Computer Addiction

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Computer Addiction

An article written about Computer Addiction

"If some unemployed punk lying on a sofa can get a cassette to make love to Elle MacPherson for $19.95, this virtual reality stuff is going to make crack look like Sanka." [18] -Dennis Miller, after test driving a VR helmet.

Project Abstract

Our society has generally praised computers without reservation as an incredible intellectual tool. Only recently have we begun to weed out the hype from the reality and realize that there are unpleasant side-effects to computing as well.
Webster's Concise Dictionary defines addiction as "a habit so strong that one cannot give it up." We are all aware that people form addictions to many things, from cocaine to gambling. References to alcoholism, workaholism, even chocoholism, are commonplace throughout our society. The idea that people can form addictions to computing is a relatively new one, but quickly gaining ground. Perhaps some day the word "netaholism" will be as widely-used as the others; being a "user" may have more connotation than we realize.
Can people really become addicted to computers? The subject is quite complex. "Computers" are a very large field, encompassing many subdomains and programs, each of which tends to reflect or magnify various aspects of reality. Many people seem capable of developing addictive types of computing behavior. They feel the compulsion to spend so much of their time computing that it causes problems with their health, finances, relationships, etc. -- the same kinds of problems caused by other addictions with which we are more familiar. However, whether they are truly "addicted," and what exactly they are addicted to, is not clear. Are they addicted to the computers themselves, the particular programs they are running, or the real-life aspects embodied by those programs?

Who Suffers From Computer Addiction?

Computer addiction is shared by the young and the old, the meek and the bold. "Now the addiction strikes women as often as men, young students as freqently as retirees,and folks of all intellectual levels." [39] As media like the Web make it ever easier to access the Internet, it becomes less and less necessary to understand computer technology in order to become obsessed with computers. Different groups of people are inclined to be afflicted with different kinds of addictions, but there are plenty to go around.
People with underdeveloped social skills, from the slightly insecure to the very geeky, are drawn by the social ease inherent in electronic communications like email, MUDs, and IRC. As the well-known cartoon says, "On the internet, no one knows if you are a dog." You can hide your appearance on the net, assume alternate personas and genders, and generally feel far less inhibited than in face-to-face interactions. People who have difficulty with live interactions are most likely to become dependent on these forms of electronic communication. They are offered the illusion of social relationships free of pain and discomfort, which raises their self-confidence so that they no longer feel complete without computer interaction and their on-line personalities.
Many people view all computer users as socially-challenged. However, ever-friendlier user interfaces like the Web have put computer addiction at the fingertips of users who do not conform to the usual stereotypes. The newest breed of addicts lose themselves in the colorful Web pages and multimedia presentations, surfing til it hurts. Due to the youth of the Web, they have not yet been given a popular stereotype; popular culture has been able to pretend that they do not exist. However, this blindness cannot remain for long. Computer addiction via the Internet suddenly requires only a modem and Netscape, rather than extensive computer eduction, and the population that will suffer from it is growing dramatically.
Children are becoming addicted to video games on their home computers. Parents should watch for withdrawal symptoms, like irritability when they stop playing. Some children play computer games up to 30 hours a week. Reports claim that these youngsters have cravings as powerful as junkies needing a drug fix. [4 As with all other groups of addicts, the extreme amounts of time spent on their addiction lead to sacrifices in the other areas of their lives: friends, homework, and other activities. In children this can be particularly dangerous, since it threatens their development and permanent view of the world around them. Some experts say that children tend to outgrow their addiction during adolescence, but others claim that adolescents are more prone to computer addiction than other groups. It seems no one is immune to the siren song.
Older people battle with computer addiction, as well. People who know almost nothing about computers decide to see what the fuss is about and find that the games they try are completely hypnotic and they are unable to stop playing once they start. One journalist wrote, "I burn out on computing after a time. But I worried two years ago when our new computer came with a standard blackjack game. For a couple of months, I was addicted. I didn't lose any money playing blackjack that way. But I lost something more important: time, the precious hours of a life deep into its second half." [33] Many people complain that computers seem to @#%$ the life out of them, stealing their time and giving them nothing in return. Computer addiction can be quite harmful.
What Constitutes an Addiction?

What does it mean to be addicted?

