It was only a matter of time before the recovery movement and the Internet collided. With the publication of "Caught in the Net: How to Recognize the Signs of Internet Addiction -- and a Winning Strategy for Recovery," "onlineaholics" (as author Kimberly Young dubs them) now have a pathology all their own. Young says she wrote the book for parents, teachers, students, therapists and managers: in short, for onlineaholics and the people who love them. The Internet, if one buys Young's simplistic and tenuous argument, is not only a tool worthy of psychological study, it is an entity -- like alcohol, drugs, credit cards, porn and food -- that becomes dangerous when placed in the wrong hands.
What separates those who while away a few too many hours surfing the Web from those who live much of their life online? Young, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh-Bradford and the founder of the Center for Online Addiction, provides a quick 20-question quiz to help readers determine whether they are in fact addicts. Questions include: "How often do you prefer the excitement of the Internet to intimacy with your partner?" and "How often do you block out disturbing thoughts about your life with soothing thoughts of the Internet?"
Young posted a similar questionnaire on a Usenet group in November 1994, expecting to get "a handful of responses," but "the next day more than 40 responses from Internet users from Vermont to Oregon" were waiting in her in box. Young says her respondents described being anxious and irritable when offline, and unable to log-off even when their Net use -- some reported spending up to 10 hours a day online -- began harming their personal and professional lives. At the conclusion of her online survey, which she followed up with phone calls and interviews, Young had received 496 responses. After evaluating them (Young doesn't explain how), she concluded that 396 -- a whopping 80 percent -- of the respondents were "addicts." "I realized," she writes ominously, "I had tapped into a potential epidemic."
She also tapped into a so-called affliction ready to be exploited. A psychologist at the right place at the right time, Young is clearly benefiting from the technology Zeitgeist. Her "study" was conducted just as the Internet was becoming a household word, and since then she has been widely quoted in mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio. Her career as a talking head, if not a psychologist, depends on the fact that Internet addiction is real, making her book, and the claims within, somewhat suspect.
Young's book is peppered with melodramatic anecdotes about these addicts that would make Jerry Springer proud. Take Jennifer -- a straight-A high school student, she started frequenting chat rooms and soon lost all interest in family, friends and school. By age 18, she had left home to live with her Internet friends. Or Bob, 38, who snapped at his wife and family if they interrupted his surfing and once became so immersed in e-mailing an online "friend" that he forgot to pick up his 11-year-old daughter at school. And of course there are several tales of "cyberwidows" who have lost their spouses to illicit online affairs. "When you see your husband retire to the den after dinner for four hours online, you want to believe he's following up on that important project from work," she writes in a typically melodramatic tone. "The truth is, he may be sharing intimate details of your life together to another woman." One chapter about the dangers of becoming addicted to the Net at work is ominously subtitled, "When your boss supplies the drug."
Young's examples demonstrate -- and common sense dictates -- that for certain individuals , the Internet accentuates already-existing neuroses. For those with antisocial tendencies, low self-esteem, depression or predilections for fantasy, the Internet can be a dangerous place where false identities flourish and illusory intimacy is forged. But the book's alarmist claim, in bold, movie-trailer-speak, that Internet addiction "CAN HAPPEN TO ANYONE" is a slick scare tactic designed to sell books. While nodding to her patient's preexisting conditions, Young prefers to skip right to the good stuff -- the havoc their addiction wreaks. In example after example we hear about hapless souls like Jennifer and Bob, who have been sucked mercilessly into the demonic Web.
Luckily for them, though, Young believes they can be saved. Each chapter is punctuated with Young's "Recovery Strategies" -- such as "Carry Positive Reminder Cards " that "list five major problems caused by your addiction to the Internet" -- that addicts can employ to curb their behavior.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of Young's book, though, is her tendency to link Internet addiction -- a scantily studied "disease" -- with more noxious addictions such as alcoholism. Young cites a December 1997 survey that estimates 56 million people are online. "How many of those users are addicted already?" she wonders. "If we base our estimate on the accepted range of 5 to 10 percent of all users used to estimate the number of those addicted to alcohol or gambling," she reasons, then "over 5 million Internet users are addicted today." Young says that while it often takes people quite some time to become addicted to substances, her research -- details of which she does not share with us -- suggests that Internet addicts become ensnared much faster.
To her credit, Young does suggest that people "Caught in the Net" seek therapy -- in the real world. If you trust her anecdotes, then yes, the Internet can intrude on peoples' lives and disrupt relationships and work. And yes, the fact that some people spend hours and hours online is a troublesome psychological -- and perhaps cultural -- phenomenon that deserves further study.
But it is hardly deadly. While research suggests that addictions such as alcoholism and drug abuse may have biological or even genetic constructs, as far as I know, clicking a mouse remains voluntary.