr. Helen Petrie: I think that's a good way of summing up addiction, when something is controlling you rather than you controlling it.

Chat Participant: Helen, you also work a lot with the handicapped, using the computer and the Net to help them a great deal. This is one of the hidden areas of the Net that I believe is very underreported or noted. Could you give us your thought on that?

Dr. Helen Petrie: How many hours do we have here? I think computers and the Net are great opportunities for disabled people, but we need to work hard to make them accessible.

Chat Participant: If the 'Net isn't controlled by an official, accountable body, it will become controlled by unaccountable people.

Dr. Helen Petrie: Surely the point of the Net is that no one is controlling it, and no one can ever really control it.

Chat Participant: I was interested in your view on the idea of how many handicapped use it and why it appears to be a hidden perception to the media.

Dr. Helen Petrie: I think it's hidden because people deep down are very scared of disability.

Chat Participant: Helen, did you interview some of the people in your study? Can you tell us, could you tell right away that these people were Internet addicts? What do you look for? How can you determine if you, yourself may be an addict, or your coworkers or friends?

Dr. Helen Petrie: The study was done completely via the Net.

Chat Participant: Helen, if someone came to you and said she was addicted to the Internet, what would you recommend for treatment?

Dr. Helen Petrie: If someone says they are addicted I'd recommend they try to balance how much time they spend on the Net with other "real life" activities. If it were a really serious problem, for example, they worry that their marriage is breaking up or that they might lose their job, then I'd recommend they consult a professional psychologist, as I have to keep friends in jobs.

Chat Participant: Helen, do you see any methodological problems with doing a study "over the Net?"

Dr. Helen Petrie: On the problem of methodology, yes, I think it does raise interesting problems. I think psychologists and other people who want to do research about the Net or via the Net are going to have to consider these things.

Chat Participant: How would you recommend finding a good psychologist, and someone who is familiar with "Internet addiction?" I would think because the Internet is so new some doctors might not be able to relate or to handle this problem.

Dr. Helen Petrie: Thatís a very good question. I think most psychologists only want to take on clients whose problems they understand. However there are psychologists who specialize in behavioral addiction problems, and even if they have not treated net addiction before they would have lots of good ideas. So someone who does the net, would probably recommend someone else.

Chat Participant: Helen, since addiction cannot be defined, how can anyone be addicted to the Net?

Dr. Helen Petrie: Why do you say that addiction can't be defined?

Chat Participant: Is the length of time these women are spending on the Net really an addiction, or rather are they suffering from loneliness and filling their time by surfing?

Dr. Helen Petrie: I think there's a difference between someone who uses the Net a lot, who doesn't have a problem and someone letting it interfere with other important areas of their life.

Chat Participant: Helen, in your studies have you found Internet addiction to be a serious problem?

Dr. Helen Petrie: It's very hard to tell at the moment whether Internet addiction is a serious problem or might become one in the future. We had our survey up on the Net for three months and we got replies from 200 people who thought they were addicted worldwide. So that's not a huge number of people.

Chat Participant: I think #CNN (CNN's Chat Room) would be a good place to study Internet addiction. We have lots of people who spend every day there. It's like a "family" to some.

Dr. Helen Petrie: Well, I'm about to start another survey in January 1999, so I'll definitely let you all know and hope you'll participate.

Chat Participant: Helen, I have heard statistics that the Internet is not used by a majority, that it is inaccessible and that still around the world many people have not been affected by its presence at all. What would you say generally is the degree with which the Internet has saturated the way we all live?

Dr. Helen Petrie: Yes, even in the UK the use of the Internet is not nearly as high as in North America. And I noticed that I had replies from North and South America, from Europe and Asia, Australia and New Zealand, but none from Africa and none from Russia or China.

Chat Participant: Dr. Petrie, do you have a web page?

Dr. Helen Petrie: Yes, I have a web page. Today there's nothing on it about my Internet research. It's all about my disability research. But over the weekend, I'll start adding the Internet material. The URL is

Chat Participant: A necessary component of conventional addiction is denial.

Dr. Helen Petrie: Someone asked a while back about whether all addicts are "in denial." Only some. Itís possible to be addicted to something and know it and feel incapable of doing anything about it. Think of all the people you know would like to give up smoking.

Chat Participant: Should admitted addicts go "cold turkey?" Should they toss their computers out the window?

Dr. Helen Petrie: I don't think Internet addicts should throw their computers out the window. But if they feel the Net is controlling their lives, they should try to get things back into balance.

Chat Participant: Helen, are you addicted to the Net?

Dr. Helen Petrie: I don't think I'm addicted to the Net yet, but I think I'm getting pretty close to being addicted to e-mail. Thanks very much for chatting. I really enjoyed it!

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