Terminal Obsession

Perhaps Sandra Hacker led the kind of unfortunate life most people will never know, but, in terms of using the Internet, her name was unfortunate enough. Hackers are people who use the Internet to sabotage mainframe computers, commit corporate espionage, change their grades on the campus network, spread viruses among computer systems or steal from lending institutions. Hacker did none of those things, but the Cincinnati mother's abuse of the Internet seemed to ignite the standard fears about this technological phenomenon.Hacker, 24, was arrested last June on three counts of child endangerment for allegedly keeping her children locked in a bedroom while she spent up to 12 hours a day surfing the Net. Cincinnati police said they found broken glass, assorted debris and human feces in the bedroom. It was a story with details as lurid as they are common -- not a day goes by in major cities without a news story describing children "living in squalor." But this particular story had one hell of a sexy angle -- Hacker was addicted to that horrid bogeyman of technophobes everywhere, the World Wide Web.Emerging technologies tend to scare people out of their wits. Those who fear change often project their anxieties over what they perceive as society's impending fall over these new inventions -- television, radio, film, telephones, telegraph and, in all probability, the wheel and the discovery of fire all have been predicted as world-enders. And, as sure as campfire gazers are accused of being latent pyromaniacs, those who sit in front of terminals for unusual lengths of time are labeled Internet addicts.But, consider this. The average person (this means neither glassy-eyed couch drivers nor snooty academes who love to tell you they don't own a television) watches 28 hours of TV a week. By comparison, the average person with Internet access spends about five hours a week jacked into cyberspace. Does five hours constitute an addiction?No, but Hacker's alleged average of 84 hours might do the trick. Enough support groups, clinical studies and general media hubbub have sprung up around the phenomenon so that there just might be some truth amid the cyberbabble. In New York, the Internet Addiction Support Group boasts more than 300 members, and a study from the American Psychological Association indicates that some people have a hard time escaping from Netscape.Still, a healthy skepticism exists in discussion groups on the Internet. A recent posting by Clare Davies, a research fellow at Montfort University in Milton Keynes, England, indicates that the concept of Internet addiction might be as diaphanous as the Internet itself."I can't imagine what 'explanation' we'd need for Internet addiction, because I don't know what is meant by it -- addiction to doing what, exactly? The very term shows some vague thinking," Davies wrote.Davies presented an interesting point -- the Internet offers a seemingly endless assortment of activities and tasks to its users, and someone who has been singled out as an Internet addict is not equally drawn to the New York Times home page, alt.conspiracy and "Celebrity Babes on the Net."Still, a 1995 paper submitted to the American Psychological Association by Dr. Kimberly Young, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, stated that avid Internet users are indeed at risk of becoming ghosts in the machine. In addition, it indicated which applications were keeping people glued to the cathode ray tube, as well as the dangerous affects of abnormal extended use.Under strict APA criteria, Young surveyed a total of 496 Internet users, and based on responses to a seven-question survey, the subjects were classified as "dependent" or "non-dependent." The survey consisted of open-ended questions concerning hours spent on-line for non-employment related activities, types of applications used and any problems the Internet had caused in their lives.The results indicated that while conventional wisdom identifies most Internet users are male, most dependent users are female. While non-dependent users accessed the Internet for research or to maintain existing relationships, dependents seemed entranced by the Internet Relay Chat (IRC), the application allowing users to meet, socialize and exchange ideas with others in the cyberworld.Since non-dependent users could control their use of the Internet, no adverse affects were reported. However, dependent users indicated they had experienced moderate to severe impairment in their academic, relationship, financial and occupational lives. The level of addiction often seemed to mirror that of cigarette smokers -- dependent users would try to limit their time on the Internet, and when that failed, they would cancel their service or even throw away their modems and dismantle their computer systems.However, the result usually was a resumption of service, the purchase of a new (usually better) modem and re-assembly of the computer to get what Young described as "their Internet fix."In her closing discussion, Young concluded that people can and do become addicted to on-line use."Further, this paper concludes that there exists an increased risk in the development of such addictive use the more interactive