How to keep Internet surfing from becoming an addiction
Dan, who has recently begun treatment with an Internet addiction specialist
and is taking antidepressant medication, rid his home of both PC and modem.
"When I finally realized how it has affected my life, I felt like smashing
it, throwing it out the window. Now my compulsion is to try and understand what
I've done to myself and my family."
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."