"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."

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.

"No question about it: the Internet is addictive," said Marilyn Metzl, a Kansas City psychologist who has seen technology trouble creeping into her work with children, adolescents and families.

Addictive drugs all produce the same net effect, which is to stimulate a "reward pathway" in a part of the brain that controls the release of dopamine, the brain's primary feel-good chemical, she said. Recent brain-imaging studies show that the same area of the brain associated with drug addiction lights up with computer use.

"Woven as it is into the fabric of today's society, the potential for Internet use to lead to overuse and ultimately to addiction is concerning," Christakis wrote. "Part of the failure to recognize this potential 21st-century epidemic is the simple fact that many of us, Blackberry in hand, check e-mail more than we would like. The inherent difficulties in defining Internet addiction and our own need for rectification should not prevent us from recognizing an emerging epidemic."

Too much technology

Facebook and computer games aren't inherently bad, Metzl said. But when technology use becomes compulsive, or a person starts shirking real-life duties and relationships to spend more time online, the consequences can be grave.

Yates's husband chose games over school. He failed his classes.

He chose games over his wife. He was so engrossed in the computer, that he stopped acknowledging her presence. The couple didn't talk for weeks at a time. When they did, he spoke to her about the computer game, referring to the characters as if they were his real-life friends. Their marriage failed.

"People behave just as if they were under the grip of cocaine," said Turkle, author of the 2011 book "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other." "They are sneaking away to get on Facebook and putting game time above relationships."

About six percent of people surveyed for a recent Stanford University School of Medicine study indicated that "their relationships suffered as a result of excessive Internet use." Eighty-four percent of people aged 19 to 29 said they would rather do without their current partner or their car than give up Internet access, according to a survey conducted by the German broadband association Bitkom. In a 2011 survey, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found one in five failed marriages are destroyed by social networking.

Whole families suffer, Turkle said, when parents are so plugged in the dinner table becomes a place for texting rather than talking.

"When Mom's reading 'Harry Potter' to her kids with her right hand and scrolling through her email with her left, the family dynamic is going to suffer," she said. "They're really not giving kids their full attention."

In some extreme cases, relationship problems spurred by an obsession with technology have proven fatal. A South Korean couple in 2009 made international headlines after they returned from an all-night session playing computer games to find their three-month-old daughter "eyes open and her ribs showing," dead from malnutrition. In 2010, a Florida mother pled guilty to shaking her 14-week-old son to death because he interrupted her while playing the Facebook game "Farmville." A Pennsylvania teen in 2010 bludgeoned his mother to death with a hammer after she took away his computer game privileges.

Too much technology can also be harmful to a person's physical health. Excessive Internet use may cause parts of the brain to atrophy, according to a study published in PLos One Journal this month. For the study, Chinese neuroscientists and radiologists analyzed MRI brain scans of university students who spent between 8 and 13 hours online six days a week. The longer the students had been heavily using the Internet, the more serious the damage to their brains. The affected area of the brain is involved in concentration, memory and the ability to make decisions and set goals.

Oxford University Professor Susan Greenfield likened the effects of too much technology on the brain to the symptoms of dementia.

"I am a neuroscientist and I know the brain is shaped by the environment," she told the National Press Club. "If the environment is changing in an unprecedented way, it is a given the brain will change in an unprecedented way."

Scaling back

The good news is, for most people, cutting back on Internet use doesn't require professional intervention. According to a 2006 study by Stanford University, 93.7 percent of the people who reported trying to spend less time on the Internet were successful.

Those who do need intervention are generally using the computer as a way to escape underlying emotional problems, said Neal Christensen, a Utah County psychologist who works with children with behavioral addictions. Just as people "drink to forget," he said, people use the Internet or play video games as an escape.

"Some kids smoke pot to escape bad test grades or stress at home, my clients drown themselves in an online identity," he said

In a lot of ways, treating a computer addiction is similar to treating a substance abuse problem, Christensen said. The key is discovering what a person is "running away from."

As clinical director of Outback Therapeutic Expeditions in Lehi, Christensen's approach is to take patients into the wilderness where they can come to grips with being unplugged. Most mental health providers now offer outpatient services for people struggling with Internet addiction. For an at home solution, several software companies have introduced Chrome and Firefox extensions that limit the use of specific sites.

In one important way, though, computer addictions are in a class of their own.

"Technology is here to stay," Christensen said. "It's not a matter of staying away from bars or changing friends. It's everywhere, it's accessible and, to some extent, we have to use it in order to function in modern society."

Yates doesn't pretend that the only problem with her marriage was her husband's affection for the computer. He used the computer as a way to hide from their relationship difficulties, she said.

Regardless, though, she said, "I hate computer games. I hate them. I hate them. I hate them."

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