Hooked On the 'Net

Over 44 million families are online, and over half of their members—about 25 million people—may qualify as compulsive surfers. So is "Internet Addiction" a new psychological phenomenon?

In a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, researchers from the University of Florida (UF) and the University of Cincinnati examined the habits of 20 people who had spent more than 30 nonworking hours a week online for the past three years. The participants described skipping sleep, ignoring family responsibilities, and showing up late for work to fulfill their desire to visit chat rooms and surf the Web. The consequences were severe: Many suffered from marital problems, failed in school or lost a job, and accumulated debt.

The evidence points to a psychological disorder, so researchers probed further and found that the participants' habits met the criteria for impulse control disorders, mental illnesses characterized by an uncontrollable desire to perform a behavior that, once executed, is often followed by a huge sense of relief. And most of the participants had a history of additional psychiatric problems like eating disorders and manic depression.

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Despite their apparent sufferings, the study's participants were not easily identifiable, says Nathan Shapira, Ph.D., a UF assistant psychiatry professor and co-author of the study. "These people were intelligent, well-respected community members," he says. "They were like your next-door neighbor—who just lost control."

Given the confounding nature of the participants' various symptoms, Shapira believes the essential issue remains: Is Internet "addiction" a distinct disorder or a symptom of another well-defined disorder? "It's too early to know," he says. "But my sense is that this problem is going to get worse as the size and speed of the Internet increases."

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