We can get addicted to many things. We all know about alcohol, drug and tobacco addiction, which is chemically based, but people get seriously addicted to gambling, overeating, exercise – and sex. Perhaps the most interesting of the non-chemical, electronic addictions are computer-game, amusement-arcade machine and one-arm-bandit addiction. But we have recently discovered another addiction – Internet addiction. For some people the net is the Prozac, for others the Viagra, of communication.

These technology addictions all have things in common: sound and bright lights, fast-moving images and personal control of the technology. Frequently there is the element of surprise or exploration, which adds to the excitement of the whole thing. The stereotyped addict is a young(ish) introverted, clever(ish) male. Computer addicts miss meals or eat while at the keyboard, have strange patterns of sleep, lose sense of time and quite quickly become very withdrawn. They spend all their waking time with their computers.

Some of these addicts curiously find that their addiction boosts their self-esteem, partly because of their feelings of modernity and being pioneers but also because others – technophobes – call on their expertise for help. The inadequate becomes the expert: a nice reversal of roles. Never before have they been taken seriously – now they are listened to. Best of all, the inadequate e-mailer can hide behind a fantasy name and persona: because of the technology nobody need discover they are short, spotty and cross-eyed. They can easily present themselves as suave, mysterious, quirky or whatever – and no one has the first idea what they are really like. The Internet offers another reality – a text-based relationship. There is anonymity – and limitless possibilities for voyeurism, protected self-disclosure, even shopping.

Some observers believe that all this hype about technological addiction is nonsense and not comparable to the chemical addictions that ravage the lungs and liver of one’s closest friends.

As Mark Griffiths, a British expert in this area, has noted, to qualify as an addiction the behaviours of the addict need to conform to a number of quite specific criteria.

Does the activity tend to dominate the waking hours of the person?

Does it lead to total preoccupation, to cravings and most importantly to a reduction in social contacts? The addict needs to be at it, not with others, and able to think of little else while deprived of their electronic toys.

Does the activity lead to a physical and emotional high? Just as music can quickly and easily help change mood, so a key feature of addiction is that getting a fix leads initially to a high, and later to feelings of ‘flow’ or a semi-tranquillized feeling of well-being. These mood changes can be seen in all addicts and play an important role in the addiction.

Does the dosage have to be regularly increased? Addiction causes tolerance in the addict – and frequently intolerance in others. They need more of it – unreasonably large amounts of their favoured poison. Three hours surfing the Web becomes four – then one needs five – and so on. Is there clear evidence of withdrawal symptoms? What happens when the toy or drug is taken away, or even reduced. In short, how does the addict cope? If the person suffers both chronic and acute negative mood changes after withdrawal, this is clearly not a good sign.

The Internet addict needs to be at the keyboard and the screen and, like the nicotine-deprived quitting smoker, is ratty, moody and miserable until the dose is restored. Is there an increase in social conflict and rows? Does the addiction to whatever lead friends, family and employers to complain about the addict’s single-minded, selfish devotion to this activity? It must be borne in mind that it is quite possibly the conflict that leads to the addiction. That is, one could take to the Web to escape an argumentative spouse. Is there a tendency for sudden relapses and benders? After a period off the addiction, do people suddenly take it up with all the passion and intensity that they had before?

Usually, to be classified as an addict one needs to qualify for at least five of the above symptoms, preferably all. To some extent, quick, cheap communication on the Internet makes mild forms of addiction understandable. But now there is a new, additional component to the potential cocktail – shopping on the Web. Some people already swear by book-buying on the Web, and there are increasing opportunities and, with them, increasing stories rather than evidence of tele-shopaholics who do their ‘retail therapy’ from the spare room.

There is a small but fascinating psychiatric literature on shopaholics called ‘buying maniacs’ by the celebrated German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin a hundred years ago. The current pathology is called ‘compulsive buying’ and has been described as ‘a mood, obsessive compulsive, or impulse control disorder’. It has a number of diagnostic criteria:

Frequent preoccupations with buying

Impulses to buy that are experienced as irresistible, intrusive and senseless

Frequent buying of items that are not needed, unaffordable and shopping for longer periods of time than explicitly intended

Distressing consequences of those impulses marked by problematic social, marital and occupational functioning and financial and legal problems.

Most case studies show the “victims” to be women. Further, they often exhibit comorbidity, that is, they have other problems. Many have personality, mood or anxiety disorders and often a family history of some sort of addiction. Interestingly, these compulsive shoppers who preferred to shop alone said they felt ‘happy’ and ‘powerful’ while shopping. They often said they liked the colours, sounds, lighting and smell of stores – they even said it was sexually exciting. Favoured purchases were clothes, shoes, jewellery and make-up – and in serious bulk.

Shopaholics get better (or are stabilized) on antidepressant medication and psychotherapy. So we have the picture of two types of addict: the young, inadequate, Internet-addicted male and the depressed female shopaholic. What if we combine these addictions so that you can be a website shopaholic, with equal numbers of males and females.

Whether novices, addicts or virgins to teleshopping, people point out three drawbacks or at least worries about shopping over the Web:

Credit card fraud: Many people are concerned with hackers getting hold of their credit card numbers and abusing them. Having one’s wallet stolen is a ghastly business but we all know that credit cards can be quickly and easily cancelled to prevent thieves dipping into one’s account. Usually the theft is discovered quickly. But because one waits for goods to arrive, the delay may allow the thieves to take their time in raiding your account.

Goods never arrive: The old days of COD (cash on delivery) have gone. You pay up front – and wait. You may never get what you ordered. The company may go bust, or may not even exist. They fob you off with the ‘lost in the mail’ story. Of course this is also true of mail-order catalogues but because advertising on the Web is easier and cheaper, there is the possibility of bogus firms taking your money and not delivering.

Shoddy goods: All of us have a flattering photograph of ourselves which somehow does not quite match reality. A ‘trick of the light’; the skill of the photographer; the mood on the day all contribute to the effect. Buying on the Internet is, to use a very old metaphor, a bit like buying a pig in a poke. One needs to feel the quality of the width, and hold the potentially purchased product up to the light.

Shopping is also a social activity. People enjoy taking a friend for a second opinion; getting advice from a well-trained assistant; and ‘trying on’ the goods. The Web allows nothing of this. But these are early days: the naïve enthusiasts who predict the end of both the high street and the out-of-town mall, and the unbelieving sceptics who see teleshopping as a flash in the pan for the electronically addicted, are both wrong. Just as we have learnt to find the optimal way of using all technology, so the same will no doubt be true of shopping on the Web

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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