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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 26 March, 2002, 08:37 GMT
How to survive the internet
Hand on mouse, Eyewire
Some people just cannot stop clicking

A counselling centre in the US is pioneering the treatment of people who just cannot stop browsing the internet
Jessica Nicholas is a pretty, bright, outgoing 17-year-old, who enjoys singing, painting, sailing, swimming and hiking.

But two years ago, the outside world hardly saw her at all. For between six and 20 hours a day, she sat in front of the computer.

"I stopped being an outgoing person," she says. "Ironically, the friends who I was getting online to try to talk to were often out doing things.

"And I didn't do anything with them, because I was too busy being online, and hogging the phone lines that they were calling me on, to invite me places."

Her story is a familiar one to Dr Hilarie Cash and Jay Parker, who together have set up a counselling centre called Internet/Computer Addiction Services near Seattle, in the Pacific Northwest of the US.

Online for 36 hours

Jessica's problem appears mild compared with the extreme examples that have confronted Jay Parker.

Click here to tell us if you are spending too much time online

He has found that the online Multiple User Games, where players take on fantasy roles to compete against opponents logged on all over the world, are particularly addictive.

Jessica Nicholas was addicted to the internet, BBC
Jessica is online for just one hour a day
"I came across a young man who was in college. By the end of October, he stopped going to class. And by the first week in December, he had a psychotic breakdown after being online for 36 hours in a row, for sleep deprivation.

"If he started drinking alcoholically, it would take him more than that period of time to self-destruct. This happened so quickly.

"He dropped out of school in his last year, he had a relationship with a girlfriend and that went away, and he ends up in a psyche ward. It just devastated this guy."

Spotting the symptoms

Many of us would admit to the occasional bleary-eyed internet-frenzy. But just how much is too much?

"It's rather like, how many beers do you have to drink to be an alcoholic? It's very ambiguous," says Mr Parker.

Computer keyboards have an escape key, Eyewire
The escape key could prove a way out
"That said, there are signs and symptoms. First of all, can somebody not accurately predict how much time they're going to spend online, prior to getting online?

"And then, what pieces of your real life are going away, because of your behaviour?"

Those symptoms are becoming common. Dr Cash and Mr Parker estimate that up to 10% of all online Americans are addicted.

For Dr Cash, the most worrying aspect of internet addiction is the vulnerability of children.

"Children seem to be very easily hooked into certain aspects, such as multi-user games and pornography. The younger the person, the more vulnerable they are."

She says schools and parents should wake up to the dangers.

Supervision, says Dr Cash, is absolutely vital: "We advise parents not to let their kids have internet access for hours on end in their rooms alone.

"It's very, very easy for them to be getting into trouble on the internet, and the parents to be oblivious to it."

Facing up to addiction

For those who just cannot turn away from the computer screen, Mr Parker recommends the traditional 12-step model pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous.

The patient must acknowledge the addiction, and admit they cannot manage it on their own. Then they are linked to a support network, so that when they feel the urge to power up the computer, they can contact someone and talk it through.


I see people for real, instead of just seeing their little names show up on the computer screen

Jessica Nicholas
Dr Cash says her approach is more "cognitive behavioural", in other words, helping people understand their thought patterns, and how to change them.

"The way you think is very strongly tied to the way you feel. So you can begin to change the way you feel about something, by changing the way you think about something.

"For instance, in the case of addiction, handling the urge to go online. If you think about that urge as something which is definitely going to overwhelm you, then you are going to give into the urge," says Dr Cash.

"But if you think instead, 'if I just sit here quietly and experience it, it will pass, and I will not have acted on it, and when it passes I will be fine again', you have replaced the old thought with a new thought.

"And if you say that enough times to yourself, it becomes a habit of thought."

Both counsellors stress that they're not recommending that anyone retire the computer and resort to pen and paper.

"The computer's here to stay, it's part of our life and definitely part of our future. It's really about creating healthy boundaries, a healthy balance," says Mr Parker.

An hour a day

Jessica Nicholas tried the approach, with the help of Dr Cash and her parents, and it did help.

But for a while she chose to go "cold turkey", avoiding the computer altogether.

Now, she is back online, but for just an hour a day.

"At first, I really didn't know what to do with myself. I suddenly had seven hours every night I didn't know were there.

"And I could do homework, and I could talk to people, and see people for real, instead of just seeing their little names show up on the computer screen. It was pretty neat!" she says.

