Pauline knew she was in trouble from the first time she ever went online, way back in 1994, when she was just a high-school girl in New Jersey.
She would log onto a BBS (an early form of message board) that a kid in her neighborhood had set up, via her screeching, pokey 4800-baud modem, to check for messages -- and then she would log off and repeat the whole process 10 minutes later, and then again, and then again, each time to see if anything new had popped up, even though she knew it probably hadn't.
At some level, Pauline knew even then that this sort of behavior was not healthy, even though it felt good -- just as many alcoholics recall, with a mix of awe and terror, the flush of warmth and belonging that their first drink brings, quickly followed by repeating the pleasurable action over and over again, until ending up vomiting or passed out in a friend's front yard.
But who ever broke out in handcuffs following a blog binge? Whose partner ever left them over compulsive web-surfing? The consequences of Internet addiction may be less dramatic than those associated with drugs and alcohol, but they do exist. As far back as September 1998, an article ("Internet Paradox") in the journal American Psychologist detailed studies which demonstrated that, "Greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participants' communication with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their depression and loneliness."
Today, a growing number of experts consider Internet addiction to be a serious and growing scourge. One of these individuals is Dr. Kimberly Young, founder of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery and author of "Caught in the Net" (1998). Young told The Fix that Internet addiction is an umbrella term that includes everything from online pornography and gambling to gaming and eBay -- and more. "It is generally considered to cover all aspects of compulsive online behavior," she said.
According to Dr. Young's own Center for Internet Addiction Recovery, studies suggest that as many as one in eight Americans suffer from problematic Internet use -- with higher numbers, up to 30 percent, in China, South Korea and Taiwan. A recent survey by the polling website SodaHead revealed that 61 percent of 602 respondents felt like they were addicted to the Internet (while 39 percent "could quit if they wanted").
What are these addicts doing while online? A 2005 story in the New York Times ("Hooked on the Web") said that while many obsessive Internet users spend their time indulging in digital variations of addictive vices with real-world analogs, such as gambling or pornography, "Other users have a broader dependency and spend hours online each day, surfing the Web, trading stocks, instant messaging or blogging, and a fast-rising number are becoming addicted to Internet video games."
Further evidence of the general acceptance of this phenomenon as a real and damaging one is that, as Dr. Young noted, Internet addiction likely will be listed in the appendix of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (aka the DSM-V), which will be published this coming May.
"[Internet addiction] is a very new disorder, and much research still needs to be done to understand it," she said. "The studies conducted so far have used various criteria, which is a problem for validity... so we need a standard set of criteria, which is exactly what having it in the DSM-V will allow us to do."
As for Pauline, back in the late 1990s, she didn't yet understand the true nature of her addiction, either, which began really to blossom when she went off to college.
In those days, no one had computers in their dorm rooms, and so Pauline would trek endlessly back and forth from her college's computer lab, checking email and playing mindless flash games on the PC, including a Tetris-like puzzle game called Snood. Studying -- the same as it does for heavy-drinking college students -- fell by the wayside.
After she graduated and started working in an office in New York City, her problem only worsened. She was on the Internet all the time -- she had to be for work -- and it felt like how an alcoholic might feel working in a bar. She told the The Fix, "I had a pretty busy job with a lot to do, and I wasn't getting things done because of the Internet -- and that was when it became clear that there were consequences... and even though I knew there were consequences, I didn't change my behavior."
Pauline started seeing a therapist, who took her problem seriously. She tried several methods to stop her Internet abuse, but nothing seemed to work. So the therapist suggested that she limit her browsing to one hour per day, and that she stay late at work for however much time she went over that hour.
"I knew this one had failed when I had somewhere to be, urgently, at 8 p.m., and it got to be 7 and I still had an hour of overtime to do, yet I still found myself spending time on the Internet," Pauline said. That's when it became clear that she had a serious problem; that she was powerless over the World Wide Web.
But Pauline -- unlike alcoholics and sex, drug and gambling addicts -- didn't have a program to turn to for support in struggling with her addiction. So she asked a friend she knew who was a member of AA for help.
