Friday, March 1, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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I'm Kris; I'm A Webaholic -- Use Of Online Computer Services Can Be Addictive

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Her name is Kris Fortney. And she's a recovering computer addict.

From a University of Washington computer lab, Fortney recently typed her confession onto "Webaholics," a site on the World Wide Web devoted to similar heavy-duty Internet users: "My co-workers laugh at me. My family no longer exists. School is a place that connects me to this computer."

Later, in a Valentine's Day posting, Fortney added: "The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem, right? I have a problem and I DON'T CARE. . . . I'll wear it proudly, like a badge or perhaps a scarlet `W' would be appropriate."

The two messages, said the Latin American studies major, were tongue-in-cheek. But her humor didn't stray too far from the truth.

Around the country - in computer labs, at commercial Internet cafes and in the privacy of their own homes - some computer users are online so much that the cyberworld rivals their real world. They're skipping meals, dodging classes, bypassing showers, slacking off at work and arriving late for appointments - all to spend more time sending messages, retrieving information, "talking" with other people and doing whatever else they can do on a computer.

Some estimate that as many as 5 percent of people with computers spend an excessive amount of time on the Internet, though computer experts disagree on the magnitude of the situation.

There is no disputing, however, that the phenomenon has grown in the past two years.

Some therapists have added "computer addiction" consultations to their practices and - in a kind of paradox - online discussions have popped up to discuss computer obsessions.

In Fortney's case, the free e-mail account she received at the UW sat idle for months. Then she got the itch. Within weeks, she went from sending e-mail, to surfing Web sites about Latin America, to learning how to program a Web page for work.

She frequently made the half-hour trek from her South King County home to the computer lab. She shed nearly 20 pounds; constant surfing precluded snacking.

Fortney said she would yearn to go back to the computer even while working at Starbucks. The fast-paced work didn't stop her from thinking about what she'd later find via the computer.

Her co-workers joked that she needed a 12-step program to curb her Internet addiction. When they asked where she was going after work, she would say she was headed to the computer lab "just for a bit," she said. "And then I'd end up there till 4 in the morning."

For a fitful four weeks, the 29-year-old Fortney spent 30 to 40 hours per week online - as much time as she works - making tons of connections but also losing sleep and, ultimately, losing steam.

Is Fortney a typical example? According to experts, it's hard to say.

"Anecdotally, there are a lot of people who experience this - no matter how briefly," said Linda Tipton, a staff psychologist at the University of Maryland in College Park. At her campus, the university offers individual therapy for the problem and is attempting to begin group therapy.

"You hook someone to Netscape (a software program to browse the Internet) for the first time and they may spend hours on it the first weekend, use all their evening free time to explore."

Most grow bored and go on with their lives. For others, addiction begins when they know they're making concessions but continue with compulsive computer use, she said.

The computer-addiction phenomenon is so new that people don't agree on its characteristics.

Some have seen people addicted solely to surfing the Web - which connects them to photographs and video and audio clips as well as text. Others see a more general Internet addiction, sending e-mail messages, joining discussion groups and venturing into chat rooms.

A few talk about people who cling stubbornly to intense computer role-playing adventure games on the Internet called MOOs (multiple object-oriented) and MUDs (multiple-user dungeon). Still others use the more all-encompassing term computer addiction.

In any case, psychologists and computer-lab workers in the past two years have seen more and more people afflicted with it.

And as the Internet has grown easier to navigate, those addicted have diversified.

Once, it was mostly male "techies," intellectuals whose lives or jobs involved heavy computer use, whose modems served as quasi-umbilical cords. Now the addiction strikes women as often as men, young students as frequently as retirees, and folks of all intellectual levels.

"Girls gravitate more to e-mail than to games," said Judith Klavans, director of the Center for Research on Information Access at Columbia University in New York. "The communicative aspect of computer use is very appealing. So chat rooms are a big draw. That draws in as many women as men."

At the Marquette University Counseling Center in Milwaukee, Viktor Brenner decided to conduct an online survey of Internet use to gather statistics on the trend. Thirty-two days into the project, Brenner had 116 responses.

Brenner's working theory is that the Internet's appeal is mostly social. He expects to find a high percentage of heavy users with social anxieties - such as fear of being laughed at, rejected or thought of as odd.

The Internet "essentially acts as a magnifying glass," he said. "It makes it easy for you to find what you already like, plus the social aspect is what makes it different. It gives you the opportunity to (be) extremely self-revealing and extremely socially safe at the same time."

Michael Green, a Seattle clinical psychologist who now treats computer addiction, has seen seven computer-addicted patients in the past few weeks. Their needs run the gamut.

As an ex-computer addict himself, Green says he's "not into proselytizing that computer use is bad." He espouses working toward reasonable computer use, rather than quitting cold turkey.

That's the tact Fortney took. She has trimmed her on-line time to a total of 10 to 15 hours all told the past two weeks.

She still checks e-mail religiously but surfs the Web more judiciously.

"I can't just sit there any more and search and search and search." ----------------------------------------------------------------- Are you a computer addict?

Here's a sampling of true/false questions that are part of an online Internet use survey by Viktor Brenner. A doctoral candidate working at the Marquette University Counseling Center in Milwaukee, he is studying heavy computer use.

-- I have rearranged social plans to give myself time to connect.

-- I have used the Net to make myself feel better when I was down.

-- I have shared a deep, dark secret with a person on the Net.

-- When I am away on vacation, I can't wait to return home so I can connect.

-- I have gotten a bill for (Internet) services that was twice what I expected.

-- I have attempted to spend less time connected but have not been able to.

-- My work and/or performance has not deteriorated since I started using the Net.

The survey is at:

Other related World Wide Wide Web sites:

Interneters Anonymous:


Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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