On a good day, day of bidding, New Yorker Ian Carmichael snagged a $1,200 Harmon Kardon amplifier for just $349. On a bad day, shipping charges for sought-after computer network cards actually exceeded the cost of the cards themselves.
Carmichael, a computer technician for a multimedia company, claims he's an online auction addict, but more likely he's just a computer-savvy buyer who spends too much time online. Inspired by an article last year in Wired, the hip digital culture magazine, Carmichael started bidding and hasn't stopped. His habit may be a bit excessive -- Carmichael shops four hours a day -- but he limits his bidding to deals on electronics.
What makes an addict?
So what would push Carmichael, or any other auction-goer, over the edge to addict status?
Most psychologists agree that to be labeled an addict, one must experience a specific set of behavioral problems. In "Internet addiction: Does it really exist?" a chapter of the 1998 book "Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal and Transpersonal Implications" (edited by Jayne Gachenbach; Academic Press), Mark Griffiths, a psychologist at England's Nottingham Trent University, recognizes the six "core components of addiction":
the addictive activity becomes the most important part of the addict's life
the experience of a "high"
the need for increasing amounts of the particular activity to achieve the same euphoric effect
the tendency to revert to extreme behavior even after years of abstinence
withdrawal symptoms such as irritability and
conflict (with others, other activities -- such as one's job -- or within oneself).
But whether online auctions, or online use, can be labeled an addiction is no simple matter.
"My colleagues are divided," says Maressa Hecht Orzack, a psychologist who in 1996 founded the Computer Addiction Service at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. At McLean, the psychiatric unit for Massachusetts General Hospital and a teaching facility for Harvard University, Orzack treats patients for online addiction. One of those patients, snared by the web of online auctions, is, she says, in "fairly bad shape" and has run up "a phenomenal debt." "This man I'm treating doesn't eat regular meals," she says. In fact, she adds, he goes online not only to buy goods, but to try to resell those for which he is now in debt. So, while he ought to get off-line, he's staying online all night. Such behavior certainly sounds like an addiction, but some experts are hesitant to give it an official label.
"Some people say that it's an impulse-control disorder [like gambling] ... Other people say it's a symptom," Orzack says. "I don't care what it is ... something happens to these people and they have to be treated."
Others are more cautious about throwing around any specific terminology. "I prefer to think of it as a symptom of some other psychological difficulty," says John Suler, professor of psychology at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., and a practicing psychotherapist and cyber-psychology researcher.
Putting the current debate aside, the notion of Internet addiction can be traced to the 1980s. Yet an addiction to online auctions is truly a late-'90s phenomenon. Some tie it to the recent surge of Web-based auction companies on the stock market.
Like an eating disorder
Orzack, who is approaching her 19th year at McLean, treats online auction addiction as if it were an eating disorder: She sets up strict schedules of reasonable computer use for her patients. Her therapy is based on the idea that one's thoughts determine one's feelings. "I'll ask people, 'What is it that you think before you hit the computer ... what are your thoughts?' "
Like Suler, she finds that overuse of the Internet can often be traced to other psychological problems, including depression and loneliness, and low self-esteem.
Computers are now so much a part of everyday life that it's easy to understand how people could become addicted. "You can't in this day and age ask anyone to not work on the computer," says Orzack. "There are an enormous number of reasons why computers are great and why they offer up opportunities to people."
But there are those who go overboard with computer use -- and with use of online auctions. Kimberly Young, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, and the founder of the Center for Online Addiction, claims that online auction addiction most closely resembles pathological gambling. The auction method satisfies the addicts need for control and provides "immediate gratification." The high of bidding brings the addict back, and the cycle repeats itself. "It's the excitement of winning the prize. People want the rush," Young says.
Young says she receives 12-15 calls a week from addicts looking for information or help, and her center's Web site thoroughly explores all the symptoms and warning signs (compulsively checking e-mail and always anticipating going online, for example) and also offers self-diagnostic tests.
Not yet official
In the mainstream psychological community, Internet addiction, or its subset, online auction addiction, is not yet recognized by the field's authoritative handbook, the "DSMIV" ("Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders"). "How is it [online use] different from television or radio?" asks Dr. Clark Sugg, a psychiatrist at the William Alanson White Institute, a psychoanalytic institute in Manhattan. The Net may be very compelling but "I haven't had a lot of patients coming to the institute claiming they're addicted."
Sugg suggests that cyber-psychologists like Young may be trying to carve out a niche for themselves. "It's a way of making a name for yourself in a field that's overpopulated," he says.
For now, Young appears to be the only psychologist specifically offering Internet addicts online help, either through private chat rooms or e-mail. Others, like Orzack, insist that the treatment of online addiction take place off-line, in a traditional, face-to-face therapy setting. As Orzack puts it, "I'm licensed in Massachusetts, not cyberspace."