The population of cyberspace increases every day, but along with this growth is the more worrying observation that an escalating number of people are finding it difficult to log off. According to some medical professionals and academics, we are currently teetering on the precipice of a new and debilitating endemic of Internet addiction disorder (IAD), or pathological Internet use (PIU).
Like many other addictions and compulsive behaviors, PIU can lead to relationship troubles, social isolation, work inefficiency and poor academic progress. It is said that one of the main drivers of PIU is the plethora of online dating and cybersex sites. Those arguing in favor of the Net's ability to hook people up say that most users are just too busy, too isolated, too shy, or have just experienced one sleazy pub or club too many in their quest for love.
But this is just one aspect of PIU, and compulsive information seeking on the Internet may be just as damaging to social relations as a cybersex addiction. There is no doubt that the Internet will continue to play a significant role in most of our lives, but this may also make it difficult to separate addiction from normal Internet use. Just how do we know that we have an Internet addiction problem?
According to a study conducted by Diane M. Wieland, associate professor and director of the Undergraduate Nursing Program at the La Salle University, School of Nursing, Philadelphia, Internet usage in the United States is still increasing rapidly. "Between 9 and 15 million people use the Internet daily, and it is estimated that every 3 months the rate of use increases by 25 percent." says Wieland, adding that (based on other addiction studies) around 5-10 percent of users will almost certainly develop an Internet addiction.
That the Internet has a dark side should not come as a surprise to anyone, as it represents the Faustian deal that comes with all new technologies. The Internet provides us with a fantastic source of information and allows an unprecedented level of fast and efficient communication between individuals. In addition, the Internet also facilitates our need to complete mundane chores such as banking and bill paying with a minimum amount of fuss and in a fraction of the time that it used to take. But, ironically, some Internet users are becoming less efficient and productive at work, less respondent in relationships and marriages and less attentive at school. So what's happened, how did a technology that was supposed to make our lives so much more efficient suddenly turn on us?
In truth, an Internet addiction is like any other compulsive disorder, such as drug use, gambling, overeating or watching television. "Addiction is a dependence on something to which need is attributed to the point where the addict's life is dominated by it," says counsellor Charmaine Saunders. As such, the Internet should not be viewed as an exception to this rule if it is "used to an excessive degree, where other things in life are shunted aside and it can't be given up. Addiction is always about the addict, not the thing addicted to. Some people have addictive personalities and will be more susceptible to obsessive behaviors." This has led some commentators to suggest that Internet addiction statistics could in fact reflect other addiction studies, which would mean that Internet addiction rates could be as high as 5-10 percent of all Internet users. And just like the drug user or compulsive gambler, the lack of control that they have over their behavior becomes a source of overwhelming distress for the afflicted individual, says Wieland.
On the Internet, it seems that the "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" theory rings true, as men and women apparently seek out different experiences while surfing the Internet. "Men are interested in information seeking, games, and cybersex. They seek power, status, and dominance, gravitating to sources of information glut, aggressive interactive games, and sexually explicit chat rooms and cyberporn. Conversely, women use the Internet more for support and friendship, romance, and as a complaint mechanism about their partners," says Wieland.
In regard to online sex addiction, psychiatrist Dr. Gail Knudson told Toronto's Medical Post that the relatively new area of cybersex addiction attracts particular types of people. "The men are often 'loner' types who have difficulty interacting and have an established tendency for addictive or compulsive behavior. The women tend to be lonely people with low self-esteem. They might come to the doctor complaining of something like anxiety, without saying anything about the amount of time they spend on the Internet every day," said Dr. Knudson, adding: "People who suffer from this addiction suffer an enormous amount of shame and distress."
Feelings of anxiety, shame and guilt seem to be a common factor when online use develops into an addiction. In some cases this seems to be a vicious circle, simply because addicts use the dissociative or compensatory effects of the Internet to escape from an unpleasant situation in their real lives. "Computers are used to compensate for feelings of loneliness, marital and work problems, poor social life, and financial problems," says Wieland in her paper. Cybersex is but one aspect of a multifaceted affliction, Wieland adds, as a person can become a compulsive user of the Internet irrespective of what they are looking for. Saunders agrees, stating: "All addiction is risky, not just addiction to 'bad' things. We should do everything in moderation and stay in charge, not be ruled by things outside of ourselves." What matters with Internet addiction is whether or not this behavior is intruding and overtaking a sizable proportion of a person's life.
Wieland writes that addictive characteristics, aside from obsessively seeking pornography, may include online gambling, chatting, shopping, stock trading, general information searching, constant web surfing, database searching and an addiction to interactive computer games. Prolonged involvement in these activities can lead to reduced sleep, poor hygiene and lack of physical activity, and certainly indicates compulsive behavior.
Unfortunately, along with these sorts of compulsive behaviors comes a great deal of denial on the part of the afflicted individual, as the boundaries between normal and excessive use become blurred. Tactics employed by the Internet addicted user include stonewalling, downplaying their usage, blaming and attacking others, or rationalizing their predicament. Some of the traits commonly associated with compulsive users may be "denial that the problem exists," says Wieland, or "feelings of withdrawal, anxiety and depression when not being able to log-on."
Unlike other addictions, the Internet has a captive audience where a significant percentage will undoubtedly become addicted. Sure, alcohol and television are addictive, and maybe television has even primed us for looking at screens for long periods. But neither TV nor alcohol needs to be used by the public, whereas it is becoming impossible for us to avoid using the Internet. As our lives continue to become enmeshed with virtual worlds, it seems inevitable that we will see a steady increase in people with Internet addictions. How we will we deal with an addiction that may one day become a mental health problem of epidemic proportions is not clear.