The Lure and Addiction of Life On Line

By MOLLY O’NEILL
Mark P. had been sober for two years when he went on line. He began
talking to other people through his office computer. He even found an
on-line Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. At first it was exhilarating. Then it
became a problem. He wrote in an electronic message:

I was coming home later and later. My wife thought I’d started drinking
again. I lose all sense of time once I get on-line. I’m an addict.

The digitally savvy have long whispered about the mesmerizing capacity
of life on line. Predominantly male, their wives became computer widows.
One addiction specialist dubbed the on-line habit “computerism.”

Like compulsive shopping or exercise, the on-line habit is “generally a
relieving experience, like low-level alcohol use,” said Dr. Howard Shaffer,
the associate director of the division of addictions at Harvard University
Medical School in Cambridge, Mass.

“But in some cases, users start showing tolerance and increase their
on-line time,” he continued. “They become isolated and ignore other aspects
of life.”

Until recently, there was only a small corps of hard-core cybersurfers.
In the last two years, the number of on-line users has more than doubled.
In 1992, for instance, Compuserve, an on-line service based in Columbus,
Ohio, had 1.1 million members. By last year, that number had grown to 2.7
million, said Michelle Moran, a spokeswoman for the company.

As the number of people on line grows, so do the ranks of those hooked
on electronic chats and games, Dr. Shaffer said. “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.”

With the art of living digitally spreading from specialized niches to
the mainstream, researchers – and users themselves – are dissecting the
lure of life on line and analyzing its effects on life off line.

Nearly 100 people responded to a reporter seeking to hear from those who
felt that their time on line interfered with their lives. The query was
posted last week on Compuserve and the Internet. The responses indicated
that life on line can be habit-forming.

Twenty-two reported experiencing “a cocaine-like rush” from their
mastery of on-line technology. Twelve others said that electronic
conversations lull them.

My days are hectic and loud, but the hours I spend on line are quiet and
private. For me, being on line is like smoking good pot. – Marcy

The substance analogies may not be coincidences. Nearly half the
respondents said they were addicts.

My life has become unmanageable. I’m hooked. If you hear of a 12-step
program for on-line abusers let me know. One in my area, not on the net. –
Miriam

“Addictive personalities, obsessive people, tend to gravitate toward
computers in the first place,” said Paul Gillin, the editor of Computer
World, a weekly trade newspaper in Framingham, Mass.

A number of people from the 1960’s counter culture – including Timothy
Leary – have played a major role in shaping cyberspace.

One counterculture frontiersman who is now an executive with a national
software company and spoke only on the condition of anonymity said:
“Computers are mind-expanding, highly personal, but also a club, with rites
and initiation, not unlike the world I experienced when I did drugs.”

Stuart Brand, the creator of The Whole Earth Catalogue and the Well, an
on-line service in Sausalito, Calif., said the transition from Woodstock to
living digitally was seamless. “The crux of the counterculture has always
been giving people access to power and tools,” he said.

“The difference between computers and LSD is that computers keep getting
better and better and LSD never got any better at all.”

Some who treat alcoholism and drug dependency object to applying the
term “addiction,” to habitual on-line chatting, cruising electronic forums
or playing computer games.

“In the absence of a substance that is physically addictive, the term
becomes conjectural,” said Dr. Joseph Gerstein, a physician at the Tufts
Associated Health Plans in Waltham, Mass., who helped found Smart Recovery,
a network of self-help groups. But in the last year, he has seen more and
more patients who have continued to spend hours on line despite physical
injuries like repetitive strain and despite complaints from their families
and employers.

“When people cling to activities despite negative effects, it generally
indicates addictive behavior,” Dr. Gerstein said.

I hope you won’t be hearing from me until after Easter. I promised my
wife I’d give up going on-line for Lent. – Randy

Dr. Shaffer of Harvard says addiction results from indulging in a
substance or an activity that produces a shift in mental state and produces
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,” he said.

At its most extreme, on-line overuse becomes destructive. When Kevin
Mitnick was convicted of computer fraud in Southern California in 1989, for
instance, he was judged a “computer addict” and remanded to a
rehabilitation program. Mr. Mitnick resisted treatment and after two years
of playing cyber cat-and-mouse with the authorities, he was arrested again
last month. He faces up to 35 years in prison and $500,000 in fines for
similar crimes.

