Caught in the Web: An Internet Addict's Story
Internet addiction doesn’t just mean hours lost to Facebook. For an early online abuser named Pauline, it meant demoralization familiar to any low-bottom alcoholic. So she started a 12-step meeting.
Pauline knew she was in trouble from the first time she ever went online, way back in 1994, when she was just a high-school girl in New Jersey.
She would log onto a BBS (an early form of message board) that a kid in her neighborhood had set up, via her screeching, pokey 4800-baud modem, to check for messages—and then she would log off and repeat the whole process 10 minutes later, and then again, and then again, each time to see if anything new had popped up, even though she knew it probably hadn’t.
At some level, Pauline knew even then that this sort of behavior was not healthy, even though it felt good—just as many alcoholics recall, with a mix of awe and terror, the flush of warmth and belonging that their first drink brings, quickly followed by repeating the pleasurable action over and over again, until ending up vomiting or passed out in a friend’s front yard.
But who ever broke out in handcuffs following a blog binge? Whose partner ever left them over compulsive web-surfing? The consequences of Internet addiction may be less dramatic than those associated with drugs and alcohol, but they do exist. As far back as September 1998, an article (“Internet Paradox”) in the journal American Psychologist detailed studies which demonstrated that, “Greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participants' communication with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their depression and loneliness.”
Today, a growing number of experts consider Internet addiction to be a serious and growing scourge. One of these individuals is Dr. Kimberly Young, founder of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery and author of Caught in the Net (1998). Young told The Fix that Internet addiction is an umbrella term that includes everything from online pornography and gambling to gaming and eBay—and more. “It is generally considered to cover all aspects of compulsive online behavior,” she said.
According to Dr. Young’s own Center for Internet Addiction Recovery, studies suggest that as many as one in eight Americans suffer from problematic Internet use—with higher numbers, up to 30 percent, in China, South Korea and Taiwan. A recent survey by the polling website SodaHead revealed that 61 percent of 602 respondents felt like they were addicted to the Internet (while 39 percent “could quit if they wanted”).
Who ever broke out in handcuffs following a blog binge? Whose partner ever left them over compulsive web-surfing? The consequences of Internet addiction may be less dramatic than those associated with drugs and alcohol, but they do exist.
What are these addicts doing while online? A 2005 story in the New York Times (“Hooked on the Web”) said that while many obsessive Internet users spend their time indulging in digital variations of addictive vices with real-world analogs, such as gambling or pornography, “Other users have a broader dependency and spend hours online each day, surfing the Web, trading stocks, instant messaging or blogging, and a fast-rising number are becoming addicted to Internet video games.”
Further evidence of the general acceptance of this phenomenon as a real and damaging one is that, as Dr. Young noted, Internet addiction likely will be listed in the appendix of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (aka the DSM-V), which will be published this coming May.
“[Internet addiction] is a very new disorder, and much research still needs to be done to understand it,” she said. “The studies conducted so far have used various criteria, which is a problem for validity … so we need a standard set of criteria, which is exactly what having it in the DSM-V will allow us to do.”
As for Pauline, back in the late 1990s, she didn’t yet understand the true nature of her addiction, either, which began really to blossom when she went off to college.
In those days, no one had computers in their dorm rooms, and so Pauline would trek endlessly back and forth from her college’s computer lab, checking email and playing mindless flash games on the PC, including a Tetris-like puzzle game called Snood. Studying—the same as it does for heavy-drinking college students—fell by the wayside.
After she graduated and started working in an office in New York City, her problem only worsened. She was on the Internet all the time—she had to be for work—and it felt like how an alcoholic might feel working in a bar. She told the The Fix, “I had a pretty busy job with a lot to do, and I wasn’t getting things done because of the Internet—and that was when it became clear that there were consequences … and even though I knew there were consequences, I didn’t change my behavior.”
Pauline started seeing a therapist, who took her problem seriously. She tried several methods to stop her Internet abuse, but nothing seemed to work. So the therapist suggested that she limit her browsing to one hour per day, and that she stay late at work for however much time she went over that hour.
“I knew this one had failed when I had somewhere to be, urgently, at 8 pm, and it got to be 7 and I still had an hour of overtime to do, yet I still found myself spending time on the Internet,” Pauline said. That’s when it became clear that she had a serious problem; that she was powerless over the World Wide Web.
But Pauline—unlike alcoholics and sex, drug and gambling addicts—didn’t have a program to turn to for support in struggling with her addiction. So she asked a friend she knew who was a member of AA for help.
Her friend emailed her the first three steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Pauline tried to follow them to the best of her ability. And, for a time, it worked. “It was an overnight change in that I stopped using the Internet completely,” Pauline said. “It wasn’t … in that it remained difficult for a week or two.”