Researchers assess addiction to Internet

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GERMANY, FRANCE, USA -- Yes, it `s real, here and now although experts do not agree on just how big a problem it is:

It's what ICHF has already journalistically baptized as "chronic cyberphilia " -- and what world psychology experts are calling "Internet addiction, "loosely defined as compulsive overuse of the Internet, with irritable or moody behavior when deprived of it.

Oliver Seemann, of Ludwig-Maximilians University Psychiatric Clinic in Munich, is a recent recruit to the idea.

The Lancet quoted him in February as believing that Internet addiction is a genuine psychological disorder which, as is the case for all dependencies, is often linked with "serious co-morbidities."

He, Ulrich Hegerl and colleagues only found 20 people out of 809 Internet users who fit the stringent requirements of the "ICD-10" definition of addiction ('including withdrawal symptoms, increasing tolerance and loss of control), but their work and that of others suggests at the very least strong habituation.

The Lancet quoted Kimberly Young, University of Pittsburgh, whose 1996 study -- 396 out of 496 self-selected regular Internet users were dependent on the cyberspace vehicle -- as stating that the most recent published research vindicates her findings and that "treatment centers are emerging all across the USA -- so Internet addiction is an accepted disorder, even one that our courts and legal systems accept."

Researcher Dan Velea, of the Imagine Pharmacodependency Center, Val d'Oise, France, while believing Young's conclusions are exaggerated, nonetheless added:

"People who lack self-esteem are more likely to become Internet addicts, just as they are more likely to use drugs like speed or alcohol. "It is the combination of interaction at a distance, together with the chance of creating a virtual reality, that attracts them."

He estimates that the rapidly rising "pornography factor" may account for as much as 30 percent of Internet addictions in France.

Maressa Hecht Orzack, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School who has worked with computer addiction in various forms for many years, told The Lancet that she is seeing several new patients with Internet addiction each week, and that the addiction can exacerbate existing, more conventional, mental problems.

All her patients have at least one other problem.

"Depression, social phobia, impulse control disorder, and attention deficit disorder are commonest. Several of my patients have a history of another addiction or of substance abuse. A few are bipolar, suicidal, or prone to violent outbreaks, "she said.

Seemann added schizoid personality disorders to Orzack's list, noting that "psychotic patients like the distancing from other persons that the Internet supplies."

Conversely, chronic heavy use of the Internet can lead to social retreat and depression, he said.

But, said Orzack, there is no single pattern: different people are Internet-dependent for different reasons.

"Some use it for excitement or a new sense of identity; some to reduce tension; some for companionship; others, most tellingly, because it's a place where they belong. Typically they are lonely people.

"Internet addicts can lose their jobs as they become unable to limit their time spent online, either because they fail to turn up for work or because they misuse their office computer facilities, "she observed.

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