You spend a lot of time online. Maybe it comes with the job. Maybe your idea of a perfect weekend is to be perched in front of your computer reading blogs, buying shit you don't need on Amazon, Tweeting and Facebooking, or surfing YouPorn. But at what point are you considered a bona fide Internet addict? To find out, I called up a psychologist and a fancy rehab center who specialize in this type of thing.
I must admit there was a part of me that went into reporting this story with a smirk. Internet addiction? Aren't we all Internet addicts to some extent? And then I talked to Coleen Moore of the Illinois Institute of Addiction Recovery, who told me that 20% of all addicts who check into the rehab center are there for Internet addiction. Some of them use drugs along with the Internet so they can stay awake and online longer, and others get urinary tract infections or wet themselves because they don't want to take bathroom breaks. Carpal tunnel and eye strain are only the tip of the iceberg. For some, Internet addiction is a very real psychological issue that calls for medical help.
The compulsion to be online all the time is slightly different than more conventional addictions like alcoholism and prescription drugs, says Dr. Kimberly Young, a clinical psychologist who runs the web site NetAddiction.com. "It's not quantitative," she says. "It's not like you can measure how much they're drinking." And while it's more common in people who have other mental health conditions to begin with — staving off depression by surfing online porn, for example — the accessibility of the Internet has also spawned a new population of addicts. "A lot of patients describe situations like this: 'I never thought about porn but then I found it online, and the more I found the more I wanted it,'" says Dr. Young. "It's something very specific to cyberspace — they don't have to go to the adult bookstore in town, it's just right in their rooms."
When Young started treating Internet addiction in 1994, the biggest problem people saw her for was day trading. Now, there are more addicts who show up (voluntarily, or at the heels of concerned parents) for online gaming. "World of Warcraft and Everquest seem to be the ones that individuals identify most often," says Moore, who is the admissions manager at the Illinois Institute. These addicts typically stay at the Institute for 30-90 days, paying up to $1200 a day (though many insurance plans cover at least part of it) to follow the same treatment program that alcoholics and sex addicts go through. "We have a philosophy here that an addiction is an addiction, and that those who suffer from gambling or sex or Internet or alcohol can all learn from one another," Moore says.
There's no concrete definition of what qualifies you as an Internet addict. And because the Internet is such a prevalent part of everyday life now, complete abstinence isn't usually an option. Instead of trying to gauge your addiction level by how long you're online, you're supposed to be looking more at whether your Internet usage is affecting the way you perform in other parts of your life. Are you getting in trouble at work? Is your partner leaving you? Are you forgetting to shower, eat, and pee? If so, you might want to consider getting help.
"An addiction is an addiction," Young says. "It doesn't matter if it's porn or the Internet."
Or, for that matter, if it's porn and the Internet.
You can take Dr. Young's Internet addiction test here.
Advisor is a column about how to juggle technology, relationships, and common sense. Got a story to tell? Email me at lisa [at] boingboing [dot] net.