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Hooked Online

The rush to put everyone online has connected us all--to our keyboards. And some folks can't quit, sacrificing work and sleep to what some call netomania.

When Pam, a lab research assistant at a Midwestern company, was called in for her annual review recently, her boss was sympathetic about the sharp decline in her job performance. He knew that Pam, a recovering alcoholic, had been battling manic depression and grieving over a death in her family. What he didn't know, however, was that Pam had been spending up to six hours of her workday sending e-mail to friends and playing electronic games. The consequences of Pam's compulsion extend beyond the work time lost. "Sometimes I forget where I'm at, and I might put the wrong solution on a slide and blow the experiment for the day," she admits. "I have many times told myself I'm not going to use the computer today," Pam reflects. "Then I say, 'Maybe just one game ...'"

What sounds like a confession at a meeting of Computer Addicts Anonymous --an organization that doesn't exist yet but could become the 12-step program of the new millennium--describes a disturbing dependency that may be affecting millions of computer users who succumb to the siren song of cyberspace, not just at home but during office hours. It is a compulsion so relatively new and scantily studied that doctors can't agree on what to call it--Internetomania, problematic use of the Internet, compulsive computer use, Internet addiction, and just plain computer addiction are a few monikers--let alone what causes it. A recent study by a group of psychiatrists at the University of Cincinnati suggests that people hooked on the Internet may also suffer from underlying but treatable illnesses such as manic depression, anxiety disorders and substance abuse. But the jury is still out on whether compulsive computer use is a disorder in its own right--like pathological gambling--or a symptom of another illness.

Defining Addiction to the Internet

If the model used to measure the prevalence of other addictions--compulsive overeating, for example--is applied to this one, there could be as many as 15 million computer addicts. "The problem is far more common than people are willing to acknowledge in terms of loss of productivity or damage to the economy, as well as harm on a personal level," says Dr. Donald Black, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa College of Medicine. Black, having already studied pathological gamblers and compulsive shoppers, has begun a study of compulsive computer users, since observing that some of the people in his department were spending enormous amounts of time in front of their terminals yet getting little work done.

That's one sign of computer abuse in the work force, agrees Kimberly Young, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Caught in the Net (John Wiley & Sons). Other signs include startled looks and furtive attempts to cover up the screen when supervisors approach work spaces, an inordinate increase in mistakes from employees who had previously made few--"Their attention is being pulled in another direction," explains Young--and a sudden decrease of interaction with colleagues. "A lot of relationships they're making online take the place of the co-workers," Young says.

The University of Cincinnati study found that problematic computer users tend to be most mesmerized by interactive pursuits--frequenting chat rooms and other multiuser domains, writing e-mail, surfing the Web, playing games. These can serve as a haven for workers from procrastination, boredom and feelings of isolation at work; the fantasy world they offer can be an attractive alternative to the daily grind. "It's an altered state of reality," reports Young. "It's like a drug rush." Depression, she and others believe, can be a result of--not the cause of--compulsive computer use: after someone has been parading his impressive alter ego around chat rooms or playing a power game, coming back to reality can be a real downer.

Experts recommend that managers call in their companies' employee-assistance programs to help in such cases, but aid for the afflicted is scarce. In addition to traditional offline therapy, Young offers a virtual clinic with chat rooms and e-mail counseling on her website--an approach that University of Cincinnati psychiatrist Dr. Toby Goldsmith likens to "taking an alcoholic to an A.A. meeting in a bar." Goldsmith reports that some of the participants in her group's study are having success curbing their computer compulsion after taking mood stabilizers, sometimes combined with antidepressants.

Total abstinence is an impractical solution, experts agree--especially for people who must use modern technology in their work. "It's like an eating disorder: one must learn to eat normally in order to survive," suggests Dr. Maressa Hecht Orzack, founder and coordinator of Computer Addiction Services at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. Orzack tries to get her patients to recognize the triggers for their destructive behavior and come up with alternative ways for them to feel better.

Jeffrey, a 46-year-old East Coast lawyer who attributes the loss of a lucrative job in part to his preoccupation with the game Minesweeper, made it a practice at his next job to get up and get a glass of water or have direct contact with co-workers, whenever he felt the urge coming on. He finally removed the games not only from his own computer but from those of his secretary and his boss, who never noticed they were missing.

Orzack suggests that compulsive computer users might create a schedule that rewards them for finishing their work by giving them a break to do what they want on the computer. "I don't know if companies would go for that," Orzack muses. "But they might have to learn that people do have needs and can't be forced to be isolated for great lengths of time." Pam, who has still not sought help, is withdrawing further: she has just bought a pocket computer to use outside her office.

What Can You Do?

Is one of your employees battling an Internet addiction? Here are the warning signs of Internet addiction, according to Caught in the Net, by Kimberly S. Young:

  • Productivity Loss: Though logging more overtime hours than ever, employees fail to meet deadlines or get the job done right.
  • Skipped Lunches: Suddenly forsaking coffee breaks and social lunches with co-workers, employees stay riveted to their computers.
  • Excessive Fatigue: Late nights surfing the Web at home coupled with extra hours to keep up at work mean lots of lost sleep.
  • Guilty Looks: When an unexpected visitor enters an employee's usually private cubicle or office, he or she may appear startled, shift in the chair and quickly type a command.
  • More Mistakes: Because they often toggle back and forth quickly between work tasks and Net play, employees suffer from lack of concentration.

And here's what to do about it:

  • Set the Rules: Create an Internet code of conduct for your company and require that employees sign it. Include information on privacy and accepted Internet use.
  • Ask Questions: If you notice a pattern of Internet addiction, ask your employee directly about his or her online activity.
  • Find Help: Refer an Internet-addicted employee to a counselor through your company's employee-assistance program or other outreach program.
  • Tighten Access: Every employee may not need access to the whole Internet. Consider blocking chat channels or newsgroups for those with no reason to use them.

Source: Time Magazine


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Last Updated: 24 June 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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