Psychologists have found that the capacity to make anonymous contact with people anywhere in the world is proving so seductive that some people spend all their leisure hours in electronic communion.
Half of the 445 Internet users from around the world who responded to a survey by psychologists at Hertfordshire University, said that they were "addicted" to the Net. They estimated that on average they spent 60 hours a week on line, while the remainder of the respondents said they spent 28 hours on line.
Dr Helen Petrie, who conducted the study presented to the British Psychological Society's London conference yesterday, said: "Sixty hours a week is likely to be an over-estimate. But there are some people who go home after work, lock themselves in the spare room and and don't come out again until 2am."
Women were just as likely to be addicted as men. Other surveys show male dominance of the Net is being eroded with the proportion of women users up from 6 per cent to 38 per cent in a couple of years.
Dr Petrie said Internet junkies reported doing all the things that ordinary surfers did, only more intently. They sent e-mails, looked at newsgroups, played games, shopped and downloaded software. "Some men admitted to looking at pornography but who knows what the real figures are."
What made the Internet addictive was the "intermittent reinforcement" that came from searching.
"When you surf the Web and click on something, it may not be very exciting but you think the next page might be. If you sometimes get something interesting you keep searching and can lose track of time."
The randomness, allied to the intermittent reward, made it addictive in a similar way to gambling, she said.
Like the casinos kept deliberately dark so punters lost all sense of time, much Internet surfing was done at night.
Dr Petrie said: "It is different from television which is not addictive in the same way. Television simply washes over you and fills the time."
The consequences for the addicts could be severe if they neglected themselves or their family and friends. Some seemed to prefer the company of their computers to people.
"We found people who spent more time on line were more depressed, but we couldn't tell whether they were depressed and didn't want to go out and so turned to the Internet or whether spending a lot of time on line made them depressed."
n Spreading a little happiness among England's beleaguered cricketers, who this week lost the Ashes to Australia, could help reverse their fortunes, a psychologist claimed at the conference.
Dr Peter Totterdell, of Sheffield University, said teaching players to feel good about themselves was as important as practising in the nets. Research among 33 professional county cricketers showed a clear link between performance and mood.
Happiness, energy, enthusiasm and focus all assisted better performance in batsmen. Among bowlers, mental strain and tension was associated with worst performance.Reuse content