the application utilized by the on-line user," Young wrote."Based on issues raised here, it would be beneficial to monitor such cases of addictive Internet use in clinical settings."Although the majority of Young's findings are realistic and compelling, there are those professionals who resist the notion of declaring Internet addiction as a clinical disorder. Many see the Internet as a symptom rather than a cause, and that persons susceptible to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) would find another outlet for their compulsion if it weren't excessive computer use.Dr. Ivan Goldberg is a psychiatrist who operates a web site, www.psycom.net, providing both information and advice over the web. Goldberg has been following the phenomenon of Internet addiction for some time, and while he understands why the phenomenon exists, he is skeptical about the behavior being labeled by some professionals as "Internet Addictive Disorder.""Computers and the Internet are about as addicting as work," Goldberg said in an interview conducted via e-mail."While we call some people 'workaholics,' it is clear that they are overworking because of economic necessity or to escape from some unpleasant reality in their lives. They do not overwork because of the addicting qualities of work itself."Goldberg said the appeal of computers and the Internet is the same as other evasive tools: When taken to unusual and obsessive levels, it is being used to avoid certain unpleasant realities."People overuse computers or the Internet for the same reasons that other people overwork or watch too much TV," Goldberg said."Their interpersonal relationships are unsatisfactory, they are depressed, they are anxious about their future, et cetera."Furthermore, criticism is not only coming from clinicians. Dr. Lydie Meunier is a professor of applied linguistics at the University of Tulsa. Meunier, in a recent discussion over Young's findings in a Usenet group, said application of the term "addiction" indicates a value judgment on the Internet as an information medium. "Does change make an addict out of someone?" she wrote."Is shifting from 'linear reading' to 'hyper textual reading' so disturbing that some people have to label it an addiction? Is there a difference between eating breakfast while checking your snail mail and eating breakfast while checking your e-mail? Is there a difference between reading the paper and watching TV at breakfast and checking some info on Netscape while drinking one's breakfast coffee?"For many, if not most, Internet users, the medium is a logical extension or improvement on activities people engaged in prior to the advent of cyberspace. Goldberg's comparison between the Internet and the daily grind of work is basically true for some people. Ask any journalist, and they'll tell you that the Internet is a research tool more than a warm, electronic friend -- in fact, most interviews for this story were conducted over the Internet. Still, it is far from drudgery, and much of the appeal comes from the novelty of the new technology.Never mind Sid Caesar or Lucille Ball -- much of what was broadcast on television in the early Fifties was utter garbage. But TV was new in those days, and seeing people telling bad vaudeville jokes from a box in your living room was entertaining in itself. Similarly, much of what appears on the Internet is a bad vaudeville joke, but we participate in it because we have the technology to do so.Our behavior in regard to the Internet in the late Nineties, whether at home or in the workplace, is typical for any novelty. It's Christmas morning, we have just unwrapped a new toy and we're going to play with it exclusively until we get a newer, better toy on our next birthday. At that point, the Internet will become just part of our playtime instead of occupying the majority of it. Fear over loss of productivity in the workplace due to excessive net surfing is something of a red herring, since any dawdling at the "Dilbertzone" usually is made up in overtime."The phenomenon of 'employees surfing all day' is a short-term activity that accompanies the introduction of the web," said Shel Holtz, an Internet consultant working with Fortune 500 companies such as Cigna, AT&T, PaineWebber, Monsanto and others."My observation is that, while employees may use the web for non-work related surfing, it is not instead of doing their work, but rather in addition to doing the work. Does the company really care whether the employee takes a 20-minute break to step outside for a cigarette or spends time on some non-work related sites?"In fact, Holtz said he encourages employees to take bypasses into fun Internet exploration -- after all, most corporate workers have less free time than they used to have."Downsizing, rightsizing, capsizing, re-engineering -- it all has led to people who used to work five-day weeks and eight-hour days working six- and seven-day weeks and 12-hour days," Holtz said."Now, the web affords them a little recreational activity within the confines of their long days. It makes staying at work a little more tolerable."For Elizabeth Ferrarini, a.k.a. "Miss Modem," the Internet was 100-percent recreational activity. Ferrarini, who works as an