Introduction to "Caught on the Net"
My extensive, worldwide study of Internet Addiction was triggered in 1996 by a distress phone call from my friend Marsha, a high school English teacher in North Carolina.
"I'm ready to divorce John," Marsha announced. I was taken aback. Marsha and John had been together for five years and had what I assumed was a stable marriage. I asked her what had gone wrong: Did John have a drinking problem? Was he having an affair? Had he been abusing her? "No," she replied. "He's addicted to the Internet."
Between sobs, she filled me in on the problem. Every night, he'd come home from work at 6 pm and head straight for the computer. No kiss hello, no help with dinner, or the dishes, or the laundry. At 10 pm, he'd still be on-line when she'd call him to come to bed. "Be right there," he'd say. Four or five hours later, he'd finally log off and stumble into bed.
It had gone on like this for months. She'd complain to him about feeling neglected, ignored, confused about how he could get sucked into cyberspace for forty or fifty hours every week. He didn't listen, and he didn't stop. Then came the credit card bills for his on-line service, $350 or more per month. "We were trying to save our money to buy a house," she said, "and he's pissing away all our savings on the Internet." So she was leaving. She didn't know what else to do.
I listened to my friend as supportively as I could, but when we hung up my mind was abuzz with questions: What could anyone be doing on the computer all that time? What would lure an ordinary person into such an obsession with the Internet? Why couldn't John stop himself, especially when he could see that his marriage was in danger? Could Internet users really become addicted?
My professional curiosity was aroused, further piqued by my longstanding interest in technological wonders. I'm a clinical psychologist, but I've known the ins and outs of computers for years. I have an undergraduate degree in business, concentrating in management information systems, and I once worked for a manufacturing firm as a computer specialist. I spend as much time browsing through Internet Today as I do perusing the latest copy of Psychology Today. And like millions of people all over the world, my work day begins with a quick check of my e-mail as I sip my morning coffee.
But before that distress call from Marsha, I had regarded the rapid growth of the Internet in the early '90s as nothing more than the technological and communications marvel it was touted to be. Sure, I could remember seeing swarms of students filling the computer labs at every hour of the day and night at the University of Rochester, when I was completing my clinical fellowship at the medical school there. A strange sight, but maybe free computer access was simply encouraging students to invest more time and energy into their research papers, I figured at the time.
I also vaguely recalled a few tongue-in-cheek remarks in the media about obsessive use of the Internet. The business magazine Inc. made a remark about 12-step programs for Internet addicts. CNN commented on how the surge of modems suddenly appearing in households throughout the country was "creating a society of on-line addicts."
Now I listened to such comments in a new light. Ironically, the morning after my phone call with Marsha I happened to see a Today show report on an Internet chat room. This group spent hours on the Internet every day debating the guilt or innocence of O.J. Simpson during the ongoing criminal trial, and the chatting cost one woman $800 a month in on-line fees. Sounds strikingly similar to the effects of gambling addiction, I mused. Was there something sinister going on in cyberspace?
It was time to find out. Drawing upon the same clinical criteria used to diagnose alcoholism and chemical dependency, I devised a short questionnaire to pose to Internet users. I asked:
* Have you ever tried to hide or lie about how long you use the Internet?
* Do you spend longer periods on-line than you had intended?
* Do you fantasize about the Internet and your activities on-line when you're away from the computer at work, school, or in the company of spouse, family or friends?
* Have you lost interest in other people and activities since you became more engaged in the Internet?
* Have you tried to cut down your Internet use but found you couldn't do it?
* Do you experience withdrawal symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, or irritability when you're off-line?
* Do you continue to use the Internet excessively despite significant problems it may be causing in your real life?
I posted the questionnaire on that November 1994 day on several Usenet groups - virtual discussion places where Internet users can send and receive messages on specific topic areas. I expected perhaps a handful of responses, and none as dramatic as Marsha's story. But the next day my e-mail was stuffed with more than forty responses from Internet users from Vermont to Oregon, as well as messages from Canada and overseas transmissions from England, Germany, and Hungary!
Yes, the respondents wrote, they were addicted to the Internet. They stayed on-line for six, eight, even ten or more hours at a time, day after day, despite problems this habit was causing in their families, their relationships, their work life, their school work, and their social life. They felt anxious and irritable when off-line and craved their next date with the Internet. And despite Internet-triggered divorces, lost jobs, or poor grades, they couldn't stop or even control their on-line usage.
I was just scratching the surface, but clearly the information superhighway had a few bumps in the road. Before drawing any major conclusions, however, I knew I needed more data, so I expanded the survey. I asked just how much time Internet users spent on-line for personal use (non-academic or non-job related purposes), what hooked them, exactly what problems their obsession triggered, what kind of treatment they had sought - if any - and whether they had a history of other addictions or psychological problems.
