It started when he broke the bank while bidding at online auctions. Then it escalated as the hypnotic black hole of cyberspace sucked him in deeper. Online games, cybersex, and suicidal thoughts haunted him. Eventually he became so obsessed with the Internet that life had little meaning beyond it.

Despite therapy and warnings, this anonymous Internet addict still hasn’t been able to shake an addiction that has ruined his life.

And experts say that he is not alone.

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The Internet has wrecked marriages, lost jobs, and trapped the vulnerable in cybercocoons, says psychologist Maressa Hecht Orzack, founder of the Computer Addiction Service at McLean Hospital here.

“I had one family that had to literally drag their kid away from the computer,” she says. Another client of Orzack’s became so obsessed with the Net that he gave up on a graduate degree, his wife, and offline friends.

One in Ten at Risk?

According to Orzack and a growing cadre of mental health professionals, computers and the Net present a problem as real as alcoholism, with all the attendant symptoms of addiction–withdrawal, loss of control, and compulsive behavior. Orzack believes one in ten regular Internet users become dependent on the Net–roughly equal to the population’s predilection for compulsive gambling and alcoholism.

Although Internet addiction is not considered a recognizable disorder, Orzack says, the problem could eventually be placed in a similar category to kleptomania, compulsive shopping, or gambling. “It is what we call an impulse control disorder,” says Orzack, who has been counseling chronic Net overusers for three years.

Blaming the Internet

The idea you could become hooked on PCs has been floating around since, well, PCs were invented. But it wasn’t until an influx of Internet users came onto the scene that a flood of self-help groups, studies, books, departments in addiction clinics, and specialized therapists began popping up. In one case, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh-Bradford, Kimberly Young, even counsels addicts–where else but online?

Of course, talk of addiction raises skepticism in some, who feel the concept is simply another mutation of the blame-the-Internet game. They maintain that people with addictive personalities would probably get addicted to water if it was the first thing put in front of them.

One such cynic is Ivan Goldberg, a noted New York psychiatrist. He was one of the first to write about Internet addiction in a joke column three years ago. He gained notoriety when people thought he was serious and began asking for help.

Computers and the Net are not addictive, Goldberg says, they’re simply escapist distractions.

“Call it what you will, this is a real problem,” counters Nathan Shapira, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio. Whether it is an addiction, a disorder, or merely a symptom of an addictive personality, the consequences are real, says Shapira, who headed a study on Internet addiction presented to the American Psychiatric Association.

He found that excessive Internet users are more likely to be lonely or depressed. He believes that the Internet doesn’t cause depression, but rather that people suffering from depression seek escape online. “Of the people we studied who couldn’t control their Internet use, many had other psychiatric disorders.”

One Click Over the Line

All agree that some people spend more time online than is healthy. But what pushes someone over the line from avid Net user to addict? If you spend 20 hours a week surfing the Web, are you hooked? “There are no definitive studies and no clear answers,” Orzack says.

“If you ignore relationships, miss work, and lose sleep because you are online too much, these are acceptable criteria we use to determine addiction,” Shapira says.

Those who have studied Internet addiction base most of their conclusions on in-depth case studies, not the kind of large, statistically valid studies needed to establish a diagnosis. “My hope is that a study can be done that will define the limits of normal computer usage. Then we can decide what is pathological,” Orzack says.

As with any new technology, it will take time for the Net’s flaws and its effects on both society and individuals to become evident, Orzack says.

Telltale Signs

In the meantime, Orzack suggests the following guidelines for spotting telltale signs of Net addiction. You’ve got a problem, she says, if you show at least five of the following:

· Engaging in computer activities to experience pleasure, gratification, or relief.

· Emotional symptoms such as restlessness, irritability, sleep disturbances, increased anxiety, depression, or hostility when not engaged in computer activity.

· Feeling preoccupied with computers by thinking about the experience, planning a return to the computer, or buying the newest hardware or software.

· Needing to spend more and more time or money on computer activities in order to change moods.

· Neglecting social, familial, educational, or work obligations.

· Lying to family members, coworkers, fellow students, therapists, and others about the amount of time spent on the computer.

· Risking loss of significant personal relationships, career access and advancement opportunities, financial stability, and educational accomplishments.

· Failing at repeated efforts to control computer activities.

· Showing physical signs such as carpal tunnel or other repetitive stress injuries, backaches, migraines, poor care of physical condition (such as eating irregularities), or poor personal hygiene.


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