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Spread of internet spurs personal isolation — Study

SAN FRANCISCO, FEB 17: The parents of teenager Matthew D were shocked at the state of their son. He ate little, his eyes were constantly b...

February 18, 2000

SAN FRANCISCO, FEB 17: The parents of teenager Matthew D were shocked at the state of their son. He ate little, his eyes were constantly bloodshot, he was moody and distracted, and he would spend countless hours sequestered in his room.

Their friends were sure that the 16-year-old’s symptoms were indicators of a bad drug habit, but when the parents finally confronted their son, they discovered an addiction of a different kind. Matthew was hooked on online computer games, part of a growing band of dedicated gamers who have let the virtual worlds they travel through on their computers overcome the often humdrum real worlds that feature in their daily lives. Initially Matthew’s parents were relieved to find he wasn’t on drugs, and consoled themselves that at least their son could follow a high tech career as a result of his all-consuming passion. But deep concerns also remained.

"Matthew used to be such a pleasant, engaging kid," said his father Bob. "Now it’s as though we didn’t exist. He can hardly relate to the real world." Ever since the dawn of the computer age such tales have been a staple of digital lore. But with the internet and computers conquering ever more social territory the incidence of computer addiction has been growing fast. The breadth of the danger was bolstered in a landmark study that indicated how heavy use of the internet was often linked to increased social isolation. The study, by Stanford University and the Free University of Berlin, showed that people who spend more than five hours per week online spend less time with family, friends, even television.

"The more hours people use the internet, the less time they spend with real human beings," said Norman Nie, who surveyed 4,113 American adults in 2,689 households for his study.

Nie asserted that the internet was creating a broad new wave of social isolation in the United States, raising the spectre of an atomised world without human contact or emotion. The study also found evidence that the internet was allowing the workplace to invade the home. A quarter of regular internet users employed at least part time said the internet had increased the time they spent working at home without reducing the time spent at work. Nie said that virtual communities are no substitute for traditional human relationships.

"If I spend the whole night sending e-mail and wake up the next morning, I still haven’t talked to my wife or kids or friends," Nie said. "When you spend your time on the internet, you don’t hear a human voice and you never get a hug." According to James Fearing, President of National Counseling Intervention Services, computer addiction afflicts between six and seven per cent of users, and is chronically under-reported. The cyberaddicts split into two main groups: Those who are addicted to chat rooms who often spend their lives masquerading with fantasy personas, and those who are hooked on online gaming. One of the most popular such games is called Everquest

in which players immerse themselves in characters they have created. This was the game which hooked Matthew, who now finds his computer time strictly rationed. The game is so capitivating to many of its adherents that it is often dubbed `Evercrack.’

Fearing is adamant that the games are not to blame. Rather, addicts suffer from the same weaknesses which cause other people to become hooked on drugs, alcohol, sex or work. "I see a lot of denial, the same as in other addictions," he says. "People don’t recognise yet that a person who is unable to control their use of a computer has the same by-products as a drug user." Families of computer addicts often feel threatened by the computer. "In marriages it’s almost as if there’s another person in the relationship," Fearing says. "Most people who start out don’t realise they’ll have a problem. But an invisible line is crossed and pretty soon their whole life is out of balance."

He notes that there are three main reasons that nudge people into online addiction. Many people use the online world as a safe refuge from real world issues like stress, pain and worry. Another prime cause is sexual fantasy which gives people sexual satisfaction they are unable to get in the real world. And third is the transient feeling of self-esteem that people get from adopting online personalities. But just being on the computer a lot does not make you an addict. That happens only when you lose the ability to control your online excursions, even if they are clearly detrimental to other areas of your life.

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