Five years ago, poking fun at his profession, psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg coined the term "Internet addiction disorder" as a joke. No one is laughing anymore. Though still ill-defined and poorly researched, Internet addiction has emerged as a serious--and growing--problem.
As millions more go online, people are increasingly engaging in risky behavior, playing havoc with their work, relationships, and lives. Tracy, who asked that her last name not be used, is one of them. A divorced mother of two in Portland, Ore., she entered a singles chat room last May and got hooked. Soon she was skipping meals and staying up late at night to chat with newfound male friends. She began missing work, neglecting her kids, and losing her inhibitions. Rapidly, she progressed from chats to cybersex to phone sex with 40 different men. "I went completely beyond all my normal boundaries," she says.
A friend suggested she talk to Jay Parker, an addiction counselor in Seattle. He convinced her she was addicted to both sex and the Internet. When she tried to stop, she fell into depression and attempted suicide. Finally, on July 9, she gave up chat rooms and cybersex. With support from her parents, she entered a six-week treatment center for sex addiction, where she found others who had become hooked on the Net. By December, she was back at work, living on her own again, and staying out of chat rooms. "I still have a computer at home, but I'm using it safe now," Tracy says.
Caught in the Net. No one knows how many people develop personal problems because of Internet misuse. In the largest study to date--an ABC News survey of more than 17,000 people last year--psychologist David Greenfield found that 6 percent of Web users, about 6 million Americans, could be addicted.
In a new study of 1,500 companies asking about Internet abuse in the workplace, Greenfield found many employers have fired workers because of excessive time spent on online pornography, shopping, or gambling. Most companies have no policies on Internet abuse, and the few experts are in hot demand.
Internet-addiction centers are popping up across the country to help bored housewives obsessed with chat rooms, husbands having cyberaffairs, students hooked on online games, and day traders turning violent when their losses mount. "People say, 'I used to do drugs in high school. Now I don't need it. I've got the Internet,' " says Maressa Hecht Orzack, who founded Computer Addiction Services at Boston's McLean Hospital in 1996.
Skeptics say Internet misuse is usually a symptom of underlying psychiatric problems that need treatment. "It's not the technology which is addicting, it's the behavior," wrote psychologist John Grohol, a vocal skeptic. But others believe the Internet is creating new problems. "Online content is immediate, constant, uncensored, and unregulated," says Kimberly Young, one of the first psychologists to study Internet addiction and the author of Caught in the Net, the first book on the subject.
The Internet's interactive nature, anonymity, and convenience certainly make it easier for people to indulge in deviant or even criminal behavior. Former Disney executive Patrick Naughton, arrested in September for arranging to have sex with a 13-year-old girl he met online, pleaded not guilty, using an unusual defense argument that his actions were grounded in an online fantasy world. On December 16, a jury found him guilty of possessing child pornography but could not reach a verdict about the charges that he arranged to have sex with a minor.
Little research has been done on treatment. So Hilarie Cash and Jay Parker, co-founders of Internet/Computer Addiction Services in Redmond, Wash., are designing a study testing three treatment methods: traditional cognitive behavior therapy, a 12-step addiction-treatment program, and expressive arts therapy.
In the future, virtual reality and wireless access may make the Net more addictive. "Be really cautious about this technology," warns Parker. "It may not be so grand and good if it's not kept in balance."
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