Hooked On the 'Net

A study on Internet addiction explores how the increasing speed of the web may bring about new mental illnesses.

By Heather Holliday, published on July 1, 2000 - last reviewed on March 31, 2008

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
, 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

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.

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."