Psychologists disagree as to whether this computer obsession is really an addiction. Many therapists have added "computer addiction" to their lists of offered treatment, and Ann Landers advises spouses complaining of electronic infidelity to treat Internet use as they would an alcohol or drug problem. On the other hand, some experts claim that it is more like pathological gambling than an actual addiction since it is a behavioral failure to resist a negative impulse rather than a physical dependence.
Studies of this relatively new phenomenon are sparse and often inconclusive. However, anecdotal evidence of computer addiction is bountiful. Most computer users are quite aware that they or others they know have the potential for use habits so excessive that they become a problem.
Computer addicts tend to lose all sense of time when they are on-line. They are drawn so deeply into the world of bytes and bits that they do not notice entire days passing by. They forget to eat, sleep, go to school, and even care for their children. They shirk responsibilities, slack off at work, and miss appointments because they are unable to pull themselves away. The virtual world and the real world are competing for their attention, and the virtual world often wins.
Certain aspects of computer technology carry the most blame; most users do not get too carried away with Microsoft Word or Excel. MUDS, on the other hand, usually stand for "Multi-User Dungeons," but have also earned the title of "Multiple Undergraduate Destroyers" because their addictiveness has led single-handedly to so many students flunking out of college. Other games with a reputation for addiction include Doom, Lode Runner, and even Solitaire. Just about every aspect of the Internet and the Web from email to chat-IRC to newsgroups has its own user base of self-proclaimed addicts. Many companies recognize the threat of these temptations to employee productivity and have banned all games from company computers, denying their employees Internet and Web access as well. Many colleges are beginning to include workshops on computer addiction as part of freshman orientation.
What is it that makes some kinds of computer use addictive? The list is as long and varied as the types of computing that are claimed to be addictive. Dr. Shaffer of Harvard says addiction results from indulging in a substance or an activity that produces a shift in mental state and triggers an alternate reality, "On-line service is not as reliable as cocaine or alcohol, but in the contemporary world, it is a fairly reliable way of shifting consciousness." "Compulsive gamblers are also drawn to the tug of war between mastery and luck. When this attraction becomes an obsession, the computer junkie resembles the intemperate gambler," he says, "Unlike stamp collecting or reading, computers are a psycho-stimulant, and a certain segment of the population can develop addictive behavior in response to that stimulant." [37]
Even more challenging than clarifying whether this is an addiction is determining the exact focus of the addiction. MUDs provide an enhanced ability for communication: are users addicted to the MUD itself (the medium of transmission) or communication (the end-result)? Heroin addicts don't blame the needle, should we blame computers for what they merely transmit to us? Is addiction to the Web any different or worse than addiction to TV? Does our predilection to TV make us more susceptible to the charms of the Web? Many people believe that the Internet just offers more of real life, more easily, and that's addictive enough.

Where Should We Look For Help?

Unfortunately, computer addiction is still not taken seriously enough by the population at large for resources to be made readily available. Aside from the one or two notable cases which receive mention in the occasional Newsweek article, computer addicts are shrugged off as weenies and nerds who simply don't have enough to do with their time. And since none of the negative ramifications of computer abuse are immediate or directly harmful (i.e., as far as we know computing doesn't cause cancer), it seems a relatively low priority as far as potential threats go.
The trouble is, immediate or not, the negative ramifications are real; students by the hundreds and thousands fail classes because they spend their study time in front of a computer. Corporate America loses hundreds of millions of dollars a year in time that its employees spend diddling about on the net. Granted, only a handful of these perpetrators are addicts, but some individuals literally stop going to work and school, logging more than 20 hours a day on their computers. These people need help.
It is ironic, then, that the only support groups to be found for network addiction are online. It's farcical to think that people who are attempting to recover from their addictions to computers gather online to discuss their problems. It's like going to a local pub for your AA meeting and downing a few pints during conversation.
These pages don't tend to take themselves too seriously either. One exchange on alt.irc.recovery included the following:
">So there *are* other IRC addicts
Yep. I know several others too, but... Maybe IRC addicts spend too much time on IRC, so they don't have time to read news? But if addicts don't read news, what are we?

Sarah, Proud IRC addict"
Judging by the tone of this conversation, neither of the participants seems very anxious to rid themselves of this addiction, and presumably they see the addiction as more entertaining than harmful. The reality remains however, that people of all different professions spend more and more time on-line, and it over time, the computer becomes a necessity rather than a convenience.

When Do You Know You're an Addict?

When should you worry that you are addicted?
As with any addiction, there are signs denoting excessive computer use.

