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Hooked Online

How to keep Internet surfing from becoming an addiction

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But it isn't only pornography that attracts addicts to the Internet, says Paul Gallant, a licensed addiction counselor at the Sierra Tucson Center for Addiction in Arizona. Some people are lured by the appeal of creating new identities for themselves. Other users make a habit of online gambling, auctions, or stock trading. "Your life may be really boring in reality, but online you're a competitive superhero," Gallant says.

Even innocent inquiries can become obsessions in a medium where information is limitless, he adds. "Say you're wine connoisseur, you find this great site and it's linked to another great site. Fine, you've learned a lot more about wine. Then all of a sudden you realize six hours have gone by. You're obsessed with getting more and more information."

Experts are still debating nearly every aspect of the Internet's effect on mental health. Advocates argue that the new medium's social benefits outweigh its risks. They point to studies like one in the February 2000 issue of the journal American Psychologist that found that many people draw comfort from anonymous discussions with others who share their medical conditions.

But these studies are balanced by others that reveal a strong link between excessive Internet use and serious mental disorders. For a study in the March 2000 issue of the Journal of Affective Disorders, researchers interviewed 20 people like Moore whose lives had been disrupted by the Internet. Nearly all of them were diagnosed with serious mental illness, such as bipolar disorder. Many were sacrificing sleep to spend an average of 30 hours a week online outside work.

But does the Internet cause the mental illness, or does mental illness lead people to abuse the Internet? Researchers tried to answer that question in a 1998 study by providing Internet access to 169 people who previously had not been able to log on from home. The researchers reported in American Psychologist that the more time these people spent online, the less time they spent with their families, the smaller their social circles became, and the more depressed and lonely they felt. "Even for people who don't manifest addictive behavior, the Internet is almost an invitation to obsession," says Young.

Many psychologists who accept that the Internet can be abused still hesitate to use the phrase "addiction." University of Florida psychiatrist Nathan Shapira, MD, PhD -- who co-authored the Journal of Affective Disorders study -- prefers "internetomania." But whatever you call it, he says, it's clear that the problem needs more attention. "It concerns me that we're bustling along blind. "There is a tremendous amount of money going into the development of this technology, and almost nothing going into understanding how it affects people. That may spell trouble ahead."

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