RADFORD, Pa. — Dr. Kimberly Young sometimes feels as though she is on call 24 hours a day in every two-bit corner of the world, tending to distress calls and frazzled e-mail from as far away as England and Germany. One man calls to say his wife spends 100 hours a week on the Internet, leaving only 68 other hours for everything else, including him. A computer technician can't stop downloading cyberpornography. A homemaker surfs the Net day and night, routinely neglecting her children.
Perhaps the world's first global shrink, Young tries to help people find their way out of modern life's latest sickness: Internet addiction. Her recommendation--a '90s version of "Take two aspirin and call me in the morning"--seems perverse at first: Send her an e-mail outlining the problems along with $30 for some online counseling.
That's right. Young treats Internet addicts over the Internet. The skeptics--a few of whom don't believe Internet addiction even exists--have said Young's counseling service is akin to holding an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting inside a bar.
Yet Net junkies don't know where else to turn. Internet addiction hasn't rated its own formal 12-step program, and some so-called Netaholics have been laughed at by psychologists unfamiliar with the phenomenon.
Internet addiction "is still a joke," says Young, a psychology professor at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford who worked in information science before obtaining her PhD in clinical psychology. Non-addicts say, "Oh, c'mon. Just turn off the computer. But for the person who is addicted, that would be like telling an alcoholic to just stop drinking," she says.
Nobody knows how many Internet addicts are out there (more than 50 million Americans are estimated to be online), but there are enough for Young to have built up a cottage industry of sorts. Besides her credit-card secure Web site (at http://www.netaddiction.com)--the first stop in her counseling program--she has just come out with a self-help book, "Caught in the Net" (John Wiley & Sons).
Young was ridiculed the first few years by many of her colleagues for being one of the first to focus on the addiction, but an increasing number now believe she is on to something. There is too much evidence to the contrary: child neglect, divorce, job loss all tied in one court case or another to Internet addiction. A Harvard-affiliated hospital has even opened a computer addiction clinic.
Young says she is just "pointing a spotlight to the darker side of cyberspace. We shouldn't blindly promote this as some sort of benign tool, because that's not how everybody is choosing to use it." So far she has counseled a handful of people online and hundreds in person.
For most Net junkies, the real rush of cyberspace doesn't come from reading the online version of the Wall Street Journal or electronically booking a business trip. No, the thrill lies in the so-called chat rooms.
"If you go online and you go into these chat rooms, it's like all of a sudden you have walked into a bar with all this exciting, stimulating conversation, these friends who all know your name, you feel a part of something bigger than yourself," Young says. "And then when the computer shuts down, you feel like you've lost that. All of a sudden your life becomes this sort of boring day-to-day thing, and you want to go back online because that's where all the excitement is."
Sandra Hacker, 26, is hooked on chat rooms. The Cincinnati mother says she first signed on to escape the routine of caring for three young children. Soon, her husband charged, she had abandoned the children altogether for cyberspace.
Police discovered the kids, 5 and younger, playing in their own feces. Hacker denies that she is addicted to the Internet and that she neglected her children, but an Ohio judge temporarily awarded her husband full custody.
"I had no hobbies. Once a week, I'd go bowling," Hacker says during an interview. But thanks to the Internet, she says, "I didn't have to leave my house to get a little bit of entertainment. It was right there."
Suddenly, a shy homemaker could be whatever she wanted, certainly a lot more opinionated and bolder than she ever would be in real life. Virtually overnight, she became the belle of a ball that never ended. The entire experience was intoxicating.
"You get a fix with it," says Hacker. "The house could be burning down," she says, unaware of the irony. "You'd have to turn off the power to get my full attention. It's like you don't hear anything, you don't see anything going on around you."
Through her online counseling service, Young tries to help people like Hacker. For many, the addiction is just the tip of a bigger problem: an unhappy marriage, low self-confidence, loneliness. Young tries to root out the underlying problem but is quick to point out that what she offers via e-mail is more advice than therapy.
Addiction of any sort is tough to define, but Young has come up with a few telltale signs: