Monday, November 19, 2007

Cyberspace Addiction

Please tell me I’m not alone. I want a virtuous world, not a virtual one. When I see a would-be-athlete transform into cyber-jock, I feel distressed. When I witness parents exposing their kid to cartoon caricatures versus principled characters, I feel perturbed. When did surfing the world wide web replace the exhilaration of cresting an actual wave?

Along with all the benefits the internet brings, problems of excessive use are all too apparent. Neglect of life responsibilities (academic, work, and domestic), coupled with the disruption of relationships, social isolation and financial problems, have all been identified as very real consequences of “Internet Addiction Disorder” (IAD). Debated for years now, mental health experts still can’t agree on whether to classify IAD as an addiction (in the formal sense) or just a highly engaging habit / compulsive behavior. The semantics don’t matter to me. Large numbers of people are becoming “hooked” by such online activities as complex video games, virtual alter egos, gambling and pornography, not to mention social networking sites.

My own kids, ever excited to brag about their high scores on Lego StarWars and WebKinz, seem to think what happened during their day at school is less relevant. I feel enraged.

Last month I read about the young man in China who was the first “death by internet addiction” victim. (see Reuters article) This month, I learned about a government-run bootcamp, instituted to help get South Korean youth out of the internet cafés and back into life. (see New York Times article) What’s happening on the other side of the world could easily happen here.

In North America, roughly 70% of our population uses the internet. That translates to some 235-million users (see source). American teens are perhaps the most wired of that group. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 93% of all Americans between the ages of 12-and-17 enjoy cyberspace. (see report). What is troubling it that many of them suffer academically because of excessive computer use. (See Science Daily study). Just two years ago, 425 middle-school students were given a test of IAD that asked such questions as “whether you feel preoccupied with the Internet, whether you repeatedly make unsuccessful efforts to cut back on use, and whether your online travels are a means of escaping from your problems.” The study showed that about 11% of teens were “highly addicted to the Internet” – less than 1/3 were in the no-risk group. (see study).

What is causing the addiction?

As it turns out, certain online activities seem to cause a chemical reaction in the brain. Gaming sites can trigger a release of adrenaline or serotonins; pornographic web sites act as a stimulant; and social networking sites can sometimes have a tranquilizing effect on users.

According to the director of Computer Addiction Study Center and Harvard University’s McLean Hospital, between 5-10% of web surfers suffer some form of Web dependency. Interestingly, beyond the populace suffering from emotional problems, (such as depression & anxiety-related disorders), the two groups at greatest risk of becoming cyberspace junkies are (i) teenagers and (ii) people in their mid-50’s suffering from the loneliness of an “empty nest.” (see Science Daily article).

So in a nutshell, it's a form of depression that makes people more preoccupied with the internet. Of import to me is the following: Depressed people set small goals. Small goals merit small rewards. Isn't it obvious that people need to get out there and challenge themselves instead of psychologically escaping their own world for a virtual one? Imagine the rewards one can reap then!

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