Research Continues to Highlight Internet Dependence
> 1/19/2007 11:23:33 AM

Though many in the mental health field decry common use of the word "addiction," prefering the more clinical terms "dependence" or "pathological use/abuse," most Americans understand the concept of "internet addiction," and it constitutes a growing epidemic that started as a joke but now threatens to disrupt daily life for millions of people worldwide. Since the intial explosion of the internet in the mid-to-late 90's, various experts have been speculating on the potential for web abuse and dependence. A large-scale Stanford University telephone study released in October interviewed more than 2,500 Americans, finding that one in eight displayed at least one symptom of problematic internet usage:

...the typical affected individual is a single, college-educated, white male in his 30s, who spends approximately 30 hours a week on non-essential computer use. While some may hear this profile and assume that a person’s Internet “addiction” might actually be an extreme fondness for pornography, (researchers) stressed that pornography sites are just one part of the problem.

And on the professional front:

...a 2002 study in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior found that 60 percent of companies surveyed had disciplined, and more than 30 percent had terminated, employees for inappropriate Internet use.

The virtual resources offered by the internet promise endless possibilities, one of which is the potential for abuse. The distractions of the web ensnare workers, students and housewives all too easily, and they can lead to notable declines in physical health, professional standing, and personal responsibility. In 1998, a Florida woman's ex-husband convinced a  judge that her internet addiction led her to neglect their children; the judge responded by legally removing them from her custody.

This problem is obviously not unique to the United States: a new report by the Chinese Academy of Sciences proffers the conservative estimate that 2 million Chinese adolescents are addicted to the internet and that their average age is as many as ten years below that of comparable dependents in the West, with most between the ages of 15 and 20. Surprisingly, those responsible for the report claim that the "good kids" who excel at pleasing parents and teachers are also the most likely to retreat into the virtual worlds of their bedrooms, neglecting friends and family for those they meet online. China's one child rule has also been blamed for the growing epidemic, as single children have fewer opportunities for human interaction at home, especially with those closer to their own age. In Germany, specialized camps have opened with the express purpose of weaning internet addicts from their stimulant of choice.

Chat rooms and online gaming communities are the largest sources of internet dependence. While those who exhibit problematic internet usage do not spend significantly larger portions of their time checking email and doing research, the amount of time they spend on these networked activities is exponentially higher, and the time they spend online each week can surprise event fervent believers, going as high as seventy-five hours or more in extreme cases.

There is little agreement among clinicians as to whether internet addiction should be classified as a distinct disorder or as a result of combined psychopathologies like depression and faulty impulse control. For many, that question is no longer valid, as the condition has already inspired Internet Anonymous, yet another variation on the twelve-step formula; several sites also offer internet addiction self-tests much like those recommended to individuals who suspect they may have problems with drugs and alcohol.

Much like drug addicts, kleptomaniacs and binge eaters, a large number of web dependents are not forthcoming with evidence of their problem. Fearing  embarassment and public reprimands, they often wait until the issue causes major shifts in their professional and personal lives, forcing them to address it formally. Additional studies will, hopefully, increase public awareness of this potential disorder, leading more individuals to acknowledge their dependencies and seek outside help if necessary. It's no laughing matter.

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