SALT LAKE CITY — At first Ashley Yates just thought her husband of three weeks was excited about a new video game. Six hours a day in front of the computer, completely oblivious to the outside world as the flashing lights of simulated battle washed over his face, was excessive, perhaps, but he'd get bored of World of Warcraft soon enough. With each new argument, though, he sunk deeper and deeper into the game. Six hours stretched to 12, stretched to 36.
"Nothing mattered but the computer," said Yates, who asked not to be identified by her real name. "All he cared about was the game."
Mental health professionals report too much computer time is becoming a common thread in marriage and family counseling sessions. To address the issue, the past decade has seen the birth of a quickly growing industry, ranging from software to regulate the use of sites like Facebook and Twitter to full-blown residential treatment programs.
A recent study published in BMC Medicine indicates the number of people with maladaptive computer habits may be on the decline. At the same time, though, emerging research indicates spending too much time plugged in may be more damaging to social, psychological and physical health than previously suspected.
The addiction that's not
Yates's husband was knee deep in pre-requisites for medical school, but he couldn't seem to tear himself away from the computer long enough to attend class — let alone study. When she left the house at 7:30 a.m. she could hear the ping of electronic explosions coming from the spare bedroom he'd converted into a game den. When she came home at 10 p.m. after a full day at the office and full schedule of night classes, he hadn't moved. He didn't shower. He didn't change his clothes. He fell asleep in front of the computer with junk food dribbled down his chest.
"I don't think he could have stopped if he wanted," she said.
Most mental health professionals agree that the Internet is alluring. Whether it's through an avatar, Facebook status updates or a personal blog, the net provides an opportunity for people to create and live in a fantasy world.
"On the Internet you are always connected," said Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT. "You never have to be alone. As human beings, that's an enormously appealing idea."
Turkle shies away from the word "addiction," though. Instead, she argues that the Internet is "incredibly compelling," likening social networking and video games to a particularly delicious, fatty food. The American Psychiatric Association has tossed out the idea of "computer addiction" multiple times since it was first introduced in 1995. Intenet addiction does not have an official entry in the DSM-5, the diagnostic manual that doctors, insurers and scientists use to identify official mental disorders.
"The metaphor of addiction leads us to a very hopeless and negative way of thinking," Turkle said. "If we think of this in terms of addiction, there's only one thing to do and that's give up the substance. We are not going to give up this technology so it's much more helpful to talk about things in terms of a digital diet."
Early research into computer addiction estimated between 6 and 10 percent of Americans struggle with maladaptive computer use. In a study of college students published in BMC Medicine in June, Seattle psychiatrist Dimitri M. Christakis estimated that number to be about 4 percent.
Regardles of the percentages, Christakis, of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development, said he believes Internet addiction is an "emerging epidemic." Many of those who are manning the trenches in the mental health care industry seem to be on the same page. Eighty-four percent of college counselors "agree" or "strongly agree" that Internet Addiction Disorder is a legitimate ailment, according to research from the University of La Verne.
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