Have your say Are you addicted to the net? Is the web irresistible? Read what you had to say.
Click
here to return


My flatmate is very much an internet junkie. He gets home from work at 6pm, logs on, and then starts playing online games until he goes to bed at 1am.

Ben, UK
This article is bang on. I wasted three years at college loafing around on IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and playing Quake. Programs like ICQ and MSN Messenger mean that you can build up a list of 'buddies' that is far more expansive and, often, more receptive, than real-world friends. It's a really self-destructive cycle.
Hugh Smith, London, UK

My flatmate is very much an internet junkie. He gets home from work at 6pm, logs on, and then starts playing online games until he goes to bed at 1am. He lives in a diet of coke and noodles, and they are the sole reason he will venture out from his darkened pit a couple of times a night. It's quite funny but at the same time a little worrying. Then there's his expensive habit of destroying joysticks when he loses.
Ben, UK

Yup, I'm addicted. and I blame the BBC website for having so much interesting content
Seth Black, UK

Definitely! I think at some stage I have been addicted.Many have been the times when I have been "just checking e-mail" or "just surfing a few sites that I regularly use", which turn into three to seven hours of seeming non-productive time sat in front of a screen. My main vice is gaming, the game in question Quake III. I have in the past played for eight hours non stop and gone for 24 hours without sleep. My wife frequently berates me when I seem to completely ignore her because I'm so intently concentrated.
Jon, UK

Hmmm, sitting in front of a computer screen for seven hours a night. A lot of people sit in front of their TV's for similar amounts of time. Is this not just as bad (if not worse - there's absolutely no interactivity)? I don't have a TV and experienced similar feelings of 'wow! suddenly all this time to actually do real things in' when I first went TV-less. Personally I think it to be far healthier to be surfing the internet for hours than mindlessly drooling in front of the one-eyed god.
Sam, UK


If I spend hours on the phone to friends and family, I'm seen as sociable and caring. If I spend those hours e-mailing the same people, or chatting to them on IRC, I'm a geek who's out of touch with "real life"

Janet, UK
It is a little debatable as to whether I'm spending "too much time". With ADSL and working from home, I have the US radio services via the internet and listen to items I've missed from BBC Radio 4, and do spend a lot of time at the screen, keeping up to date with information technology as well as seeking items to buy, checking e-mail, responding to clients etc. My online presence is often 16 hours plus a day but I do watch some TV and go out shopping.
Peter, UK

Yes, I use the internet, but I can happily live without it. I just wish this was the case with my wife. When she gets in from work, the PC goes on and it can be 5 or more hours before she logs off. At the same time the mobile phone is constantly going as she talks to people she's having an online conversation. It's not uncommon for her to be talking to one person about three different things in three different chat rooms. Our marriage is suffering as a result, as is her relationship with her son. But how do you get someone to acknowledge it as a problem? If I mention it to my wife, she becomes very aggressive and defensive, so how can I help her?
Iain, England

If I spend hours on the phone to friends and family, I'm seen as sociable and caring. If I spend those hours e-mailing the same people, or chatting to them on IRC, I'm a geek who's out of touch with "real life". Surely in this technologically advanced age we should be putting such irrational prejudices behind us and learning to value communication in all its forms?
Janet, UK

My ex was a net addict - that's why we split up.
Tom, UK

At the moment, as sad as it seems I cannot see myself living without the internet. When I get home from school at 4pm I instantly head towards the computer and I will sit there just generally chatting to people until about 1am most nights. My relationship with friends is suffering as I no longer seem up for going out, I seem more interested in words on a screen then real people. It's pathetic, I know it is. But I can't seem to break off the habit. I find the internet just depresses me, I want my own real life back again!
Laura, UK

All things in moderation. The great pitfalls of western society have traditionally been sex, drugs, rock and roll. Now we get to add the internet. People are lost to vices because they behave immoderately.
Colin Butts, USA

To Sam UK - Surely there is not much difference in watching the TV for hours and being online for hours. Both fry your brain and render you a bore up the pub. I have a TV and a computer but when watching TV I tend to sit over 6 feet away from it rather than 1 foot like you do with a computer, which is surely bad for your eyes and grey matter. Let's all go for a walk in a field instead.
S, England

See also:

02 Mar 00 | Science/Nature
30 Sep 99 | Health
23 Aug 99 | Science/Nature
06 May 00 | Science/Nature
17 Mar 02 | Health
20 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
13 Mar 00 | Middle East
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