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."
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."