PALO ALTO, Calif. – Like a roll of the dice or a sip of bourbon, the glow of the computer screen has an irresistible and dangerous allure to many people, according to a new nationwide study by Stanford University. A random survey of 2,500 adults – the first-ever attempt to quantify “Internet addiction” in the general population – found that between 6 percent and 14 percent of computer users said they spent too many bleary-eyed hours checking e-mail, making blog entries or visiting Web sites or chat rooms, sometimes neglecting work, school, families, food and sleep.

The Stanford team, led by psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude, isn’t worried about people who spend their lunch hours cruising travel sites for a summer vacation in Tuscany.

Rather, they look for signs of compulsion.

“We worry when people use virtual interactions to substitute for real social interactions – and seeing their real relationships suffer, as a result,” he said.

“Sneaking out of bed, once your partner is asleep, to go online. Missing deadline after deadline at work, while visiting chat rooms. And when you cut back, feeling irritable, anxious or restless. Those are red flags,” he said.

Aboujaoude grew interested in the problem when he started to see a small but growing number of habitual Internet users visiting the university’s Impulse Control Disorders Clinic (http://ocd.stanford.edu/).

“Over the last two to three years, more people have come in with this specific complaint, saying, “I spend way too much time online, but I can’t help it,’ ” he said. “They characterize it in terms that sound like almost a substance abuse problem.”

Internet overuse is an easy trap because computers offer immediacy, a sense of connection and anonymity, Aboujaoude added. Connections are increasingly fast and wireless, and computers are pervasive in life.

In downtown Palo Alto, it’s not hard to find need-the-Net folks. In a Starbucks on University Avenue, high-tech salesman Ron Jennings of San Rafael, Calif., used a Treo handheld computer to check his e-mail while he waited for his laptop to finish sending a work document.

When he goes on vacation, he said, the laptop and the Treo go with him. “So things don’t build up.” Three other nearby tables also hosted laptop users.

At Coupa Cafe around the corner, five laptop users were settled in, including Stephanie Chen of Palo Alto. She laughed easily when she was asked how addicted she is to the Net.

“Oh, I’m a 10,” she said. “I can’t live without the Net. I wake up and it’s the first thing I do. I do everything on the Net.”

For his survey, which was published in the October issue of CNS Spectrums: The International Journal of Neuropsychiatric Medicine, Aboujaoude sought to measure the problem in the general population, outside hyper-wired Stanford and surrounding Silicon Valley.

To his surprise, “the survey suggests that it’s not an isolated problem – it is relatively widespread, and deserves more attention.”

Pornography and gambling sites are just one part of the problem, he said. Other sites – chat rooms, shopping venues and special-interest Web sites – are also habit-forming.

Psychologist and computer engineer Kenneth Woog of San Clemente, Calif., welcomed the study, saying too little research has been done on the problem.

Woog, who specializes in treating teenagers, is most worried about massive multiplayer online games. One such game, EverQuest, is referred to by many players as “Evercrack,” because of its addictive nature, he said.

Some games “are deliberately designed to be addicting,” Woog said. “They’re very compelling. You do something and get a reward. With enough rewards, you start to feel good about yourself. And you’re part of a team of people on a common quest.” Because games operate on a “subscription” model of sales, the most addicting games are the most lucrative for companies, he said.

Other therapists say they also increasingly see youths with unhealthy gaming habits, who neglect schoolwork and sports for online games.

It’s not known whether so-called Internet Addiction is a clinical disorder, Aboujaoude said. More research is needed to identify whether Internet overuse is a distinct condition or an expression of another psychopathology, such as depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder, he said.

The best label, for now, is “impulse control disorder,” Aboujaoude said. More research, based on one-on-one interviews, will better define the problem, he said.

“The Internet can be both helpful and isolating,” Aboujaoude said. “It becomes a problem when it isolates, substituting for a real social life.”


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