Preston Gralla, the executive editor at Ziff-Davis Interactive, an
electronic publishing company in Cambridge, Mass., likens Mr. Mitnick’s
saga to the story of Blair Newman, a wunderkind in the development of
laptop computers who in 1991 committed suicide after being banned from the
Well for nonpayment of thousands of dollars of on-line bills.

“Both were locked away from other people and completely dependent on the
power and control they had on line,” Mr. Gralla said.

Computer habits of a lesser extreme are laced with similar symptoms.

I can’t control the rest of the world but i can control my computer . .
. most of the time. – Nick

Bruce Tognazzini, an engineer at Sun Microsystems in Mountain View,
Calif., said that the tension between what one knows well (computers, in
the case of on-line wizards) and the unexplored corners of cyberspace is
another appeal of life online.

“If a rat presses a bar and gets rewarded every time, he gets bored and
stops,” he said. “If he gets punished every time, he gets defeated and
stops. But if he is never sure what’s going to happen, he keeps coming
back. I’m like a rat.”

Compulsive gamblers, Dr. Shaffer said, 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 said.

The signs of loss of control are predictable, said Dave Whittle, who
spent three years monitoring on-line use for the International Business
Machines Corporation’s personal software products in Austin, Tex.

“There is a big jump in the number of messages people post, then you
notice they are logging on in the middle of the night,” he said. “Pretty
soon they seem obsessed, they start getting nasty on line, they abandon all
decorum.”

But while a would-be master gone awry can become a cyberbully, those
seeking solace can find comfort in life on line – for a while.

I really loved coming home after a hectic day and reaching out to people
all over the world without having to see them. It made me feel peaceful and
connected. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I started going to work
late. I’ve also called in sick in order to say on-line. . . . I was glad to
see your message because this is a real problem and I don’t have anyone to
talk to, except on-line. – Patrice

“People who are shy and bright find many ways to hide,” said Judah
Landes, a psychotherapist in Mountain View, Calif., who specializes in
treating computer professionals. “Without support in learning to relate to
real, breathing people, they can become isolated and depressed.”

For most on-line subscribers, said longtime users, being lost in
cyberspace is a passing phase. Initially, being on line insulates people
from their intimate setting while expanding their horizons electronically.

The screen is suddenly a window into a new world and people don’t know
you are a dog. The honeymoon period is intense. But that should not be
confused with some new form of antisocial behavior or supreme narcissism
for those who wish to indulge. – Nicholas Negroponte (Mr. Negroponte is the
author of “Being Digital,” just published by Knopf.)

The Net, in a way, is a net, said Mr. Brand of the Well. “You might not
know that you’re using too much, but on line, people will start telling you
to get a life,” he said.

Most people do. First, they question their priorities:

What is computer addiction? Typing away merrily, glancing idly at the
clock in the corner of the screen and realizing that you have to leave in
10 minutes to get your daughter to day care, both of you are still in
pajamas, her lunch isn’t made . . . telling your supervisor how much
relevant work information you can glean . . . and somehow persuading him
that it’s O.K. for you to log on during work time . . . taking on extra
jobs that allow you to extend your computer time at work. – Barbara

Then, they take action:

I had it bad till I got my first bill. I didn’t go off line cold turkey
but I cut back to an hour a day. – Roger

For others, Mr. Gillin of Computer World said, the transition from life
on line to real life is more difficult. “People with an obsessive nature
eventually end up facing that nature when they face the screen,” he said.

Think of life on line as a beer party, suggested Esther Dyson, who
publishes “Release 1.0,” a monthly newsletter for computer professionals in
Manhattan. “Some people go for the beer and get addicted to the beer,” she
continued. “Some people go and find out they like to party. Some go and
say: ‘Oh, this is cool. I can sell insurance here.’ ”

Moreover, she said, “as computers become more commonplace, they lose
their allure as love objects.”

But not everyone believes that the on-line world the computers can
summon is losing its allure. Take this response in the Canopus Forum of
Compuserve:

Ha ha. you have posted this question in the most addictive computer
forum known to man (or woman). So there will be no need to provide
anecdotes as you now have your own personal addiction . . . Enjoy . . . You
can check out, but you can never leave. – Joe
Copyright The New York Times

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