independent computer contractor in Worcester, Mass., was one of the early pioneers, first venturing on-line in 1979 in the days when Compuserve was master of the non-graphically oriented Internet domain. During those days, Ferrarini wrote books under the name "Miss Modem," instructing people on the fine points of Internet communication, from investing to meeting members of the opposite sex. Back then, the Internet community was a small town when compared to the urban sprawl that exists now."It was a very close-knit community where people knew each other -- there were maybe 10,000 people," Ferrarini said."You could trust people -- everybody knew who you were off-line."As the community grew, so did Ferrarini's obsession with on-line chatting. She refers to herself as having "Infomania," and she would spend every waking hour on-line."I used to be on-line all day and all night -- I used to practically sleep with the computer," she said."On some nights, I would be on four or five hours continuously, and I would be on for 10 hours a day with breaks. My most intensive periods were usually at night. I would go from six o'clock to maybe eight, and then from nine until one or two o'clock in the morning. It was usually chatting with people."She would sometimes meet men in the chat rooms, exchange phone numbers and continue the discussion over the phone. She would have "cybersex" with many of them, including one of her publishing associates."My editor from Houghton Mifflin, he's one I used to have cybersex with," she said."It brought out the weirdest stuff, because he was into. . . Nazi uniforms. He used to go on and on about what he was doing and how he was doing it. When you think about it, it's kind of stupid. People do live vicariously. I have read some very steamy messages from some men who I have met in person, and there's no way in hell I would ever be steamy with them in real life."Eventually, Ferrarini was spending $600 a month on phone bills just for her chat room activity. She discovered that her on-line behavior was not meshing well with her normal personality -- at one point, she started posting deleterious messages about her ex-boyfriend's anatomy on several bulletin boards, resulting in threats of legal action. She determined it was best that she leave behind her social life on the net. She stayed away from it for about four years, returning in the early Nineties. But she doesn't use it for social purposes anymore."It's under control now," she said."I'm plugged in all day for e-mail, but I am not seeking out the community. There's too much riff-raff. I don't care anymore."Ferrarini has her own theories about Internet addiction -- that most of the people who become addicted are not mature enough to handle real, face-to-face relationships."This is why there are a lot of Internet addictions, because, chances are, there is something wrong with their everyday life -- it is just easy to escape," she said.The Internet is the greatest advancement in personal communications since Bell first called for Watson, and every day, thousands of people use it for the first time. It enables people, it knows no political boundaries, it gives voice to those without it, it provides instant access to information and it is causing our children to become more technologically savvy than we will ever be.Right now, officials of the PeopleÕs Republic of China are trying to figure out how to regulate web use on the newly acquired island of Hong Kong. They fear that it can be used to subvert the new communist government in the former British colony. Chances are, thereÕs nothing that can be done, short of destroying all communications in the PRCÕs new protectorate.It is no wonder everyone is so scared of the Internet -- itÕs applications and advantages are almost endless. But the fears which crop up around Internet use often are based in a Luddite aversion toward new technology. When the Internet was first designed in 1969 as a communications tool for the U.S. Department of Defense, no one dreamed it would become a forum for the release of sexual tension or simply a cruising ground. But while machines become more perfect, humanity remains imperfect.There will be more Sandra Hackers in the future, and with them will come the strident analyses from members of the press, wondering if all this technology really is good for us. But, as with everything new, we will get used to our gadgets, and obsessions will subside.There even seem to be indications that the popularity of the web already is subsiding. Alfred University, a private school in upstate New York, had been experiencing major problems with Internet addiction. Of the 75 students dismissed from Alfred for poor grades after the 1995 fall semester, 32 demonstrated "heavy use patterns." For the same period in 1996, only 14 out of 74 exhibited the same patterns of Internet use. While the sheen seems to be wearing off at that school, its provost, Richard Ott, said the school plans to remain conscious of the problem."While we are pleased that the Internet appears to be less of a factor in academic dismissals, it's still a factor and something we will continue to monitor closely," he said.

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