Cyberholics Anonymous

If Freud was right, and jokes do satisfy repressed needs, that might explain the unexpected success of the prank Ivan Goldberg pulled in 1995...

If Freud was right, and jokes do satisfy repressed needs, that might explain the unexpected success of the prank Ivan Goldberg pulled in 1995. As a gag on fellow Net-browsing shrinks, the Manhattan psychiatrist cooked up a make-believe diagnosis--"Internet Addiction Disorder" (IAD)--for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a psychotherapists' handbook. Goldberg included among IAD's symptoms "fantasies or dreams about the Internet"; giving up "important social or occupational activities" for the Web; needing more on-line time "to achieve satisfaction"; even exhibiting "voluntary or involuntary typing movements" when not on-line. A surprising number of colleagues responded with cyberholic confessions, and Goldberg, in turn, established the Internet Addiction Support Group. When hundreds of self-anointed addicts surfaced, it was clear Goldberg's joke had hit paydirt in the collective id.

None of this surprises lecturer on psychology Maressa Hecht Orzack, founder and coordinator of Computer Addiction Services at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, the first clinic of its kind to treat IAD. In her work with self-described Internet and computer addicts, and with those who are "in denial," she has discovered that computer addictions resemble "impulse control disorders" like gambling, as well as eating disorders. Orzack has had her own close encounters with the phenomenon of tolerance buildup. "I first became aware of this as a personal problem when my computer solitaire lasted well into the night, long after my usual bedtime," she has admitted in the Massachusetts Psychological Association Quarterly. When her participation in an on-line professional forum became what she calls "a veritable time sink," Orzack realized she was addicted.

Although Orzack has regulated her own use of the Internet, self-imposed limits are not enough for everyone. Many of her cases begin as calls for help from distraught family members. One woman feared her grandchildren were being neglected. "Her daughter was spending hours in chat groups, putting food out on the floor for the little kids, who were sitting there while she was on the computer," Orzack says. The mother had also become involved on-line with men who started showing up at the house. Orzack found herself asking, "Is this a case that should be referred to the Department of Social Services as child neglect?"

Another caller had separated from her husband, who had fallen in love with a woman he met through a game-partner program. Instead of moving out, the husband "moved into the room with the computer," says Orzack, "and as soon as he came home he would retreat there and spend all his time on-line." His estranged spouse wanted to know whether Internet addiction could be used in court when she sought custody of their children.

Children themselves are at risk. Orzack emphasizes that "parents need to spend time interacting with a child" and advises against overreliance on digital babysitters. If a child socializes through computer games rather than face-to-face play, doesn't participate in after-school activities, and claims to be bored doing anything that isn't computer-generated, "It's up to the parents to do something," she warns. "It is absolutely essential not to allow that child to have a computer in his or her room."

High-risk groups for Internet and computer addictions, according to Orzack, include those "who are lonely or shy, have phobias or panic attacks about going out, or suffer depression and don't do anything but play at the computer"--no matter what their age. Cyberspace provides an alternative environment in which the norms of social interaction are stripped away; someone who has problems facing people may receive immediate feedback from on-line bulletin boards or real-time "multi-user domains" (MUDs) such as chat groups. "That's very reinforcing," says Orzack, who is a behaviorist by training, "because they're not getting that kind of support in real life."

The number of Web addicts has yet to be determined, but--by using alcoholism rates as a rough guide--Orzack and others guess that some 4 percent of the estimated 20 million on-line Americans may be addicted. And that number is bound to increase, she says, as the Web becomes increasingly accessible. Does she have any advice for the cyberhooked? "Set an alarm clock. Set a second clock. Take time out. Do some exercise. Call a friend. Read a book!" she says. In short, get off line--and get on with your life.

~ Harbour Fraser Hodder 

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