March 17, 1996
Does the Web Addict People?
Or Just Tempt Internet Abuse?
By ROBERT E. CALEMaron Bean spends about 70 hours a month surfing the Internet's World Wide Web. His friend Kyle Terry spends about 20 hours a week on the Web. Are these two twentysomethings Net junkies? Is there, in fact, such a disorder as Internet addiction? And if there is, how widespread is it?
There are no clear-cut answers to those questions, but some mental health experts are beginning to declare the Internet a compelling enough force to ensnare people with addictive personalities. And at least one independent researcher, Viktor Brenner, a Ph.D Candidate in Clinical Psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, says that a survey he posted in January on the Web is suggesting a potential problem with Internet abuse.
The results of the survey, which had been completed by 185 of 408 visitors to the site by the end of February, are expected to be posted at the site by next week, said Brenner, who conducted the survey on the server of Marquette University in Milwaukee, where he is counseling students while finishing his dissertation.
While surveys that rely on self selection of participants are not valid measurements of the extent of a condition throughout society, they are often valuable tools for initially describing a phenomenon.
What this survey reveals, Brenner said, is the extent to which Internet use can infiltrate and sabotage a person's life to the detriment of even non-Internet users.
"People who took the survey use the Internet, on average, 20 hours a week," Brenner said. With the exception of one respondent, he said, all admitting to having "time-management problems," as a result of Web use, including "missing sleep, missing meals, being late for appointments." These are people, he said, "whose use of the Internet causes other behavioral problems that interfere with normal daily living."
And because they felt controlled by the activity, Brenner said, they could be classified as addicts.
Many mental health professionals remain skeptical, however.
Marilyn Puder-York, a clinical psychologist in New York, said there is a clinical distinction between an addiction and dependency.
"In my experience, addiction means a need to engage in certain activities, coupled with a satisfaction in repeating the activity and without an ability to control it."
Dependency, Puder-York said, is the condition in which a person retains control over the behavior but would suffer in some way by stopping.
For example, she said, a person addicted to alcohol is controlled by the drug, and others suffer for it, but a person who is dependent upon alcohol might want a drink merely to be in a better mood. The dependent can choose not to drink, but might be less relaxed as a result.
Similarly, Puder-York said, a person might use a computer to feel stimulated but not actually be addicted to its use.
Judged by her criteria, and according to their own self descriptions, neither Aaron nor Kyle could be called an Internet addict.
Kyle, who says he was recently cut off from Internet access for about a week and "it seemed like a year," might come close. The 26-year-old insists, though, that the Internet doesn't interfere with his life's responsibilities, like going to work.
Aaron, 27, says he limits his Internet use to work-related tasks, and makes a point of staying away from his computer on weekends. The closest the computer gets to interfering with his life, Aaron says, is late at night when "my girlfriend gets a little irritated when I use it and she wants to get to sleep." The computer is in their bedroom, and the glow of the monitor keeps her awake, he said.
Although Puder-York said she had never had a patient who suffered from Internet addiction, she also wasn't willing to dismiss the possibility of such a disorder. "I have heard from patients, friends and colleagues that the Internet is very seductive," she said, "and something that is extremely seductive has the tendency to pull in the direction of addiction."
Brenner, at least, remains convinced that the patterns of use his survey is revealing amount to addiction. Beyond that data, he said that resident assistants at Marquette's on-campus housing have told him that some students are being all but consumed by the Internet and might be addicted to it in the clinical sense of the word.
If so, they're demonstrating as much resistance to kicking the habit as any other kind of junkie; Brenner admits that his own recent attempt to lure several abusers away from their computers and into a special counseling group for Internet addicts so far has failed.
"I have my notices up all over the computer lab, and at all the residence halls," he said.
No one has signed up.
"Perhaps no one has looked up from the screen long enough to see it," he mused.
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Viktor Brenner's Internet Usage Survey. You can check in now to take the survey or just read the questions. By the end of this month, Brenner says, the survey results should be posted at the same site. An Initial Report on The Online Assessment Of Internet Addiction: The First 30 Days Of The Internet Usage Survey. By Viktor Brenner, published by the Psychology Preprint Server.
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company