Psychologists warn of growing Net addiction

Student British Medical Journal issues addiction-identification guidelines. Are on-line clinics the answer?

British Internet psychology experts have warned against getting carried away with hype surrounding Internet addiction after the Student British Medical Journal Wednesday issued a list of criteria to help GPs make quick diagnoses of the problem.

In an effort to overcome what it believes to be the ever-increasing scourge of Internet addiction, the journal advises that anyone who answers "yes" to five or more of the questions on the list can consider themselves in need of treatment.

British Internet psychologist Mark Griffiths believes that those who go on about the dangers of IAD are, in fact, exaggerating. "It's not a big problem," he says. "In two and a half years of research I've only come across about six cases that I would call genuinely addicted to the Internet."

Griffiths believes Internet addiction seems more prevalent than it really is because it is widely misunderstood. "The two areas I see as related to a real addiction to the Internet are chat rooms and on-line fantasy role playing, where you are legitimately taking on another social identity," he says. "For a lot of people the Internet is just a medium for other addictions, such as on-line gambling or sex. But that's not an addiction to the technology itself. It could just as easily be continued off-line. So the Internet isn't actually the problem."

The term "addiction" is often used in relation to something we do a lot. Most of us say we are "addicted" to television, but we don't mean it ruins our lives. As computers and the Internet become increasingly, popular and freely available, people will inevitably spend more of their time using them. This doesn't mean those people are becoming more and more addicted to computers and the technology linking them, according to Griffiths.

"Excessive use is not addiction." he says. " It only becomes an addiction when it is the most important thing in your life and is done to the detriment of everything else."

Efforts to establish new ways of combating Internet addiction have met with mixed success, however.

Earlier this year Dr Kimberley Young, a US-based psychologist who has done much to raise awareness of Internet addiction, launched the first ever on-line clinic for Internet addicts (www.netaddiction.com) at the beginning of the year. Although the venue might seem rather inappropriate, Dr Young claims to have helped over a thousand addicts since then, and argues that this is actually the best way to treat the condition.

Her on-line clinic, based in Bradford, in the US, offers IAD tests and e-mail and chat-room counselling for addicts as well as their friends and relatives. Although Dr Young identifies debt as common problem for sufferers of IAD, she also charges £20 for returning an e-mail and as much as £100 for an on-line counselling session.

"The merits appear to outweigh the risk," says Dr Young in an e-mail interview (the only sort she does). "Firstly, in the US, we don't have national healthcare, so many can't afford to visit a clinician -- on-line therapy makes the process affordable. Secondly, it brings healthcare to those who live in remote areas without access to mental health clinics. Finally, many therapists are unfamiliar with how to treat Internet addiction. I treat clients from the UK who complain that they can not find help in your country, so it seems our Virtual Clinic is addressing a needed service."

Another British psychologist who specialises in researching the Net, Helen Petrie, unsurprisingly also has a few reservations. "It seems mad," she says, "if someone wants to seek treatment for what they feel is a problem they should go to their nearest counsellor, not try to get help via the Net. It seems a bit like someone with a gambling addiction going for treatment at their local betting shop."

Those worried about their Internet use should see if they answer yes to five or more of the journal's criteria:

1. Do you feel preoccupied with the Internet?

2. Do you feel the need to use the Net for increasing amounts of time?

3. Have you made repeated, failed efforts to cut back or stop using it?

4. Do you stay online longer than you mean to?

5. Have you risked a relationship or job because of the Net?

6.Have you lied to conceal how much you use it?

7. Do you use it to escape problems or relieve feelings of guilt, anxiety or depression?

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