If your terminal is the sole window to your world, you may be getting too virtual for the good of your job, your family, yes, even your most treasured personal relationships.
BA (Hons) Oxon, Experimental Psychology, MA (Hons) London
When Alvin Toh started his job two years ago he had to complete an interview which would be published in the company magazine. One of the questions was "What do you do first thing in the morning?" He didn't have to think long for his answer: "Log onto the internet". What he didn't say was that he had his computer plugged in from his bed, he would check his icq (a real-time messaging system), log onto his favourite chatrooms and then surf for the next eight hours, stopping only for ten minutes to eat lunch. On weekdays, he would be online for a at least three hours in the evening.
Living In A Virtual World
Computer Addiction. Netaholism. Online Addiction. Many names have been coined to describe what Alvin might be afflicted with. Some experts, such as Dr Kimberly Young of the University of Pittsburgh in the US, believe that Internet Addiction Disorder does exist. She performed pioneering research on the subject of Internet Addiction and is the author of a book on internet addiction, Caught In The Net.
At the end of a three-year study, she believes people can become dependent on the Internet in the same way as addiction occurs with computer games, gambling or even drugs.
Signs that characterise this new addiction are: Preoccupation with online services, the inability to control your online use despite mounting bills, the frustration when prevented from going online and the secretive nature of this activity.
As a result of this behaviour, your job is in jeopardy and your family is in danger of neglect. For Alvin, the consequences were sobering. He was tired each morning and concentration was hard. His work suffered and his boss told him to buck up.
Signs Of Addiction
So why is the Internet the subject of a potential psychological disorder? How can connectivity to the global village be bad? Why should this be pathological?
According to Young, it becomes pathological once the bad effects outweigh the good.
A teenager enjoying a game of online Doom may be enjoying a welcome break from schoolwork. An addict takes this to an extreme, unable to eat or sleep until he gets to that next level. The lonely housewife signs onto the local chatroom as the twentysomething model she never was and develops a parallel universe where she is sought after and desired. She soon stops wondering what to have for dinner tonight as she's too busy cooking up her latest fantasy. A businessman wanting to be the next George Soros compulsively checks his virtual portfolio.
Studies of this phenomenon have revealed that the interactive nature of the Internet that can really fuel internet addiction. As Alvin reveals, "It was easier to socialise on the web than in the physical dimension and there were no limits to what you can know". Now that the Internet access is becoming commonplace at work, e-mail, chatting and games all provide us with the avenue to escape the isolation and boredom that offices may offer. And that is what the Internet offers us, escapism, that magic element without which no TV soap opera, no music, no book or indeed any art form can be enjoyed.
You yourself can tell if the scales have tipped. One sign could be the loss of productivity, when your employees spend vast amounts of time in front of the screen but deadlines are not met. Skipping meals or coffee breaks so that screen time is extended. Other signs may be excessive fatigue, working longer hours to get the work done, guilty looks when someone glances over at the screen and increased mistakes as they skip between the net and their work. Your children may forfeit going out with their friends in favour of being in their rooms with their modems buzzing.
Dr Kimberley Young would classify as an Iternet addict someone who responded positive to four or more of the following questions:
- Do you feel a need to spend more and more time on line to achieve satisfaction?
- Are you unable to control your on-line use?
- Do you feel restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop your online use?
- Do you go online to escape problems or relieve feelings such as helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression?
- Do you lie to family members or friends to conceal how often and how long you stay online?
- Do you risk the loss of a significant relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity because of your online use?
- Do you keep returning even after spending too much money on online fees?
- Do you go through withdrawal when off line, such as increased depression, moodiness, or irritability?
- Do you stay online longer than originally intended?
There is no official consensus, however, doctors think this is really an illness. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the manual which most pyschiatrists and psychologists use to assess psychological conditions, there is no such category.
To be recognised as a disorder, two criteria must be met. There must be a reliable and consistent set of symptoms that make up the disorder. There must also be some form of correlation between the background and personality type of sufferers so that one can predict whether someone is prone to this disorder. While psychologists have focused on the symptoms the latter criteria have met with less attention.
What is clear is that internet addiction finds parallels in other forms of addiction where there are underlying needs driving the addiction. The need for inclusion and pleasure. People drink alcohol to become more confident with others, gamblers seek the possibility of beating the odds. And it's not just the better-known addictions. Whatever it is, shopping, eating, exercising, there are addicts somewhere out there. Underlying these behaviours psychologists usually find significant events in childhood where compulsive behaviour lessens loneliness, insecurity and emptiness. And so it carries on.
Singapore has one of the highest percentage internet usages in the world. Is there a danger that Internet addiction could be a problem? As with other developed countries, the drive to succeed, the pressures of education and work can make it a lonely place for those who feel they have not made it. They could be looking to escape online.
What can you do if you, your employees or your relatives spend too much time online? Ask directly about their online use and whether they would enjoy more variety in their life, like going out and doing more sports? If at work, create an Internet code of conduct which employees must sign so they are aware that how management views internet abuse. If it's your children, learn to recognise the triggers which drive them towards their computer and engage them in other activities they'll enjoy. Or even ask them to show you what is interesting on the Internet so their computer activity becomes sociable in the real world.
The awful truth is that if you're lonely or insecure or simply bored, the world wide web can offer you an escape from the rigours of meeting people. Safely tucked away in your corner of the office or your bedroom, you can become the person you want to be. This may make you happy. But reality has a way of biting back, as Alvin found out.
"Once my boss thought I was lazy, I looked at all the time I was spending online and made an effort to stop. It was hard to do, but little by little I started to go out more and limit the time I spent with my computer. If not for the Net, I would have been out playing tennis, swimming or dancing. I was spending less time with friends and doing sports.
I realised once I went out more, there is no replacement for real laughter and friendship. The internet cannot give you that."
Date reviewed: 05 May 2000