Internet Addiction: A Very Real Problem
> 10/18/2006 9:53:06 AM

In a phenomenon reaching far beyond the ranks of online gamers, gamblers and chat room devotees, a new survey conducted by the Stanford University School of Medicine estimates that as many as one in eight Americans display signs of internet addiction.

More than 160 million Americans use the internet regularly, but a growing number find their online habits interfering with their work, home and social lives. The concept of internet addiction is hardly new, but researchers claim the Stanford study to be the first of its kind. By adapting a standard list of addictive symptoms to apply to internet use and measuring responses to their phone survey by a random nationwide sample of more than 2,500 adults, researchers found that a large number of respondents not only spend considerable periods of time online but also acknowledge a need to curtail their usage. 12.3 percent reported previous attempts to reduce their nonessential online activities, and more than 8 percent view the internet as a form of escape from daily stresses. In a classic symptom of addiction, a disturbing number of participants also told of hiding their internet activity from colleagues and loved ones.

According to the survey, the average internet abuser is a single male in his thirties, a demographic that traditionally has more free time to surf online. While some might then assume that purportedly negative online influences such as pornography and gambling sites make up the bulk of this problem (and porn statistics are hardly encouraging), head researcher Elias Aboujaoude believes differently:

Not surprisingly, online pornography and, to some degree, online gambling, have received the most attention but users are as likely to use other sites, including chat rooms, shopping venues and special-interest Web sites, he said. Our survey did not track what specific Internet venues were the most frequented by respondents, but other studies, and our clinical experience, indicate that pornography is just one area of excessive Internet use.

A significant portion of the larger problem arises from employees surfing the web while at work. Unrestricted internet access is often too tempting for bored workers to resist, and although most employers approve of occasional email exchanges or brief visits to favorite websites as a form of reprieve, a majority now report disciplining or dismissing employees due to excessive time spent online. Their concerns are very legitimate, as a majority of personnel believe that their internet use detracts from overall productivity.

The concept of addiction to the internet is very believable to the millions who use it regularly. The web serves as a cheap and reliable source of stimulation, available to anyone with even the most cursory computer knowledge, regardless of age or temperament. For those concerned about their attachment to the internet, behavioral quizzes and support groups are available. Over-reliance on the internet very closely fits the classic model of compulsive behavior, and it shows no signs of slowing down. With so many people logging in every day, additional studies are needed to further measure the scope of this phenomenon and determine the most effective methods of response.

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