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Hooked Online

How to keep Internet surfing from becoming an addiction
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WebMD Feature

June 12, 2000 -- How long have you been sitting there, staring at this screen? Are you spending more and more of your time clicking and typing, typing and clicking? Is there nothing else you'd rather do? Think carefully about the answers to these questions, say psychologists; they may tell a lot about your mental health.

A growing body of research suggests that excessive Internet use carries some of the same risks as gambling: it can lead to social isolation, depression, and failure at work or school.

Some people -- particularly those who were isolated to begin with -- have forged healthy friendships by meeting kindred souls online. But using the Internet too much can hurt face-to-face relationships. And psychologists say an increasing number of people are using the Internet so obsessively that they are ruining their marriages and careers.

In one survey of 1,700 Internet users, presented August 24, 1999 at a meeting of the American Psychological Association, 6% of those surveyed met the criteria for addiction: they felt a building tension before the act, a rush of relief afterwards, and distortions of mood and bingeing. Many get hooked on Internet pornography.

"We're a nation of puritans," says Kimberly S. Young, MD, PhD, the survey's author and executive director of the Center for On-Line Addiction in Pennsylvania. "And this is the first time in our history we've had something so uncensored in our homes. You can get to very objectionable material in a few keystrokes -- even by accident -- and then it's hard to get out of the site."

Dan Moore (not his real name), a self-defined compulsive personality-type and workaholic from a Midwestern state, says the Internet destroyed his life. This middle-aged professional is currently going through divorce proceedings from his wife of nine years and has been denied visitation rights with his two children due to his addiction to sex sites. According to Dan, his wife claims that some of the "soft porn" sites he regularly logged on to used minors. "She became obsessed with the thought that I was getting involved in child pornography. She even accused me of molesting my children." Although Dan vehemently denies both charges, he admits that determining the age of women on the plethora of available pornography sites is virtually impossible. "It's like having access to a million adult videos, all for free. It's seductive. You get mesmerized."

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