Just One More Minute...
The Internet isn't a drug,
so how can it be addictive? Well, how long have you been online?
BY STEVE FRIESS
It's 3 a.m. the night before her first day of
class, and still Marianne Greenman can't bring herself to press
"I actually get a little depressed when the
AOL guy says, 'Good-bye,' " Greenman says in an "instant message."
The University of California at Los Angeles
undergrad knows what tomorrow - or later today - will bring
her for her online compulsion. Her eyes will hurt from gazing
endlessly at a glowing terminal, her neck will ache from craning
with bad posture toward her 13-inch monitor, and her mind will
wander far from the introductory discussion of Tolstoy to, instead,
her overnight conversations with Todd in Oneonta, N.Y., who
asked for advice on his latest romance dilemma.
Todd's not doing so great this morning, either.
Heck, if it's 3 a.m. for Marianne, it's daybreak in his time
zone. The liberal arts major, who claims he's sitting naked
and buff at his keyboard while a roommate snores on the top
bunk, doesn't have class until 2 p.m. Yet that's not much consolation
because he knows he won't click off the computer until either
he falls asleep or some America Online snafu disrupts his connection.
Little wonder that Todd's having romance trouble,
say some researchers. "Those kinds of people probably have addictive
personalities, and they're hooked on using the Net," says Frederick
Daniels, a clinical psychologist in Chicago. "It's one thing
to enjoy online companionship or to be fascinated by information
gleaned from web sites. But it is interfering with their lives,
and they don't seem to notice or mind."
Thus far, there are no studies of how many people
may have so-called "Internet addiction" or if it is a legitimate
mental disorder. The closest is a study published in Psychology
Reports this year by clinical psychology doctoral candidate
Viktor Brenner at the State University of New York in Buffalo
in which Brenner asserts the existence of such an addiction
by comparing traits of possible sufferers to traits of drug
Brenner garnered 185 responses to a Web site
survey, finding the average respondent spent 21 hours online
each week and 58 percent had been told by others they spend
too much time online. Thirty percent have tried to spend less
time online and failed, and all but one respondent admitted
to having time-management problems. Respondents are folks, Brenner
told The New York Times, "whose use of the Internet causes other
behavioral problems that interfere with normal living."
The symptoms of "Internet addiction" have changed
dramatically as the new medium explodes. One 1991 study published
in Behavior and Information Technology magazine, focuses instead
on "computer" addiction, examining certain people's lust for
programming and particular pieces of hardware. Yet that study
predated the World Wide Web and the mass popularity of online
chat hubs, so modern Internet addiction deals more on the implications
of creating an alternative, detached universe in which to function
Whether as an official disorder or as an excuse
not to take responsibility for avoiding the "real" world, the
lure of the online is a problem for many.
For a while, grad student Rick Jensen's addiction
was curbed by economics. He realized something had to change
after having to pay AOL bills of more than $200 three months
in a row.
"When your online expenses cost more than your
car payments, you know it's time to cut back," says Jensen of
Bloomington-Normal, Ill. But then AOL and the Microsoft Network
erased their hourly charges into introduced neat, inexpensive
monthly flat rates, unleashing a renewed torrent of interest
in the national services. "Now I have little incentive to log
off," Jensen admits.
AOL, the world's largest Internet service provider
with nine million accounts, experienced a vast surge in usage
that led to highly publicized problems of modem shortages and
slow Web access. Still, the public's appetite can be measured
by the fact that member usage increased to an average of 32
minutes a day from 14 minutes after the switch last year, according
to AOL. "Average daily usage more than doubled since September,"
says AOL spokeswoman Kathie Lentz. "AOL members logged in an
estimated 125 million hours in the month of January, up from
45 million in September."
That kind of usage is bound to displace other
noncyber activities, users say. "I admit I'm an Internet addict,"
says Gregg, 21, a junior at Brigham Young University in Provo,
Utah. "I got my computer in April and hate to shut it off. I
haven't been to the gym for months and my body's gone to mush.
But I'm learning a lot, and computers are the future." Indeed,
few of those who might fit into Brenner's category seem concerned
"I'm not going to flunk out of school because
of this," Greenman says. "If it becomes a bigger problem, I'm
sure I'll be able to handle. I could quit any time I want."
And regardless of the more serious implications
of such an addiction, online users find humor in the problem,
too. A frequently forwarded essay sprang up in August that takes
biting aim at folks who stay online too much, mocking AOL's
periodic reminders of how long users have been on.
"You DO realize that you have been online for
184 minutes, right? When was the last time you went outside?"
one line reads.
Another one: "You have now been online for 360
minutes. We promised you unlimited time, we know, but can't
you just finish up NOW and go read a good book?"
The progress continues for several sequences,
including on in which AOL shouts at a user online for 852 minutes,
"DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW MANY HOURS THAT IS?"
And finally, the climax: "You have been on since
yesterday. OK, if you don't get off, we are coming to your house
and pulling the dang phone out of the wall."
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