The Internet has joined the ranks of gambling and alcohol as an addiction that people use to escape from real life, a new study says.
The study is being introduced today at the American Psychological Association's conference in Chicago by Kimberly Young of the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford. Based on 360 Internet surveys of active online users, the study found that people dependent on online communication, including chat rooms, Web surfing, and email, suffered withdrawal and other symptoms similar to drug or alcohol addiction.
Young has been studying Internet addiction through the Center for Online addiction for several years and last year introduced a paper to the American Psychological Association bringing to light the idea of online addiction. This year's study focuses not only on the addiction, but the people who are in constant need of cyber-stimulation.
One of the most intriguing findings in Young's study is that while the average Internet user is still a well-educated male, middle-aged women are the most likely to be addicted. Many of these women were housewives who, like other Internet addicts, had a lot of time to kill.
But those time-killers aren't bored Silicon Valley techies who surf the Web at work. Instead, the other major groups in the Internet-addicted category include the disabled, the retired, and students. High-tech white collar workers accounted for only 8 percent of Internet addicts, while the other groups totaled 42 percent of the addicts surveyed.
These addicts were originally intimidated by the technology, Young wrote, but eventually became comfortable and started using online services ten times more than they had before.
Users realizing they had a problem would try to invoke self-imposed time-limits, which usually failed. Then, Young wrote, "Dependents canceled their Internet service, threw out their modems, or completely dismantled their computers to stop themselves from using the Internet."
In what she compares to a cigarette craving, even those extreme measures didn't work. "Dependents explained that these cravings felt so intense that they resumed their Internet service, bought a new modem, or set up their computer again to obtain their 'Internet fix,'" Young wrote.
Most of these addicts spend about 40 hours a week on the Web, with their primary areas of interest in chat rooms and online games. Email and newsgroups were also popular, but the actual surfing of the Web--particularly for anything educational--was one of the lowest areas.
Young's original study, introduced last year, created some controversy among the psychological community, said Doug Fizel, deputy director of public affairs for the American Psychological Association. What academics and practitioners are having difficult with is applying the word "Internet" to the field of addiction.
"Usually that term is applied to some substance like alcohol, tobacco, or drugs, versus a behavior," he said.
This has forced Young to describe it as "pathological" Internet use, though she still uses the word "addiction" frequently in her report.
Fizel also said that although online addiction has not been thoroughly studied, there is a growing interest among academics and we should expect to see more information produced on the topic.
"With the growth of the Internet being exponential, this will be something looked at as time goes on to see what effects it's having on behavior," Fizel said.
Young could not be reached for comment today.