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March 1997

Just One More Minute...

The Internet isn't a drug, so how can it be addictive? Well, how long have you been online?


It's 3 a.m. the night before her first day of class, and still Marianne Greenman can't bring herself to press Command-Q.

"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 users.

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 socially.

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 about it.

"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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