When I concluded the survey, I had received 496 responses from Internet users. After evaluating their answers, I categorized 396 (eighty percent) of these respondents as Internet addicts! From exploring the World Wide Web and reading up-to-the-minute news items and stock market trends, to the more socially interactive chat rooms and games, Internet users admitted that they were investing more and more time on-line at greater and greater cost to their real lives.
Moving beyond this initial survey, conducted mostly through on-line exchanges of questions and answers, I followed up with more thorough telephone and in-person interviews. The more I talked to Internet addicts, the more convinced I became that this problem was quite real - and likely to escalate rapidly. With the Internet generally expected to reach seventy-five to eighty percent of the U.S. population in the next several years, and penetrating other countries just as rapidly, I realized I had tapped into a potential epidemic!
The media soon learned of my study. News stories about Internet Addiction surfaced in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the New York Post, and the London Times. I was interviewed about this phenomenon on Inside Edition, Hard Copy, CNBC, and programs on Swedish and Japanese television. At the 1996 American Psychological Association convention in Toronto, my research paper, "Internet Addiction: The emergence of a new clinical disorder" was the first on the subject of Internet addiction approved for presentation. As I set up my materials, the media was waiting. I could read their badges - Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post - as microphones were thrust in my face and photographers snapped pictures. A professional presentation had turned into an impromptu press conference.
I had hit a nerve. In our culture's eager embracing of the Internet as the information and communications tool of the future, we had been ignoring the dark side of cyberspace. My study of Internet Addicts had brought the issue to light, and in the last three years the network of obsessive Internet users and concerned spouses and parents eager to address the problem has continued to expand. I've been contacted by more than a thousand people from all over the world who share a common distress and often express gratitude for having a sounding board for it.
"I can't tell you how happy I am that a professional is finally taking this seriously," wrote Celeste, a homemaker with two children who had become hooked on the Internet's chat rooms, spending sixty hours a week in a fantasy on-line world. "My husband argues with me about it. I'm never there for my kids. I'm horrified at how I'm acting, but I just can't seem to stop."
Not surprisingly, a few critics questioned the legitimacy of Internet Addiction. A Newsweek article titled "Breathing is Also Addictive" urged readers to "Forget those scare stories about being hooked on the Internet. The Web is not a habit; it's an indelible feature of modern life." The founder of an on-line Internet addiction support group, psychiatrist Ivan K. Goldberg, revealed that he meant it as a joke. But most media accounts, along with a growing number of therapists and addiction counselors, have acknowledged that being addicted to the Internet is no laughing matter.
No one understands the seriousness of the addiction better than the spouses and parents of Internet addicts. With each new media report of my study, I hear from dozens of these concerned family members. They contact me by e-mail or, for those who have not learned how to navigate the Net themselves, by phone, or even by letter - known to Internet regulars as "snail mail."
Frustrated, confused, lonely, often desperate, these spouses and parents confide in me the details of life with an Internet addict. Husbands and wives describe patterns of secrecy and lies, arguments and broken agreements, often culminating in the day their spouse ran off to live with someone they knew only through the Internet. Parents tell me the sad stories of daughters or sons who went from straight-A students to the brink of flunking out of school after discovering chat rooms and interactive games that kept them up all night on the Internet - the companion that never sleeps. Other family members and friends of Internet addicts lament the addict's total loss of interest in once-treasured hobbies, movies, parties, visiting friends, talking over dinner, or almost anything else in what the excessive Internet user would call RL, or real life.
With alcoholism, chemical dependency, or behavior-oriented addictions such as gambling and over-eating, the person living with the addict often recognizes the problem and seeks to do something about it much earlier and more readily than the addict. I found the same dynamic at work with the loved ones of Internet addicts. When they tried to approach the Internet addict with their behavior and its consequences, they were met with fierce denial. "No one can be addicted to a machine!" the Internet addict responds. Or perhaps the addict counters: "This is just a hobby and besides, everyone is using it today."
These distressed parents and spouses have turned to me for validation and support. I assured them that their feelings were justified, the problem was real, and they were not alone. But they wanted more direct answers to their most troubling questions: What could they do when they believed someone they love had become addicted to the Internet? What were the warning signs? What should they say to the Internet addict to bring them back to reality? Where could they go to seek treatment? Who's going to take them seriously?
Help is only slowly beginning to emerge. Clinics to treat computer/Internet addiction have been launched at Proctor Hospital in Peoria, Illinois, and Harvard Medical School's McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. Students at the University of Texas and the University of Maryland now can find counseling or seminars on campus to help them understand and manage their Internet addictions. Information about the problem and even a few support groups for Internet Addiction have popped up on-line. In response to the interest in my study and the demand for more information, I launched my own Web page - the Center for On-line Addiction. Designed to provide a quick overview of my research and alert Internet users of the problems I've uncovered, this page was visited by several thousand users in its first year.
