January 21, 1999
Harvard
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HARVARD GAZETTE ARCHIVES

Computer Addiction Is Coming On-line

By William J. Cromie

Gazette Staff


Maressa Hecht Orzack, a Harvard University psychologist, calls computer addiction "a real and growing problem." Photo by Kris Snibbe.

Luci could not wait to get in front of her computer. It took the divorced mother away from two demanding children and the drudgery of housework. She could play absorbing games, chat with appealing people, "travel," gamble, even have fantasy sex.

When her ex-husband visited their children, he saw that they were being neglected. He discovered that Luci (not her real name) spent 10 or more hours a day on the Web.

The husband sued for custody of the children. The court agreed with his claim that Luci's excessive use of the computer was abnormal. She lost custody of the children.

Maressa Hecht Orzack, a Harvard University psychologist, cites this true case as an example that computer addiction is real and a growing problem. As founder and director of Computer Addiction Services at McLean Hospital, a Harvard-affiliated teaching hospital in Belmont, Mass., she receives messages every day from people who ask for help or want information about the signs of computer addiction.

"It's an emerging disorder," Orzack says, "suffered by people who find the virtual reality on computer screens more attractive than everyday reality. Health-care specialists, school counselors, corporate executives, and families have begun to notice the aberrant behavior and mental health problems of computer addicts. They feel unhappy when they are away from the machine. Some try unsuccessfully to stop using it. Many of them spend constantly-increasing amounts of time and money on computers, often neglecting their families and work. Then they compound the problem by denying it."

"It's a new and serious addiction not too many people know about," says Carol Steinman of Harvard University's Faculty and Staff Assistance Program. "In the past year and a half, we have seen this problem among people of all ages."

Symptoms and Surveys

Orzack herself knows how easy it can be to become addicted. A few years ago, she was trying to teach herself to use a new software program. When frustrated with trying to understand the manuals, Orzack escaped to playing solitaire on the machine.

"I've always liked the game and I started spending more and more time with it," she recalls.

Soon, Orzack avoided her primary reason for being on the machine. She started staying up late and spending less time at work.

"I have a lot of experience with impulse control problems, like gambling and eating disorders, so I realized what I was getting into," she admits.

Orzack started treating herself by placing limits on the amount of time she played, rather than staying at a game until rewarded by winning. "It's one of the strategies I use with patients," she notes.

At first, people thought Orzack was crazy when she talked about people becoming addicted to computers. But several articles in scientific journals and newspapers, as well as anecdotal evidence, convinced her that other professionals were concerned about the problem. Recently, a new scientific journal devoted to this subject, called Cyber Psychology and Behavior, was started

No one knows how big the problem is. Several research groups have tried to measure it but without notable results. "Many addicts don't admit it," notes Orzack, "or they're not aware of it. There isn't a good definition of what is normal and what is pathological use."

Here is Orzack's list of the signs and symptoms:

  • Using the computer for pleasure, gratification, or relief from stress.
  • Feeling irritable and out of control or depressed when not using it.
  • Spending increasing amounts of time and money on hardware, software, magazines, and computer-related activities.
  • Neglecting work, school, or family obligations.
  • Lying about the amount of time spent on computer activities.
  • Risking loss of career goals, educational objectives, and personal relationships.
  • Failing at repeated efforts to control computer use.

In addition, addicts often have problems such as skipping meals, repetitive stress injuries, backaches, dry eyes, headaches, and loss of sleep.

One 14-year-old boy e-mailed Orzack begging her for help. "I have been a computer addict since I was 11," he wrote. He said his grades went from 3.8, when he wasn't using the computer much, to 1.3. He told her he missed meals, suffered backaches, lost track of time, went to bed late, and fell asleep in school.

"I'm afraid that I will run away if my parents take my computer away," he continued. "It is almost like the computer owns me."

One of the few studies done on admitted addicts found they had other problems such as loneliness, shyness, depression, and low self- esteem. Orzack's observations agree with these findings, and she adds "lousy marriages, incorrigible kids, and boredom at school, home, and work."

Linda Welsh surveyed 810 college students at Northeastern University in Boston and found that 62 of them (almost 8 percent) fit the profile of those she labels "Internet dependent."

"That's consistent with other research I'm familiar with, most of which was done with college students," Welsh says. "These studies come up with a number between 6 and 10 for the percentage of people who are computer-addicted."

Treatment

Treatment is tricky, according to Orzack. "Like an eating disorder, you can't expect people to give it up completely," she says. "Tempting 'food' is all around at work, at school, and in their homes. You have to limit the time spent in front of a machine the way you limit the time spent at the table. Moderation is important, especially for the new generation of kids who begin to use computers in the first grade, or even before then."

One of the hardest things is to get people to come in and talk face- to-face with a therapist. They want to do it all on the Internet.

Orzack describes one man who spent all night on the Internet. He couldn't get up to go to work or keep appointments. She kept contacting him by Internet to remind him of his obligations until he finally came to see her.

Orzack and other therapists use the same treatment methods as they do with gambling, alcohol, or eating addictions. In one technique, known as cognitive-behavioral therapy, people are taught to monitor their thoughts and identify those that trigger addictive feelings and actions. At the same time, they learn new skills to cope with the addiction and ways to prevent, or handle, relapses.

In another technique, motivational interviewing, patient and therapist work together to set goals such as learning to recognize the difference between healthy and addictive computer use. "The efforts of patients are constantly reaffirmed, and they are not scolded for slips or failures," Orzack explains.

She uses a combination of both techniques, making "contracts" with people to specify how much time they will spend in front of a computer screen. As an example, she encourages them to set an alarm, or two alarms if needed, to signal when to turn to other activities. Orzack tries to get them to devote more time to other pursuits, such as exercising, talking with family and friends, and developing new recreational or social interests

The average treatment takes three months of regular sessions and telephone (not e-mail) checkups. But, Orzack acknowledges, some people require a year or more to deal with their bad habits.

"Nobody's ever cured," she says. "You just learn to deal with the problem."

Those who want more information can find it at www.computeraddiction.com.

 


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College