SAN FRANCISCO ~ Spending too much time on the internet: bad habit or something more serious?
A team of researchers at California’s prestigious Stanford University has found that for one in eight Americans, excessive internet use is a growing problem.
Close to 14 percent of US internet users have shown signs of cyber-dependence, according to the study, which involved 2,513 people across 50 states and is believed to be the first large-scale look at the effects of prolonged web-surfing.
Of those surveyed, 68.9 percent described themselves as regular internet users. Just under six percent felt their relationships suffered as a result of spending too much time online, while nearly 14 percent found it hard to stay from the internet for several days at a time.
Around 8.7 percent of respondents attempted to conceal non-essential internet use while 3.7 percent felt preoccupied by the internet when offline.
Just over nine percent used the internet as a way to escape problems; 12.4 percent went online longer than intended very often.
“We have been seeing in our clinics for the last three or four years people who come in saying that the internet has really started to affect them in a negative way,” Dr Elias Aboujaoude, an assistant professor in Stanford’s psychiatry and behavioral sciences department said.
“They have been fired from work because of excessive internet use; their spouses have threatened to divorce.
“First they try to justify it. But then something major happens that makes them realize what is the situation. Being disciplined at work or being fired at work, or their wife or husband warning to leave makes them really realize that seemingly innocent behavior leads them to a lot of problems.”
The sites that often cause problems are not necessarily the most obvious. While online gambling and pornographic sites are now hugely popular, Aboujaoude warned that cyber-dependency could come from something as simple as checking emails every five minutes, updating blogs or logging onto financial pages to check fluctuating share prices.
Cyber-dependency, which has been the subject of little study until recently, is not yet classified as a fully fledged illness, Aboujaoude said.
“What we can say for sure is that for a significant portion of the population, there are some red flags that indicate a real problem,” he said. “It takes more steps to say that there is something called internet addiction.”
More commonly, lonely hours spent on the internet were an indication of an existing behavioral disorder.
“Somebody is going online because he has social anxiety, and has a lot of difficulties interacting with people face to face, and spends hours online,” Aboujaoude said.
“The same is for the person who is depressed and finds it too overwhelming to leave the house, so all he does is to stay indoors and play internet games.”
The possibility of being able to recreating your persona in virtual online communities could also lead to problems.
“Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between your virtual life and real life. It can be a slippery slope for people using these sites,” Aboujaoude added.