Her friend emailed her the first three steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Pauline tried to follow them to the best of her ability. And, for a time, it worked. "It was an overnight change in that I stopped using the Internet completely," Pauline said. "It wasn't... in that it remained difficult for a week or two." Pauline recalls her feeling of wanting desperately to go online, "and frustration with where you are and what you're doing -- a rushing feeling of frustration that's released by using the Internet." And yet, those six months in which she was on the wagon with respect to the web were some of the best months of her life since she first logged onto that BBS board.
"It's hard to explain how much clearer everything is when you're not on the Internet all the time," she wrote on a website (more on that in a minute). "But it made my life better in every part. Not just work, but in my social life, my love life, my experience of the world. I even slept better -- not just longer, but better."
And although Pauline wasn't religious, and in fact more or less still considers herself to be an atheist, she found praying to be relieved from her addiction both moving and useful. "I remember feeling a huge sense of relief and gratitude," she said. "And there was definitely some astonishment that after a few days I had still managed to not go on the Internet."
But, as with many addicts, Pauline suffered a relapse, losing countless hours to blogs, online games and instant-messaging. She had a theory why. "Everything I knew about AA sort of pointed to the fact that it didn't really work unless you kept going to meetings," Pauline said. "Then I found myself having problems and I started thinking it was because I was missing that element of 12-step programs."
So in 2008 she decided to start an Internet Addicts Anonymous group. She spoke to her friend about the format, and about what the meeting should look like. She rewrote the 12 steps and AA "meeting scripts" that her friend shared with her to address Internet addiction.
Ironically enough, she created a website that she hoped problem users would find, wherein she wrote about Internet Addicts Anonymous, Internet addiction and her own story. And finally, she booked a room at an LGBT community center where other 12-step meetings were held -- and hoped someone would show up.
A few people did, but not many. The largest meeting Pauline ever had was four people, and she only held around 10 meetings before she dissolved the group -- basically because there were not enough repeat visitors to really get it to snowball.
Further complicating the matter was that the people who attended did so for wildly disparate reasons. Some had issues with sex-chatting online, some were addicted to pornography and some struggled with an addiction to their BlackBerry or Palm Pilot. A few who attended were also members of Sex Addicts Anonymous, who impressed Pauline with their rigorousness with respect to recovery.
When she was setting up the meeting, Pauline borrowed a technique from Overeaters Anonymous, wherein members would have a set list of things they could do on the Internet -- and anything else was off-limits. "It didn't seem reasonable that people would stop using the Internet altogether because of all the stuff nowadays that requires it," she said.
Even though the Internet Addicts Anonymous group didn't last for long, it helped Pauline while it did, in terms of accountability. And even now, four years later -- due to the IAA website that Pauline set up, and never closed down -- she still gets an email every now and then, with people asking if there's going to be a meeting, and telling her that they are really struggling.
As for Pauline, her daily struggle with the Internet has subsided somewhat, yet she still is aware of her susceptibility to its repetitive, frustration-relieving call. After the IAA meetings wound down, she found a new, more engaging job, which led her to believe that she could manage and regulate her Internet use on her own.
Later on, Pauline left New York City for graduate school, meaning that she no longer works in an office, which makes a big difference -- to some extent. But the problem is still there, under the surface. For example, she said, "Just weeks ago I discovered this game on Facebook that I started to play a lot, and staying up late to play it and not doing homework, so I had to delete it."
The gravitational pull that these online games, and the Internet in general, still have for Pauline may sound familiar to a recovering -- or active -- alcoholic or drug addict. The game, which is called Ravenskye City, is just "so stupid," Pauline said.
"You're just building a little village in the sky, and you're doing the same thing -- it's repetitive -- and I used up an entire Saturday on that. And I had to go study for a test... and I would just say that I'll play until the next round, or wait until the next thing happens, and it's horrible. You sort of come out of it four hours later and once you stand up and walk away you're like, 'Oh -- I could have done that hours ago, why didn't I?'"
Pauline is quick to admit that she should not be the poster child for a fully recovered Internet addict. "I do feel like I have it under control now," she said. "I'm self-aware enough not to say that I'm cured, but it doesn't feel unmanageable -- except for last week when I played that game."
She added: "I think if I was in an office, I would not be able to handle it."
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