The warning signs differ for different people; the following are merely guidelines: [34]
aEUC/ Falling grades or difficulties in the workplace
aEUC/ Feelings of emptiness when not on-line
aEUC/ Lack of control over time spent using computers
aEUC/ Waking up early or staying up late to use your computer
aEUC/ Taking a laptop computer on vacation, and being anxious to plug it in
aEUC/ Getting nervous if you let a day (or an hour) go by without checking your e-mail
aEUC/ Thinking longingly about your computer when you are not using it
aEUC/ Believing your best friends are those on-line that you have never met

The warning signs for other addictions can generally be extended to apply to computer use, as well. Consider the symptoms of video game addiction, each of which can be generalized to computer addiction:
aEUC/ theft to finance the habit
aEUC/ misuse of school lunch money or bus fares
aEUC/ spending more and more to attain excitement
aEUC/ lying about the addiction
aEUC/ playing to escape personal probelms
aEUC/ falling out with family
aEUC/ jeopardizing education.

It is commonly believed that addictions can only be based upon some form of narcotic. But this is not true. A drug can be anything that takes a person outside of themselves. A book called the basic Text, written by recovering addicts of all sorts states: At first, we were using in a manner that seemed to be social or at least controllable. We had little indication of the disaster that the future held for us. At some point, our using became uncontrollable and anti-social. This began when things were going well, and we were in situations that allowed us to use frequently. We may have tried to moderate, substitute or even stop using, but we went from a drugged state of success and well being to complete spiritual, mental and emotional bankruptcy. This rate of decline varies from addict to addict. Whether it occurs in years or days, it is all down hill.... As addicts, we are people whose use of any mind-altering, mood-changing substance causes a problem in any area of life. Addiction is a disease that involves more than the use of drugs.... We suffer from a disease that expresses itself in ways that are anti-social and that makes detection, diagnosis and treatment difficult. [14]
When you recognize yourself in descriptions like this, with regard to computer use or any other thing, it is time to acknowledge that you have a problem with an addiction. The key with computer addiction as with any addiction is to notice the signs, both within yourself and from the words of people around you. Next you need to admit that you have a problem and work towards solving it.
The Net is such a recent phenomenon, that its potentially detrimental effects have not yet been fully analyzed. Computer addiction for some people may be a positive addiction; an addiction whose benefits outweight its costs. Computer addiction can be a little difficult to take seriously, both because it is so new and because many people perceive their computing experiences as positive overall. The idea of internet addiction is a source of great amusement to many, oftentimes more than a concern. The jokes abound.

aEUC/ Your kids start referring to you as "that guy in front of the monitor"
aEUC/ You're constantly yelling at your wife for using the phone for stupid talking.
aEUC/ You purchase a laptop so you can surf while sitting on the can
aEUC/ You check the weather on-line instead of walking out onto the porch
aEUC/ Your significant other complains about the amount of time you spend on the net
aEUC/ Your significant other left, you are on the Net and you don't know yet
aEUC/ Your significant other left, you are on the Net and you don't care

The irony of these jokes is that many of them are true. People do check the weather on-line instead of walking out on their porches. There are people whose significant others leave them because of their computer addiction, and they drown out their sorrow with more of the same. Are these things a joking matter? You certainly won't find people joking about heroin addiction or alcoholism in this manner, and the problems caused by computer addiction can be just as serious.
There is a wide range of computer use, and even computer addiction. Are you a user who simply enjoys the convenience of net shopping, or do you depend upon it as a crutch to never leave the house? The net can make your life easier or make it fall apart. You could be addicted to it either positively or negatively. It should be treated as any other addiction. Proceed with caution.

Why Should We Take Computer Addiction Seriously?

