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Internet's Lure Ensnares 1 in 8 Americans: Survey

But researchers can't agree if it's a real addiction

FRIDAY, Oct. 20, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Research is shedding new light on the often-controversial topic of Internet addiction, suggesting that online usage has significantly disrupted the lives of millions of Americans.

About six percent of people surveyed by Stanford University researchers said their personal relationships have suffered as a result of their Internet use, and nine percent reported actively hiding their online habits at home or at work.

The findings don't confirm that Internet addiction is an actual mental disorder, but they "should start the conversation about the subset of the population for whom the Internet is not so wonderful," said study lead author Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, an assistant clinical professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of Stanford University's Impulse Control Disorders Clinic.

Mental-health specialists have worried about Internet addiction for about a decade, although the condition hasn't become an accepted psychological diagnosis. Some specialist lump it in with "impulse-control" disorders.

"Is Internet addiction a unique mental disorder, or is it just a symptom of another, more 'traditional' type of disorder? Research has yet to determine this," said John Suler, a professor of psychology at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., who began writing about the condition in 1996.

The new study tries to get a handle on how serious the problem is. Researchers interviewed 2,513 American adults by phone in the spring and summer of 2004 and asked about their Internet usage.

About 69 percent of the respondents were regular Internet users. Of all respondents, four percent said they were preoccupied by the Internet while offline, 14 percent said they had trouble staying offline for several days, and 12 percent stayed online more than they wanted to, either often or very often.

The findings were published in the October issue of CNS Spectrums: The International Journal of Neuropsychiatric Medicine.

Aboujaoude said the numbers are important because there has been little in the way of a "structured study" into troublesome Internet use. Much attention has been "sensationalistic," looking at online pornography or gambling, he added.

The findings do reflect the experiences of psychiatrists, Aboujaoude said. "We see patients coming in, saying things, like, 'My wife will divorce me because I wait until she goes to sleep and I go online.' Or 'I've been fired or disciplined because of my Internet activity at work.' They're starting to present with problems directly related to their Internet habits."

The new research should inspire further studies to see how the numbers "correlate with real-life distress and disability," he said.

But, even then, it may be difficult for Internet addiction to get officially recognized by the mental-health establishment.

"The researchers conclude that impulse-control problems are related to excessive Internet use, but the study does not prove that such use is a type of impulse-control disorder or a unique disorder," said Suler, who's familiar with the study findings. "Demonstrating the validity of a brand new diagnostic disorder involves a great deal of research, and even then the final decision about a new disorder can be political," he added.

If Internet addiction is a real disorder, what can be done for the sufferers?

"You start by carefully diagnosing them, making sure there aren't any other issues going on that should be treated, such as major depression," Aboujaoude said. "When it's identified as an independent entity, then psychotherapy would be the place to start. You [give] the patient tools to gradually limit their online activities and deal with symptoms of anxiety, restlessness and irritability as they resist going online for non-essential Internet use."

The study was funded by Forest Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company.

More information

Learn more about Internet addiction from the State University of New York at Albany.

SOURCES: Elias Aboujaoude, M.D., assistant clinical professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and director, Impulse Control Disorders Clinic, Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.; and John R. Suler, Ph.D., professor of psychology, Rider University, Lawrenceville, N.J. October 2006, CNS Spectrums: The International Journal of Neuropsychiatric Medicine
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