Study of 'addicts' shows another side of the Internet

September 09, 1997|By COX NEWS SERVICE

Kids and parents fight over the family computer. Lonely men and women chat each other up over it. But while most of America's 20 million "netizens" surf the World Wide Web only once a week or so, perhaps half that many have become so addicted to the Internet that it's wrecking their lives, researchers report.

Internet addiction is becoming a mushrooming mental health problem, said Dr. Kimberly Young, a University of Pittsburgh psychologist who is researching the phenomenon. It's true that millions use it to learn, she said, but growing numbers rely on the net for social contacts, sexual titillation and mate hunting.

Her research, presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association last mnonth, studied 396 compulsive Web surfers around the world. In extreme cases, she said, it is causing many divorces, child neglect, job loss and failure in school.

Her findings challenged conventional wisdom that the Internet is mostly a domain for men. Twenty percent more women than men in her study considered themselves hooked on the Net, and 42 percent of respondents were either homemakers or high school or college students with no permanent paying jobs. Only 8 percent were in high-tech jobs such as computer programming.

About 10 percent of self-described addicts said they used the Net for information, compared with 35 percent who used it for chat-room conversations with strangers, often intimate talks about sex, and 28 percent for interactive online fantasy games.

Young said Net addicts establish "virtual relationships" that feel close but really aren't. Many respondents said they perceived "cybersex" -- playing out erotic fantasies -- as the ultimate safe-sex method to fulfill sexual urges without fear of disease or fear of exposure and repercussions.

Net addicts, she concluded, suffer from low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy or frequent disapproval from others, and thus create a secret identity and persona, she said. This can be dangerous, because "unleashing repressed aspects of one's personality ... can be like letting the genie out of the bottle."

Just four years ago, male users of the Net outnumbered females 20-to-1, but that has plunged now to 3-to-1, reported Dr. Janet Morahan-Martin of Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I. She said females use the Net for e-mail more than men do.

Dr. Al Cooper, director of the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Center, said sex is the top "searched for" issue, which has made the Web "a catalyst for Cupid or compulsivity."

Pub Date: 9/09/97

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