INTERNET ADDICTION DISORDER
Q. My dad thinks that I'm addicted to the internet. Admittedly, I check my e-mail incessantly and a day doesn't go by when I don't feel the need to shop, play games or look for information online. But does such a condition exist. Do other readers feel they have the same problem?
A. Dr Kimberly Young wouldn't just acknowledge your dad's opinion, she'd probably urge him to pack you off for in-depth counselling. Her investigations into so-called internet addiction disorder (IAD) have led to a book, Caught in the Net, which presents "the stories of dozens of lives shattered by a compulsion to surf the net".
Her website, The Center for Internet Addiction Recovery ( www.netaddiction.com), allows you to spend hours listening to podcasts to determine whether you have a problem. "Do you block out disturbing thoughts about your life with soothing thoughts of the internet?" asks her Internet Addiction Test; score too highly, and online counselling is recommended at $95 (£51) per hour - although free "recovery screensavers" are "coming soon".
Meanwhile, Dr Ivan Goldberg, an ally of Dr Young, has developed a list of symptoms of IAD, ranging from "internet is accessed more often than was intended" - to cold-turkey scenarios: "tremors, trembling, involuntary typing movements of the fingers".
But before you make an appointment with your GP, there's a vociferous group of psychologists who consider the theory of IAD deeply flawed, and that speculation about its nature creates needless worry. While none of the respondents to this week's Cyberclinic admitted to making involuntary typing movements while away from their computers, many admitted to overusing the web - but aren't that bothered about it. "When I'm online, I'm reading or writing," says Helen Coutts. "If I was sitting quietly reading a book, no one would tell me I had some kind of disorder."
The benign nature of net browsing is something that a few people commented on; yes, people might spend too much time online, but they might also argue with their partner, eat too many all-butter croissants or have unsavoury thoughts about minor celebrities, and these things can't really rank alongside schizophrenia or depression. "There's just something about finding an updated page, or a new bit of information, that gives a momentary pleasure," writes Neil Scott. And as someone whose internet-enabled phone is used rather too frequently to settle pub disputes over the actors who played various Seventies sitcom characters, I could class myself as an addict - but a well-adjusted one. Addiction to online pornography or online gambling has its own methods of treatment, but internet addiction itself isn't a recognised psychopathology, appearing in neither the ICD or the DSM - the two internationally recognised handbooks for diagnosing mental disorders - although some are lobbying for its inclusion.
The compulsion to check e-mail was singled out by a few people, including Steve Hill. "I get this need to hit the "check e-mail" button perhaps two or three times in the space of 10 seconds," he says, "even though my mail program checks for new mail every minute." Tom Stafford, co-author of the book Mind Hacks, has already identified this issue as a "variable-interval reinforcement schedule", which he himself experiences; you keep checking, as you never know exactly when the reward of that long-awaited e-mail will finally appear. He has come up with various ways to weaken the link between the action and the reward, including a five-minute delay between hitting "check mail" and the mail being checked by the computer. Software companies, however, are unlikely to be lining up to implement Stafford's recommendations.
The social contact of e-mail, instant messaging and online forums is an unquestionable benefit of the net and, as Jon McLean points out: "There are dozens of people I would never have met without the internet."
If you're not reassured, Nick Landau has a simple method of self-assessment: "Try not using it for a week." If you can do that without a twinge of longing, you're made of sterner stuff than I am.
Next week's question comes from Emma Farnfield:
"If I communicate online with anyone under the age of 25, I'm confronted by words and phrases that mean nothing to me. N00b? OMG? AFAIK? Could you and your readers cobble together some kind of guide?" Any comments, and new questions for the Cyberclinic, should be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.