If you believe what you read, "Internet addiction" is about to make us a nation of derelicts. Men drooling over online pornography, women abandoning their husbands for chat-room lovers and people losing their life savings on gambling Web sites are just a few of the stories peddled in today's press.
But despite the topic's prominence, published studies on Internet addiction are scarce. Most are surveys, marred by self-selecting samples and no control groups. The rest are theoretical papers that speculate on the philosophical aspects of Internet addiction but provide no data.
Meanwhile, many psychologists even doubt that addiction is the right term to describe what happens to people when they spend too much time online.
"It seems misleading to characterize behaviors as 'addictions' on the basis that people say they do too much of them," says Sara Kiesler, PhD, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University and co-author of one of the only controlled studies on Internet usage, published in the September 1998 American Psychologist. "No research has yet established that there is a disorder of Internet addiction that is separable from problems such as loneliness or problem gambling, or that a pa ssion for using the Internet is long-lasting."
But more psychologists are plunging into Internet addiction research, fascinated by its emotional, psychological and social implications. In their work, they are finding a subset of people who spend so much time online, especially in sexual encounters, that they report problems in their marriages, families and work.
In addition, researchers speculate that certain unique aspects of the Internet may lure people into trouble they might otherwise avoid.
"The Internet is unlike anything we've seen before," says David Greenfield, PhD, founder of the Center for Internet Studies (www.virtual-addiction.com). "It's a socially connecting device that's socially isolating at the same time."
Greenfield has conducted one of the largest surveys on the topic to date: a 1998 study of 18,000 Internet users who logged onto the ABC News Web site, abcnews.com. He found that 5.7 percent of his sample met the criteria for compulsive Internet use. Those findings square with figures from smaller studies done by others, which range from 6 percent to 14 percent. Study participants who met Greenfield's criteria (adapted from criteria for compulsive gambling) were particularly hooked on chat rooms, pornography, online shopping and e-mail, he found. About a third said they use the Internet as a form of escape or to alter their mood on a regular basis.
In addition, the "addicted" people were far more likely to admit feelings of losing control in their dealings on the Net than "nonaddicts." Greenfield believes that the loss of control is just one indication of the potency of the psychoactive nature of the Internet. Other signs include time distortion, accelerated intimacy and decreased inhibition. For instance, 83 percent of those who fit the addiction criteria reported a loss of boundaries when they used the Net, compared to 37 percent who didn't meet the criteria.
Meanwhile, 75 percent of "addicts" said they had gained "feelings of intimacy" for someone they'd met online, compared to 38 percent of "nonaddicts." Of those who met Greenfield's criteria for Internet addiction, 62 percent said they regularly logged on to pornography sites, spending an average of four hours a week viewing the material. And 37.5 percent of that group masturbated while online, they said.
"Regardless of the technical definition of Internet addiction, there is clearly something unique and powerful going on here," Greenfield says. "The most widely affected areas seem to be marriages and relationships due to compulsive pornography, cybersex and cyberaffairs."
Chat rooms and porn sites
Many studies, including Greenfield's, also report a preponderance of male Internet addicts. In an unpublished study of 1,300 college students by Keith Anderson, PhD, of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 91 of the 103 students who met his criteria for "Internet dependence" were male.
But other studies, including one of the first studies on Internet addiction, by Kimberly Young, PhD, find that women are addicted as often as men--just in different ways. Young, who treats people with Internet problems, is executive director of the Center for On-line Addiction (www.netaddiction.com), founded in 1995. Hers is the first behavioral health-care firm to specialize in Internet-related disorders, offering outpatient and online treatment.
Men and women "addicts" seem to prefer sites that fit behavioral stereotypes of their own gender, according to a study by Alvin Cooper, PhD, and colleagues in the March 2000 issue of Sexual Addiction and Compulsion: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention. Their research--which is the only analysis to specifically focus on Internet sexuality--found that women were more likely to spend time flirting or having "cybersex" with others in sexually oriented chat rooms, while men were drawn to porn Web sites.
"Men prefer visual stimuli and more focused sexual experiences, while women are more interested in relationships and interactions," says Cooper, who is training coordinator at Stanford University's counseling and psychological services center, Cowell Student Health Center.
In a study in the May 1998 issue of Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, Cooper also found that more than 91 percent of Internet users spent less than 11 hours a week logging on to sexual sites. About 82 percent spent less than an hour doing so, "with very few negative repercussions," he says. (Full text of these research articles appears at www.sex-centre.com.)
But men and women "addicts" who spent the most time each week online--11 hours or more--said it was their chat room behavior that most interfered with important aspects of their lives. Cooper will investigate further exactly what those problems are, such as whether online sexuality leads to sex offline, why people might go online when they're already in a sexual relationship and how such compulsion affects people's home and work lives.
The Internet also seems to invite both genders to experiment in ways they might otherwise not, Cooper finds. A full 12 percent of women in his sample of 9,265 respondents, compared with 20 percent of the men, have accessed pornography at least once. Cooper speculates that women who visit porn sites may "just be experimenting and wanting to see what the big deal is."
The available research leads psychologists to question whether those involved in cybersex have sexual addictions, or whether they otherwise wouldn't engage in illicit sexual encounters but find the Internet an easy medium in which to experiment.
Cooper labels about 17 percent of his sample "at-risk" users--people who "wouldn't otherwise have gotten involved with sexuality in a problematic way, were it not for the Internet." Certain qualities of the Internet--its accessibility, affordability and anonymity--make it more difficult to resist the temptation of online sex, Cooper believes.
But for now, this and other questions about Internet use will remain unanswered until more controlled studies are done, critics say. An article in the Feb. 4 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education outlined what those studies should investigate. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute psychologists Joseph B. Walther, PhD, and Larry D. Reid, PhD, suggest that future research include:
An empirical look not just at problem use, but at healthy use as well.
More theory and research on why the Internet compared with other outlets is so attractive to some people.
More study of which comes first, Internet "addiction" or previous mental health or social problems.
It's also important to examine whether people's Internet use ebbs and flows over time and why, Kiesler and colleagues note.
Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.