There is a very wide range of behavior that might be considered addictive, and not all of it is necessarily harmful. Every addiction has its price, but in some cases the price may be low enough so as to be considered reasonable. The positive benefits derived from the pleasure of the addiction need to be weighed against the negative effects it may have on the rest of a person's life. This is complicated by the fact that the prices and benefits are different for each individual. In addition, computers are playing an ever-greater, ever- more-vital part in our modern world. If a person finds that they are addicted, is it possible or realistic for them to go permanently off-line?
There are actually two types of addiction: positive and negative. Positive addictions are those in which the benefits outweigh the costs. The word "addict" is generally used to describe a person who is unable to resist a negative addiction, an addictive behavior with far greater costs than benefits. With computer addiction, these lines are often blurred; there are many tradeoffs to take into consideration.
Computer use is clearly a negative addiction when it significantly affects a person's daily life in a negative way. When obsessive computer use interferes with family, friends, school, or employment, causing financial, relationship, or physical problems, and continuing despite efforts at control, then it is a serious problem. Some people sink into computer oblivion, neglecting their lovers and families, succumbing to loss of sleep and deteriorating health. Computers are a common source of contention in couples counseling these days, and also play an increasingly large role in individual counseling [31]. Spouses are turning to their computers rather than to one another, and virtual infidelity has become common.
However, the very ingredients that make computers so addictive can also be tremendous boons to a person's life. There is definitely a line below which the money, time, and attention spent on computers is well worth the benefit gained from them.
Some believe that what appears to be computer obsession might simply be a healthy process of self-learning and identity-exploring. Adolescents and shy users can enhance their social skills or work through personal issues on the network, then take their newfound skills and confidence with them into the real world. Computer immersion provides us with a form of escape and diversion, which is healthy to a certain extent. It is fun to meet people in cyberspace, to communicate with others throughout the world with similar interests. There is the potential for these on-line friends to become real-world friends, lovers, and even spouses. Relationships are fostered on-line in a very powerful way that provides many advantages. Sex therapist Avodah Offit, M.D. reports, "There's a human need to communicate and reach out that's being met. E-mail encourages creativity and spontaneity and its immediacy can be gratifying. Cyberspace can also be useful emotionally, and even sexually, to people who know each other quite well." [36]
The good thing is that computers help people reach out, make friends, and learn to interact. The bad thing is that hard-core on-line users may begin living artificial lives that prove dangerous to their health and emotional stability. It is easy to become attached and obsessive quickly on-line; relationships are different and often confusing or misleading compared to the conventional ones with which we have more experience. Andre Bacard, a futurist, physicst, and author based at Stanford, believes that an entirely vicarious on-line social life "both encourages and cultivates psychosis in many people." [39]
In addition to the psychological effects of spending so much time on-line, the sheer amount of time that people are spending on-line is a problem in itself. A large percentage of MUD users either flunked out of school or know someone who has, due to their MUD use habits. Seventeen percent of Internet users polled in a University at Buffalo survey reported spending more than 40 hours per week online, and almost all -- 89 percent -- said online time interfered with their life. [29]
Tetris, an especially hypnotic computer game, is known for its addictiveness and almost cult-like following. One player knew he had a problem when he began mentally rearranging the tiles of his bathroom floor. However, strangely enough, this type of hypnotic power also has its benefits. One Washington Post writer reports that playing Tetris is the best way he has found of relieving his asthma attacks; better even than prescription medications. Something about the soothing rhythm and complete immersion in the game allows him to relax and experience a kind of healing biofeedback. [35]
Because there are clearly so many benefits to computer use, the idea of computer addiction is often trivialized and treated as a joke. This is unfortunate, because it is a serious problem for many people. It is becoming more prevalent daily, and we can only work to prevent it once we acknowledge the great risk that it poses. Where does one draw the line, how does one weigh the good agains the bad? How seriously should we take computer addiction, both individually and as a society?
Some people admit to spending up to half of each day on-line, but few believe their heavy use is dangerous. Many people see computer compulsion as just another diversion for college students no worse than going out drinking every night, just another vehicle for procrastination. New computer users often start out as though addicted, but find that the novelty wears off; people need to evaluate both whether their usage is obsessive and whether it is just a phase. In on-line forums, people often complain that they are addicted to their computers. Much of it is tongue-in-cheek, yet is sometimes very close to the truth. People sense that they have a problem, but don't know how seriously to take it. So far there is no stigma attached to computer addiction, so it is fun to joke about it; most of the Web pages we found about computer addiction were entirely humorous. Support groups for net addiction are even held on-line, which does not reflect that the problem is being taken particularly seriously.
College Park, at the University of Maryland offered a support group for Internet addiction, but only three people signed up. The assistant director of the counseling center, Jonathan Kandell, believes this is a case of classic addiction denial. "Some of these people are in denial," he says, "People don't express this as an issue, but it's something that really is an issue, you find, as you talk to them." [32] Even the most ardent supporters of interactive computer communication (like MUDs) admit that these programs create a steady trickle of addicts. However, since the number of addicts is still so small, nobody is going to any lengths to stop the problem. The few extreme cases of addiction may make the best headlines but are not seen as a symptom of a serious, far-reaching problem. In general, it's hard to convince people that computer addiction is as bad for them as other types of addiction, though the end results are often the same.

How Can We Prevent Computer Addiction?