But so far, such resources are rare exceptions. Most Internet addicts who admit they have a problem and seek treatment for it aren't yet finding acceptance and support from mental health professionals. Some Internet users complain that therapists told them to simply "turn off the computer" when it becomes too much for them. That's like telling an alcoholic to just stop drinking. This lack of informed guidance leaves Internet addicts and their loved ones feeling more confused and alone.
That's where I hope this book will help. In the following chapters, you will learn why the Internet can become addictive, who gets addicted to it, what the addictive behavior looks like, and what to do about it. If you already know or at least suspect that you're an Internet addict, you likely will see yourself in many of the confessions and personal stories from Internet users who joined in my worldwide study. You will gain a greater understanding of your own experience and recognize that you are not alone. I also will outline concrete steps that will help you regulate your Internet usage and devise a more balanced place for it in your daily life, and I'll point you toward additional resources to keep you on track. I'll help get you out of the black hole of cyberspace!
If you are the wife, husband, parent, or friend of someone whose life has become fixated on the Internet, this book will inform you of the warning signs and symptoms of Internet Addiction so you can better understand the problem and find validation, guidance, and support for your loved one - and for yourself. You know that something serious has entered your life, and you will see your reality reflected in the words and experiences of the spouses and family members of Internet addicts in this book.
For mental health professionals, this book can serve as a clinical guide that will assist in recognizing the addiction and treating it effectively. When I give lectures to groups of therapists or counselors, I often discover that many don't even know how the Internet works, so it's difficult for them to understand what makes this technology so intoxicating or how to help someone manage their usage of it. For the uninformed, it's easy to dismiss the idea of Internet Addiction on the basis that the Internet is just a machine and we don't really get addicted to a machine. But as we will see, Internet users become psychologically dependent on the feelings and experiences they get while using the Internet, and that's what makes it difficult to control or stop.
Addictions counselors and directors of treatment centers recognize this psychological dependency as it applies to compulsive gambling and over-eating. Perhaps this book will encourage them to expand their addiction recovery programs to specifically address the problems of Internet addicts. And all of us as professionals can benefit from additional psychological and sociological research into the many uses of the Internet today.
This book also will help counselors and teachers in schools and universities become aware of Internet Addiction so they can spot it more quickly and effectively counsel students. As we will see, teenagers and college students are particularly susceptible to the lure of the Internet's chat rooms and interactive games. And when they get hooked and stay up late every night on-line, they lose sleep, fail at school, withdraw socially, and lie to their parents about what's happening. Counselors and teachers can help alert students and their parents to the problem and show them how to deal with it.
In the workplace, managers and employees both will benefit from reading this book to gain a greater awareness of how Internet Addiction surfaces on the job and what to do about it. Workers with Internet access will better understand the addictive pull of browsing Web pages, newsgroups, chat rooms, and personal e-mail messages that may lead them to waste hours of work time without realizing it or intending to do so. Employers will recognize the importance of limiting and monitoring their workers' on-line usage to ensure that the Internet is used properly on the job and does not become a source of diminished productivity or distrust. Human resource managers will be alerted to the need to ask employees who show a sudden rise in fatigue or absenteeism whether they just got a home computer with Internet access and whether they've been staying up late using it.
I also hope that Internet promoters, as well as politicians who trumpet the Internet's rise, will read this book and consider the potential addictive nature of this revolutionary technology. A more thorough understanding of the Internet's many applications and how people actually are using them will help everyone keep a clear and balanced perspective on the Net's attributes and its pitfalls. Similarly, the media can continue to play an important role in balancing the flood of news about the wonders of this new toy with timely reminders of the other side of the story.
And for all those who have not yet joined the Internet generation, you probably have heard that the Internet likely will become as routine a part of your life as television - and soon. So this is the best time to become better informed and prepared on what to expect on-line and the possible danger signals that could lead you toward Internet Addiction. You are in the best position to learn how to use the Internet and not abuse it.
Let me be clear about my own position. I certainly don't regard the Internet as an evil villain that can destroy our way of life. In no way do I advocate getting rid of the Internet or stopping its development. I recognize and applaud its many benefits in searching for information, keeping up with the latest news, and communicating with others rapidly and efficiently. Indeed, when I need to begin a new research project, the Internet is often my first stop.
My goal is to help ensure that while we're still in a relatively early phase of Internet expansion, we see and understand the full picture. We're bombarded with cultural messages that urge us to welcome this new tool, and we're assured that it will only improve and enrich our lives. It has that capability. But it also has an addictive potential with harmful consequences that, left undetected and unchecked, could silently run rampant in our schools, our universities, our offices, our libraries, and our homes. By becoming informed and aware, we can best chart ways for the Internet to connect us rather than disconnect us from one another.
Clearly, the Internet is here to stay. But as we all we head out onto the information superhighway together, let's at least make sure we have a clear view of the road ahead and our seat belts securely fastened.
Staff, H. (2009, January 1). Introduction to "Caught on the Net", HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, May 24 from https://www.healthyplace.com/addictions/center-for-internet-addiction-recovery/caught-on-the-net-introduction