Internet Addiction
Becoming Major Problem
By Sally Johnston
Sun Media
EDMONTON, Canada - Ryan suspected his wife was addicted to the Internet when she began staying on their computer until 3 a.m. every night.
"At first, I thought it was because it was a new toy," said Ryan, who didn't want his real name used.
"But by the time she was spending up to 16 hours a day chatting on the Internet, I knew she had a problem."
When his 34-year-old wife admitted she was having phone sex with an 18-year-old man she had met online, Ryan, 43, moved out of the family home.
Welcome to the secret world of Internet addiction, a new disorder that's slowly gaining recognition.
A U.S. survey of 18,000 Net surfers last year one of only a handful to look at the issue, found that 6% of users were addicted. Of those that admitted a dependency, 31% said they'd had a real-life sexual affair with a person they'd met online.
"It's not how many hours you spend on the Net, but whether your use of it is having an effect on your life, your family, job or education," said American psychologist Dr. David Greenfield, who helped conduct the survey with ABC News.
Some experts say it is a problem that must be taken as seriously as alcoholism or drug addiction.
"It really does parallel other addictions because it causes family problems, troubles at work and at school," said Dr. Kimberly Young, director of the Center for Online Addiction at the University of Pittsburgh.
Greenfield's study found that sex was a factor for many Net surfers, addicted or not.
Over 40% of Net addicts and 12% of non-addicted users claimed they had masturbated while online.
Flirting was even more popular, with over half the Net addicts and 20% of non-addicts admitting to it.
For some people, the computer world starts to rival their real world.
Spouses and children are neglected, job deadlines missed and social events skipped as the user becomes obsessed with spending time escaping reality.
Although romance and sex draw many people, others are addicted to games, stock market trading and even auction houses,Young said.
She became interested in the problem in 1994 when a girlfriend complained her husband spent hours having sexual conversations with women on the Net.
Dr. David Greenfield ... Study of Net addicts "I posted a survey on the Net and the next day I got 40 responses from people saying their life had been turned upside down (by the Net)."
Net addiction is marked by a pattern of behaviour rather than hours logged, Young said.
Checking e-mail compulsively, preferring to talk to people online rather than face-to-face and lying about the extent of usage, are all warning signs.
Chat rooms -- Web sites where computer users can communicate on-screen with people all over the world -- are one of the biggest draws.
"The appeal is the unconditional approval that people will give you there," said pastoral counsellor Mike Paddison of the Edmonton Family Centre.
He believes Net addiction is often symptomatic of relationship problems.
"They are unhappy at home and the Net is their social life ... it is a lifeline," said Paddison, who has counselled about a dozen such cases in the past two years.
Ryan believes it was marital difficulties that drove his wife to seek comfort in chat rooms.
He said their six-year marriage struggled last year after he was hospitalized with complications from diabetes.
"I don't think she was entirely truthful about herself. She's quite a large woman," said Ryan of a fantasy persona that his wife adopted online.
Said Young: "On the Internet you can conceal your real name, occupation, physical appearance and age. You can take that freedom and quickly pour out your strongest feelings and deepest desires. This leads to the illusion of intimacy."
"Anything that can increase your pleasure and decrease your pain can be addictive," Greenfield said.
Many Net addicts suffer the same problems other addicts suffer such as low self-esteem, loneliness, depression and anxiety.
Home-based computer users are most at risk and a typical addict is a middle-aged woman with a limited education, Young said. However, she has seen cases of all ages and social groups. Anything that can increase your pleasure and decrease your pain can become addictive
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