How do we know whom to blame?
One of the major difficulties with the phenomenon of computer addiction is trying to decide who to hold responsible. With substance addiction people can blame the drug dealers and crime rings and with compulsive gambling one can blame the casinos and their money hungry owners. The public seems to need a well-defined enemy on whom to blame (the evils of an addiction in order to fire their imaginations. However, computer addiction does not readily offer any obvious scheming villains who can be held responsible for the addicted students who fail out of school or the Internet fanatics who lose their spouses. Yet, if someone could be found who was responsible, people may take the problem more seriously and begin to find a way to destroy the problem at its roots. This search for the roots of the problem must inevitably start with the people most directly responsible for the availibility of addictive products -- the programming industry and the service providers.

aEUC/ Programming Industry and Service Providers: Guilty?
Programmers seem to hold a position almost analagous to drug dealers, in that they are the most obvious reason that the addictive substance is available to the public. Unlike most drug dealers, however, people can actually blame programmers for making the substance addictive to begin with. It is their job to produce products that are as hypnotic and enthralling as possible, and many companies even advertise their products as addictive. On their web page, a company named LavaMind quoted the words of a customer who had asked "WHY IS THIS THING SO ****ED ADDICTIVE?" and went on to say "I love it. Finish [making the next game] so I can just stay home permanently glued to my computer" [28]. Although mostwould quickly criticize the author of the quote as someone well on the way to addiction, perhaps a more fundamental question to ask would be to wonder why LavaMind considers this advertising material. By advertising their finest games as "****ED ADDICTIVE," software companies make it entirely clear that this is what their programmers strive to achieve. However, beyond the possible culpability of programmers striving to make their games addictive lies the question of whether or not Internet Service providers can be held guilty for their inaction in trying to solve a problem that they know exists better than anyone else. Who better knows the incredible lengths of time that people spend logged in than those who run the system that these people log on to or through? However, though "even the most ardent supporters of interactive computer communication . . . admit that those programs produce a steady trickle of addicts, nobody seems to be rushing to stop them from spreading" [18]. Are the service providers and the universities that provide Net access, or the people who provide MUD and WWW servers, responsible for that "steady trickle of addicts" that lose themselves in Cyberspace?
aEUC/ Programming Industry and Service Providers: Not Guilty.
Given that the programmers and service providers are the people who have the power to pull the plug on the addiction, at first it seems reasonable to consider them somewhat guilty -- at least of neglect. However, two things stand in their favor and protect them from public cynosure:
1.A A A A Unrestricted access and high-quality software are desirable for those of us not prone to Computer Addiction.
2.A A A A Computer addiction is an addiction, and those likely to be susceptible to it are people with addictive tendencies.
People seem to feel that although "they're very seductive, programs like Internet Relay Chat and Multi-User Dimensions can do a great deal of good" [28], and this general attitude makes point (1) a fairly uncontroversial one. Users want programmers to continue making hypnotic games, servers to continue to carry fascinating MUDs, and service providers to continue to allow them free access. As MIT professor Sherry Turkle says in an interview,
"Computers and communication networks are . . . complex media that different people (and different social and political groups for that matter) use in different ways. Yet the notion of addiction seems almost irresistible. X amount of heroin use is never a good thing; [but] the same amount of Internet activity can be a helpful or a hurtful thing, depending on the content of the messages and the role of the activity in the life of the person doing it."
As long as the "role of [using the Net] in the life of the person doing it" is not addiction, Turkle seems to agree that these resources are valuable to the greater part of society. Harriet Rossetto, the defense attorney for Kevin Mitnick (one of the more famous of the Internet hackers), claims that Kevin's "behavior is an impulse disorder. The disease is the addiction, whether it be drugs, alcohol, gambling, hacking, money or power" [9]. This famous case, in which the judge agreed that Kevin's problem seemed to require treatment rather than punishment, set the precedent. The addictive areas of the computer world, from games to MUDs to the WWW, all provide an escape for the user from various concerns of everyday life. Addiction to these things is not the fault of the programmers and providers that make them available to potential addicts any more than the government is to blame for allowing people to become 'beach bums' on public beaches. Addictive personalities crave some sort of escape -- and they will find wherever they are able. As the mother of a Net addict says, "He was a candidate for anything along thse lines . . . It could have been alcohol or drugs"[26]. And because it "could have been alcohol or drugs," the programmers and providers cannot be to blame.

Edited by: lizwool at: 6/21/05 7:16

Liz Woolley