Clothes are strewn all over 21-year-old Sol Martin’s room. The bed is unmade and the fish tank has green film inside. Martin sits at his computer, refreshing pages, doing work for his courses, chatting on MSN Messenger.
Martin spends about 12 hours at his computer a day. He spends about half that time doing his online courses and web design. The rest is recreational.
Martin is a prime candidate for the experts to take into account as they argue over whether there is such a thing as Internet Addiction Disorder, a term coined by psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg in 1997. It’s not an official disorder, and there are disagreements over whether you can call it addiction or just compulsive use.
For Martin, Internet addict would be a good word to describe him.
“With me, the Internet is like doing crack. I just can’t get enough of it,” said Martin. “It’s just something I have to do.” He says each day, he needs to look at his e-mail, read the news, and check the forums.
“I’ll have friends say ‘I bet you can’t go 24 hours without touching a computer,'” said Martin. “I’ve tried it and I can’t.” Some people say he has a boring life, he says he doesn’t, because the Internet is his entertainment.
“Bottom line is that it’s a fun thing to do,” he says. “I’m always updating web pages, checking the news, posting on forums.
“When you’re on the Internet, you can be talking to 50-60 people at once.” Martin says he becomes very isolated when online.
“I sit in my room all day with my door closed,” he says. “I pretty much only come out of my room to go to the bathroom and eat.” Even then, he eats his meals in front of computer.
Psychologist Kimberly Young at the Center for On-Line Addiction in Bradford, Pennsylvania estimates between five and 10 per cent of Internet users are addicts. She modified criteria used for pathological gambling in a study to classify users as dependant on the Internet or not.
-Preoccupation with the Internet or online services, thinking about it while offline.
-The need to spend more and more time online to get satisfaction.
-Unable to control online use.
-Feeling restless and irritable when attempting to cut down or stop online use -Going online to escape problems or relieve feelings such as helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression.
-Going through withdrawal when offline, such as increased depression, moodiness, or irritability -Staying online longer than originally intended.
Martin could identify with almost all of these symptoms.
“That whole 24 hour period [when I tried to quit] I was pacing around the house, mostly in the computer room,” said Martin. “I wouldn’t say irritable as much as restless.” He says he also loses track of time when online.
“[One time] I thought I was online for 20-30 minutes. It was 2 Â½ hours. I looked at the clock and it was midnight.” The only two symptoms that don’t match up with Martin are lying about online use to friends and family and risking the loss of a significant relationship, job or education opportunity.
Martin says people can be skeptical about Internet addiction.
“Most people don’t consider being online 10 hours a day an addiction, they just think it’s you being lazy.” He says he’d disagree.
Another skepticism comes from interaction designer and researcher, e-learning system and virtual community developer Jonathan Bishop, who is based in Britain. He says people can not be addicted to the Internet anymore than they are addicted to pubs, because it is an environment.
“I personally don’t see the Internet as what the people are being addicted to,” said Bishop to a Beijing magazine. “I see it as the social experiences that are offered by the Internet that people are addicted to.” Martin does spend some time away from the computer, and wants to have those social experiences offline. He goes to a couple church things each week and gets together with the occasional friend.
“[I go out] Sunday mornings, Wednesday nights and Thursday nights. The rest of the time I’m at my computer.” He’s tried to go out with friends more often, but he says they always seem to be too busy.
He admits being online so much affects his life.
“I’m sure it’s affected my relationships and stuff, but they all have msn anyway.” There was one day, a couple years ago, when Martin sat in front of his computer, thinking about how much time he spent online.
“I thought ‘I wonder if there’s a computer user’s anonymous I can go to, ’cause it’s bad.’ I mean, they have a user’s anonymous for everything else.” But then, he just figured they didn’t have one, and went on with his life.
Martin says right now, he can’t stop his use.
“I have a theory that if you understand why you do something, you can stop it. Until then, I’mgoing to browse the Internet.” Martin doesn’t know how long that will be.
“I’d be scared to say the rest of my life, but – until I realize there’s a problem here and do something about it.
“Like smokers, I don’t have the willpower yet.”