CORVALLIS, Ore. - A growing number of computer users around the nation who log onto the Internet to converse in chat rooms, participate in role-playing games, check their stock portfolios, or just "go surfing," may fall victim to a new syndrome.
Evidence is beginning to suggest that many people - especially college students who may be new to campus - are spending too many hours logged on to the Internet, says an Oregon State University counselor who has spoken on Internet addiction at national conferences.
"Statistically, the data is not yet in," said Bert Epstein, staff therapist with University Counseling and Psychological Services at Oregon State. "But anecdotally, we know from students coming into counseling centers around the country that this is a growing problem."
Epstein, who just arrived on the OSU campus, is trying to do something about it. At his previous job at The Ohio State University, he developed guidelines to help students avoid Internet addiction - an educational effort he is continuing at Oregon State. By winter term, he hopes to have published tips for healthy Internet use, developed a model for prevention of Internet addiction, and created a workshop on the problem for concerned students.
The problem of Internet addiction is real, Epstein says. He cited an Alfred University study which looked at freshmen dropout rates and unexpectedly found that half of the dropouts reported logging "marathon late night hours" on the Internet.
"It wasn't even something they were considering," he pointed out.
Another study, published in American Psychologist, found a correlation between depression and Internet use. But, Epstein said, it was unclear whether Internet use causes depression, or if lonely, depressed people sought solace through their computers.
Epstein says Internet addiction can be triggered by loneliness, depression or anxiety, but it also can be a symptom of seeking fun. He likens the addiction to that of people who play slot machines.
"Internet addiction is reinforced by a 'variable-ratio schedule,'" Epstein said. "You don't know when you are going to win, but you know that eventually the machine will pay off. Surfing the net is somewhat the same. If you look around hard enough, you'll eventually find something you like."
But at what cost?
On college campuses, Internet addiction can cause students to sleep irregularly, adopt poor study habits, isolate themselves in their rooms or computer labs, and increase the chance of academic failure. Most students, Epstein said, never consider the dangers.
"A psychoanalytic perspective is that the Internet is a place where people can exercise their fantasies," he said. "Freud might describe it as 'letting your id run wild without any control by your superego,'" he said. "You can go into a chat room, change your name, and be virtually anonymous. Some students just hole up with their computers at a time when, developmentally, they are supposed to be finding themselves."
The lure of potential romance attracts some people who communicate with total strangers, often sharing intimate details of their lives.
"You can meet a lot of people on the Internet, but you have to realize they may be completely different in person than how they portray themselves on the Net," Epstein said. "On the other hand, I know a couple who met on the Internet and just got engaged. Nevertheless, it would be prudent to meet the other person in a group setting or in a public place."
Despite what he says is a growing danger, Epstein is not anti-Internet. In fact, he is a proponent of good Internet use and says its advantages easily outweigh its disadvantages. The research potential of the Internet is obvious and communication can improve. Professors and students, for example, have the capability of contacting each other at any time of the day. And the anonymity that leads some computer users to late night Internet abuse can help class "wallflowers" become more assertive.
Epstein's rule of thumb: everything in moderation.
"People who find themselves spending too much time on the computer may want to consider setting time restrictions," he said. "If need be, get yourself an alarm clock and set it for a certain time. When it goes off, turn off the computer, no matter what you're doing."
Epstein suggests students consider other strategies:
- Restrict computer usage to certain times of the day, or certain days of the week.
- Create a balance in your life, by balancing time spent alone and time spent with others. Students should balance computer use with study, recreation, exercise, reading, or participating in campus clubs and activities.
- Don't log on to your computer as soon as you walk into your room. "It sucks you right in," Epstein said.
Counselors can help students and others realize what it is about the Internet that may be addictive - whether it is the anonymity, or some other property - and suggest ways of dealing with it.
"Certain people may be more pre-disposed to Internet addiction," Epstein said, "including those who come from families of alcoholics, gamblers or compulsive shoppers. Addictive behaviors can be learned or inherited, and students also should be mindful of the environment in which they live."