Pornography and gambling are only part of the problem, an expert said.
SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Like a roll of the dice or a sip of bourbon, the glow of the computer screen has an irresistible and dangerous allure to many people, according to a new nationwide study by Stanford University.
A random survey of 2,500 adults -- the first-ever attempt to quantify "Internet addiction" in the general population -- found that between 6 percent and 14 percent of computer users said they spent too many bleary-eyed hours checking e-mail, making blog entries or visiting Web sites or chat rooms, sometimes neglecting work, school, families, food and sleep.
The Stanford team, led by psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude, isn't worried about people who spend their lunch hours cruising travel sites for a summer vacation in Tuscany.
Rather, they look for signs of compulsion.
"We worry when people use virtual interactions to substitute for real social interactions -- and seeing their real relationships suffer, as a result," he said.
"Sneaking out of bed, once your partner is asleep, to go online. Missing deadline after deadline at work, while visiting chat rooms. And when you cut back, feeling irritable, anxious or restless. Those are red flags," he said.
Seeing the signs
Aboujaoude grew interested in the problem when he started to see a small but growing number of habitual Internet users visiting the university's Impulse Control Disorders Clinic (ocd.stanford.edu/).
"Over the last two to three years, more people have come in with this specific complaint, saying, 'I spend way too much time online, but I can't help it,' " he said. "They characterize it in terms that sound like almost a substance abuse problem."
Internet overuse is an easy trap because computers offer immediacy, a sense of connection and anonymity, Aboujaoude added. Connections are increasingly fast and wireless, and computers are pervasive in life.
For his survey, which was published in the October issue of CNS Spectrums: The International Journal of Neuropsychiatric Medicine, Aboujaoude sought to measure the problem in the general population, outside hyper-wired Stanford and surrounding Silicon Valley.
To his surprise, "the survey suggests that it's not an isolated problem -- it is relatively widespread, and deserves more attention."
Pornography and gambling sites are just one part of the problem, he said. Other sites -- chat rooms, shopping venues and special-interest Web sites -- are also habit-forming.
Psychologist and computer engineer Kenneth Woog of San Clemente, Calif., welcomed the study, saying too little research has been done on the problem.
Woog, who specializes in treating teenagers, is most worried about massive multiplayer online games. One such game, EverQuest, is referred to by many players as "Evercrack," because of its addictive nature, he said.
Some games "are deliberately designed to be addicting," Woog said. "They're very compelling. You do something and get a reward. With enough rewards, you start to feel good about yourself. And you're part of a team of people on a common quest." Because games operate on a "subscription" model of sales, the most addicting games are the most lucrative for companies, he said.
Other therapists say they also increasingly see youths with unhealthy gaming habits, who neglect schoolwork and sports for online games.
It's not known whether so-called Internet Addiction is a clinical disorder, Aboujaoude said.