By Evan Schuman, TechWire
Another yardstick of success will be achieved by the Internet community: It will be awarded its first official mental health disorder.
The newly identified disorder will be dubbed Pathological Internet Use (PIU) and will be christened during the presentation of a major medical paper at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in Chicago.
The term is being coined by Dr. Kimberly Young, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, in Bradford, Pa. With her paper's presentation, the APA will classify excessive Internet use as addictive, in the same way that drugs (including alcohol), gambling, video games, and some types of eating disorders are today officially considered addictive.
Like those other ailments, Internet addiction starts when the rest of the person's life starts to fall apart, the paper stated. The Internet is a fine hobby or work tool, until it causes problems with social partners, work, or school, Young said.
Young studied 396 cases of PIU-afflicted people and drew some overall conclusions.
Net marketers need not fear, as traditional Web surfing accounted for only 7 percent of the Internet addicts and even more information-oriented tools (gophers and FTP sites, for example) represented only an additional 2 percent.
Young said one surprise in the results was the lack of high-tech people among the addicted. "While it is a common perception that those addicted to the Internet are computer savvy individuals, these demographic results show that only 8 percent came from high-tech jobs," she said. "Compare this to the 42 percent who indicated having no permanent jobs and the 39 percent who worked in low-tech fields. It is typically newbies who become excessive Internet users."
"Upon examination, traditional information protocols and Web pages were the least utilized compared with more than 90 percent who became addicted to the two-way communication functions: chat rooms, MUDs [Multi-User Dungeons], newsgroups, and E-mail," Young said. "This makes the case that database searches -- while interesting and often time-consuming -- are not the actual reasons Dependents become addicted to the Internet."
Among the jobs that she classified as low-tech were secretaries, bank tellers, teachers, advertising executives, and journalists.
The report said that the attraction of the Internet revolves around its perceived anonymity, where people feel comfortable acting out in ways they would never consider in real life.
"The ability to enter into a bodiless state of communication enabled users to explore altered states of being that fostered emotions that were new and richly exciting," Young said. "Such uninhibited behavior is not necessarily an inevitable consequence of visual anonymity, but depends upon the nature of the group and the individual personality of the online user."
"For those who felt unattractive, it was perceived easier to pick up another person through cybersex than in real life," she said.
But beyond sexual issues, newsgroups and chat lines allow people to literally create and secretly test new personalities before trying them out in the real world. "Beyond amusement, reinventing oneself is a way to fulfill an unmet need. The loss of a social identity online allows one to reconstruct an ideal self in place of a poor self-concept," Young said. "Those who suffer from low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, or frequent disapproval from others are at the highest risk" of becoming Net addicts.
She quoted one participant in the survey as telling her, "By day, I am a mild-mannered husband, but at night I become the most aggressive bastard online."
The addiction can become a problem when the new emotional creation makes inroads into real lives or when the time spent in the virtual life takes away from responsibilities in the real life.
The addicted Internet user will spend an average of 38 hours per week online dealing with nonemployment/nonacademic efforts, compared with "nonaddicts" in the survey who averaged eight hours. Almost half of the participants diagnosed with PIU reported that they get less than four hours of sleep per night due to late log-in sessions.
Another reason for some of the addictions is the sense of community that some newsgroups create. "With routine visits to a particular group (chat area or newsgroup, for example), a high degree of familiarity among other group members is established.
Like all communities, the cyberspace culture has its own set of values, standards, language, signs, and artifacts, and individuals adapt to the current norms of the group," Young said.
"One can easily become involved in the lives of others almost like watching a soap opera and thinking of the characters as real people," she said.
Young's report said that this is especially attractive to people who might find it difficult to establish other social circles. "Homebound caretakers, the disabled, retired individuals, and homemakers have limited access to others," she said.
Internet addiction centers have already been created at facilities ranging from the University of Maryland at College Park to Proctor Hospital in Peoria, Ill., to Harvard affiliate McLean Hospital.
The test group broke down into 157 men and 239 women; the average age for the males was 29, and the average age for the women was 43 .
WHAT CONSTITUTES PATHOLOGICAL INTERNET USE?
* feel restless or irritable when attempting to cut down to stop Internet use?
* use the Internet as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a poor mood (i.e., feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, or depression)?
* lie to family members or friends to conceal the extent of involvement with the Internet? (i.e. online sexual interaction with anonymous persons, online relationships your family/friends know nothing about, having an online life that only you know about?)
* jeopardize or risk the loss of significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunity because of the Internet?
* after spending an excessive amount of money on online fees (such as for online gambling, porn or shopping), often return another day?
* go through withdrawal when offline (e.g., increased depression, anxiety, etc.)?
* stay online longer than originally intended?
Individuals who met four or more of these criteria during a 12-month period were classified as dependent.