In 1994, before most of us were on the Internet, Pennsylvania psychologist Kimberly Young ran into her first case of Internet addiction – a friend's husband was spending 40 to 50 hours a week in AOL chat rooms. On the surface, it was a financial issue, since web chats cost $2.95 (U.S.) an hour at the time, but it was also a sign that his life was desperately out of balance and his relationship to his wife was threatened.
In 1998, Ms. Young gave Internet addiction a name and some widespread attention with her book Caught In The Net. Over the years, the problem has deepened, as sites such as Facebook and eBay have grown, gambling and porn sites have multiplied, and more and more people have moved online. "It became cheaper, easier, and ubiquitous now that we all have mobile phones," she said in an interview.
She created the Center for Internet Addiction in her home town of Bradford, Penn., as a base to research, speak and counsel on the issue. In September, under her guidance, a clinic for in-patient care will be created at the Bradford Medical Center, the first in the United States, although there are such facilities in South Korea and China. This month, she'll be visiting Australia, where concern about the problem is simmering and a desire for some collective action emerging.
Internet addiction is an impulse-control problem. It occurs when people can't control their urges, and are lured away for unreasonable lengths of time by the Internet. Often, some deeper psychological problems, such as depression, loneliness or anxiety, underlie the addiction. "People don't just get addicted to the Internet. Something else is happening in their lives," she stresses.
She has defined four types of Internet addiction:
Cybersexual: Individuals are caught up in viewing, downloading, and trading online pornography or involved in adult fantasy role-play chat rooms.
Online affairs: Individuals become so involved in chat rooms, instant messaging or social networking sites that such relationships can become virtual adultery. Online friends become more important than real-life relationships, leading in many cases to marital discord and family instability.
Internet gambling or buying: Addictions to online gaming, online gambling, and eBay can involve the loss of considerable sums of money and hamper job-related duties or significant relationships. Many communities – or at least, sizeable numbers of citizens within them – worry about the ill effects of a new casino being built in their jurisdiction, but these days casinos are a click of the mouse away.
Compulsive surfing: The wealth of information available on the Internet has created a new type of compulsive behaviour involving excessive web surfing and database searches. Ms. Young's centre notes that obsessive-compulsive tendencies and reduced work productivity are typically associated with this behaviour.
At what point does productive Web surfing turn into addiction? She suggests asking yourself several questions:
1. Do you feel preoccupied with the Internet?
2. Do you feel the need to use the Internet with increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction?
3. Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop Internet use?
4. Do you feel restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop Internet use?
5. Do you stay online longer than originally intended?
6. Have you jeopardized or risked the loss of a significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunity because of the Internet?
7. Have you lied to family members, therapist, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the Internet?
8. Do you use the Internet as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a dysphoric mood (such as feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression)?
If you answer yes to five of these questions, you may have a problem. But you won't be alone: Stanford Medical School found that one in eight Americans suffer from one type of Internet addiction. Other estimates peg the prevalence between 1.5 per cent and 8.2 per cent in North America and Europe. Her centre has found 1 per cent of office workers abuse the Internet during work hours.
If you note a problem, your recovery might be something you can pursue by yourself, if you are committed to change. You can cut down, taking vacations from the Internet. Ms. Young tries, for example, to keep her iPhone in the charger when she's at home, to provide a break. "Go out with your spouse. Take the kids to the zoo. Be device free," she suggests.
But you may have to address deeper issues, and that may require the help of a therapist. Just as overeating can be triggered when someone is feeling down or lonely, and that must be addressed to break the food addiction, Internet addiction can flow from a void in your life that needs to be grappled with.
As a society, Ms. Young says we need more public awareness campaigns if we're going to get a grip on the problem. Governments must recognize the problem and support solutions.
"We need to recognize the Internet is not a benign tool," she says. It can open up a world of wonders, but it can also be harmful and we have to maintain control.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter