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Can't Get Enough of the Net?

Addictions: Online junkies are as dependent as other abusers: They ignore families, go through withdrawal, spend too much on their habit. Researchers are noticing.

August 13, 1996|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

TORONTO — If last week's 19-hour crash of America Online did more than inconvenience you, read on.

A little shaky, were you? Depressed? Agitated? Irritable? If so, you may be an online addict.

There is accumulating psychological evidence that people can become dependent on Internet use in ways very similar to drug, alcohol and gambling addictions, according to a study presented at the annual American Psychological Assn. meeting here.

Stories abound, much to our amusement, about people who can't pry themselves from their PCs, no matter what the hour. But this study, the first to examine pathological uses of the Internet, portrays Internet addiction as a legitimate clinical disorder that carries serious consequences.

These addicts "reported significant problems in their lives because they had simply lost control over their ability to limit the time they used the Internet," said the study's author, Kimberly S. Young, a clinical psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford.

They typically tried to reduce their Internet use but couldn't, the studied reported. These individuals showed signs of physical withdrawal, such as anxiety and shakiness, when they tried to stop using.

Consequences of overuse ranged from not being able to pay their online service provider (one monthly bill was $1,400) to a formerly happily married mother who was given an ultimatum by her husband--"me or the computer"--and chose her computer.

The study began after Young, a former systems analyst, heard anecdotal reports on Internet overuse, including one from a friend.

"She was crying and told me her husband was on the computer all the time. She said all their money was going into the computer when they were supposed to be saving to buy a house," Young recalled.

Her interest piqued, Young explored the psychiatric literature on humans and computers and found little except some studies on computer phobia. Thus, her research began. In her study, she placed an ad online seeking "Avid Internet Users" and placed fliers around local college campuses. The respondents completed surveys and participated in telephone or personal interviews. Young recruited 396 individuals she later classified as dependent users and 100 non-dependent users.

The findings suggest that Internet dependence can happen to men and women. The ages ranged from 14 to 71, but most were middle-aged.

Forty-two percent said they were currently not employed because they were homemakers, retired or disabled.

"The people who became dependent seemed to have more time on their hands," Young said. "Many of these people were new to the Internet"--they had been accessing for an average of eight months--"and were discovering this new world. It then became enticing."

So enticing, in fact, that while non-dependent users in the survey said they spent one or two hours a day online, dependent users spent about eight times longer.

Young's study pointed to another telltale characteristic of dependence: Users spent most of their time in chat rooms or playing Multi-User Dungeons, which allows users to take on a different persona.

"For the people who are addicted, the Internet is not an information database. It is an emotional attachment," Young said.

There were few warning signs that a dependence was developing. But that is another area in need of more research, Young said.

"They said it was very insidious; that the problem grew over time. The two hours they intended to stay on turned into six or seven hours. Then they were staying up late. Then they were getting up in the middle of the night."

Most people who overuse online services change their behavior after they receive their first shocking bill. But dependent users found they could not cut back.

In one exceptionally severe case in Texas, the mother of a 17-year-old boy told Young that her son had became so enthralled with the Internet that his computer was taken away. The teen experienced symptoms of physical withdrawal.

The parents called a therapist, who laughed at them, Young said. "But finally they had to hospitalize him in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Signs of an Online Addict

Are you an online junkie?

You may be a "dependent" Internet user if you meet at least four of the following criteria--similar to those used to identify alcohol and drug addiction--over a one-year period:

* You think about the Internet while offline.

* You have an increasing need to use the Internet to achieve satisfaction.

* You're unable to control your Internet use.

* You feel restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop Internet use.

* You use the Internet as a way of escaping from problems or relieving a poor mood.

* You lie to family members or friends to conceal the extent of your Internet involvement.

* You jeopardize or risk loss of a significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunity because of the Internet.

* You keep returning even after spending an excessive amount of money on online fees.

* You go through withdrawal when offline.

* You stay online longer than intended.

Source: Kimberly S. Young, psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford

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