Is Internet addiction for worrywarts or a genuine problem?
September 23, 1998
by R.W. Greene
Q: How do you know when you're addicted to the Internet?
A: You start tilting your head sideways to smile. You dream in HTML. Your wife says communication is important in a marriage, so you buy another computer and a second phone line so the two of you can chat. . . .
For many people, the very notion of "Internet addiction" is enough to produce guffaws. The above list of "symptoms" can be found in various permutations all over the World Wide Web. One site consists of an elaborate, 12-step parody of Internet addiction recovery - complete with its own Serenity Prayer.
But for growing numbers of people, such jokes are falling flat.
"My marriage is breaking up because of my husband's addiction, which seems to have destroyed not only our marriage but my husband's personality, his values, his morals, his behavior and his parenting," says one subscriber to an Internet addiction support mailing list. The subscriber said she is a professional in her 40s and asked to be identified only as Rachel. "I had no idea what the potential for destruction was," Rachel writes. Mental health professionals say they read and hear such sentiments in their e-mail and offices with increasing frequency. The bright graphics of the Internet - as well as its anonymity and speed - are too much of a good thing for some users, who will neglect family, work and school to stay online.
Maressa Orzack, a therapist in Newton, Mass., tells of one man who threw his wife's modem out the window in disgust at her refusal to log off — only to have her beat him in retaliation. In another case, a boy whose phone line had been cut by worried parents climbed out a third-floor window to reattach it.
According to New York-based research firm Jupiter Communications, Inc., there will be more than 116 million Americans online by 2002. Some researchers say 5% to 10% of Internet users have the potential for an addiction problem.
Though the number of people being treated is very small — perhaps no more than a few hundred nationwide — many mental health professionals say the problem is no fad and bears close watching as the world gets increasingly wired.
Almost nobody blames the Internet itself for people's overreliance on it. And therapists recognize that an Internet addiction (though not everybody uses that word) carries none of the destructive power of addictions to drugs or alcohol. But something is going on, most agree. "[There are] three components that need to be present for any addiction: increased tolerance, loss of control and withdrawal," says Steven Ranney, coordinator of research and training at the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery at Proctor Hospital in Peoria. He believes Internet addiction qualifies.
But eyes still roll in some therapeutic quarters. Columbus, Ohio, psychologist John Grohol contends the incidence of extreme Internet use, while it may exist, is largely the creation of a mainstream media always eager to focus on "the dark side of the Internet."
"I just don't understand why there's this focus on the Internet," Grohol says. "People have been dropping out and getting divorced for years and years and years, for myriad reasons."
Bryan Pfaffenberger, an engineering professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and the author of several books on the Internet, used to be a skeptic himself. "People who use the Internet and don't feel they have a problem with it probably react as if this is another one of these sorts of whiny victimization things," he says. "I used to think that . . . until a student of mine did a report on a bunch of recent research that's been done that indicates there's a real serious problem here."
Signs of impairment
That research, though early and limited, tends to support Pfaffenberger's view. One of the most widely publicized reports was published in 1996 by Kimberly Young, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, who studied 396 self-described "dependent" users of the Internet and 100 nondependent users.
In Young's study, dependent users spent an average of 38.5 hours per week online, whereas nondependent users reported fewer than five.
Though conceding that the study had "significant limitations," Young also found that 90% or more of the dependent users said they suffered "moderate" or "severe" impairment in their academic, interpersonal or financial lives. Another 85% said they had suffered impairment at work. By contrast, none of the nondependent users reported any impairment other than lost time.
Young, who recently published a book, "Caught in the Net: How to Recognize the Signs of Internet Addiction and a Winning Strategy for Recovery," has established an Internet addiction consulting site. She also counsels people online — a practice that is effective, Young says, despite its obvious irony.
That treatment varies. Some users are simply counseled about improving their time management and self-discipline. Some therapists, such as Orzack, view obsessive online use as a symptom of deeper problems and try to treat them. At Ranney's hospital in Illinois, abstinence from the Internet is preached.
Similar problems were found in a 1997 survey of 531 students at the University of Texas at Austin conducted by psychologist Kathy Scherer. There, 98% of dependent users said they found themselves staying online longer than they wanted. More than a third reported problems in social, academic and work responsibilities that they attributed to overuse of the Internet. Almost half said they had tried to cut down but couldn't.
"It's really clear that it's a problem for some people," Scherer says, particularly in higher education, where Internet connections are becoming mandatory. Scherer conducted self-help counseling workshops for students concerned about their Internet use at the University of Texas. It's worth noting, however, that no such workshops were held this past academic year because not enough students signed up.
The workplace isn't immune from such problems. Increasing numbers of supervisors discipline and even fire employees who spend too much time cruising pornographic and other non-work-related sites — that is, if the employers recognize the problem at all. In her study, Young tells of a 48-year-old secretary who went to her Employee Assistance Program for help with her inability to stay away from non-job-related Internet sites. The office rejected the secretary's request on the grounds she didn't suffer from a legitimate disorder. She was later fired when system operators noted her heavy Internet use.
A 24-year-old mailing-list subscriber who wished to remain anonymous says his online obsession with Multi-User Dimension (MUD) games had a definite impact on his college career.
"At my peak in 1993, I was playing sometimes 11 hours a day, sometimes 11 hours straight," he writes. "I did poorly in [more demanding classes] because I would work for 20 minutes and then go MUD for two hours, come back, work for another 20 minutes, then MUD for four hours, then go to sleep."
A recent study of 169 nonobsessive Internet users, done by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh over two years, stated: "Greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participants' communication with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle and increases in their depression and loneliness." That study made a big media splash - it ran on the front page of The New York Times - partly because its authors and sponsors, many of the latter IT vendors, expected the opposite result: a brave new world of expanded social interactions. The reality is more complex.
"People online stay safe because they can push a button and get rid of any unwanted visitor," Rachel writes. She has since separated from her husband. She writes of her spouse: "He would say really nasty things to me, then run up and get on the computer and be outraged that I wanted to discuss what he just said to me. I think if he had a magic wand, he would have zapped me into another dimension."
Greene is a freelance writer in Southern California.
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