Net addicts turn to virtual clinic

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The Independent Online
ARE YOU hooked on the Net? A cybergeek, mesmerised by the flicker of your computer screen? If, like thousands of people all over the world, you are caught in a web of internet misery, help is now literally a click of the mouse away.

The Center for On-Line Addiction (Cola) is believed to be the first "virtual clinic" set up to treat pathological internet misuse, a phenomenon known as Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD). Indeed, for the half-million British "weboholics" estimated to be spending too long surfing the Net, it is the only service currently available for the treatment of IAD.

Cola has been set up by Kimberly Young, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, who first identified IAD in 1994. The disorder is defined as staying online for eight hours or more each day. In increasing numbers of documented cases the addiction is said to have led to the breakdown of relationships, child neglect, dismissal, debt and dropping out of education.

IAD symptoms include a sense of euphoria when switching on your computer terminal, lying to family or colleagues about the amount of time spent on the internet, irritability and anxiety when not engaged in computer activities, a consistent refusal to quit and a failure to maintain personal hygiene.

Dr Young denies that there is any contradiction in trying to treat internet addicts on-line. "Many critics question the utility of offering on-line consultation. A common argument is, `Isn't it like holding an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at a bar?' But it is important to recognise that addicts and their families have complained that they have been unsuccessful in finding treatment programmes or therapists who are familiar with internet addiction because this is a relatively new disorder. Therefore, our virtual clinic makes access to knowledgeable professionals available immediately."

Indeed, Dr Young believes there are distinct advantages to internet-based counselling. Firstly, it is extremely convenient. "I also think people find that the act of writing lends itself to a more honest exploration of one's feelings than speaking to someone in person. Clients are less self-conscious, making on-line therapy more effective."

According to Helen Petrie of the University of Hertfordshire, who compiled a study on net addiction for the British Psychology Society published last month, the typical addict is in his or her late twenties, well educated but socially introverted. Many admitted they only felt comfortable interacting socially via the internet and go on-line to avoid life's pressures. "It's difficult to tell whether you become depressed because you use the internet or the other way round," Dr Petrie said.

Hundreds of IAD sufferers use Dr Young's virtual clinic every week. The most desperate are counselled on-line either via e-mail or in a secure "chat room". Like all therapy it is not cheap. A response to an e-mail costs approximately pounds 10, while prices of the live counselling sessions begin at pounds 30. Dr Young also never misses an opportunity to promote the sale of her book, Caught in the Net.

Dr Young can be reached on