Why Some People Can't Stay Offline

Sex, Lies and Techno Escape

By her own admission, Kali Pappas' life had gotten a little "insane."

She'd pull an all-nighter in her favorite Internet chat room, then take a nap before going to her morning college classes. After school, Pappas would come home, catch a few winks and wake up red-eyed only to dial up again for another marathon session on the Net. She continued this way for four months. "I was tired all the time,'' says the now 22-year-old law school student at the University of California Berkeley. "Seven hours online went so fast, but I couldn't keep away from it. It's really hard to explain."

Like Crack, Booze and Dice

Dr. Kimberly Young has a simple explanation. Pappas was addicted to the Internet in the same way a gambler craves dice, a user longs for cocaine and an alcoholic thirsts for a drink.

A psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, Young is a leader in Internet addiction studies. She's presenting the results of her latest research project this week at the American Psychological Association's annual convention in Chicago.

To find out why the Internet might become habit-forming, or even destructive, for some people, Young devised a comprehensive questionnaire that also included questions about other habits, moods and life choices.

She posted the questionnaire on a university Web site, hoping to attract people who felt they used the Internet too much. Nearly 400 people responded. On average, respondents spent about 40 hours a week online, and many admitted that it was disrupting their lives. Some were online so much, they had no time for school or work.

Hooked on Chat

Young also learned from the surveys that susceptible people get hooked on the interactive aspects of the Web—chat rooms and MUDs, or multi-user dungeons, role-playing games in which characters communicate in real time online.

Sure, it's possible to get in trouble surfing the Net for information or staying up all night e-mailing friends. But in Young's survey, those activities accounted for only 20 percent of Internet "abuse," compared to almost 70 percent for chat rooms and MUDs. The remaining 10 percent involved newsgroups and "gopher" and database-search sites.

The demographics of Young's Net dependents were surprising. While two-thirds of all Internet users are men, more than half (239, to be exact) of Young's respondents were women. Forty-two percent were homemakers, disabled or retired people or students; only 8 percent listed themselves as employees of high-tech companies. About 11 percent said they were blue-collar workers and 39 percent said they were white-collar workers.

Cybersex and Social Support

Young says these Internet junkies identified three primary reasons they need the Net: companionship, sexual excitement and to alter their identities. People find companionship in chat rooms, where users can post messages in real time, and form a sort of online social support group. "With routine visits to a particular group," Young reports, "a high degree of familiarity among other group members is established, forming a sense of community."

For other addicts, the Internet is a means of sexual fulfillment.

"Erotic fantasies can be played out such that people can engage in novel sexual acts commonly known as cybersex," writes Young, adding that users at Web sex sites typically "explore the mental and subsequent physical stimulation of acting out forbidden erotic fantasies such as S&M, incest and urination."

The opportunity to create an entirely new persona is another big draw. In cyberspace, gender, age, race and socioeconomic status become irrelevant and people can become whatever they want. In MUDs, where users create new identities as part of a game, a 50-year-old overweight man can become a 20-year-old college co-ed, and nobody knows the difference.

Problem, Yes; Addiction, No

Not everyone believes in Internet addiction.

"It's being overblown because of the rapid expansion of the Web,'' says University of Toronto psychologist Harvey Skinner. "But is it any different than someone who's crazy about golf, or running marathons or sailing?"

Skinner doesn't dispute the fact that some people spend far too much time online. But to call it an addiction might "medicalize" something that shouldn't be.

"Yes, it's a problem. No, it's not an addiction," Skinner asserts. "We need to look at what's behind the behavior to understand the true problem.''

Call it what you want, it's had a very real effect on some people. Kali Pappas seems to have her habit under control. She now limits her time online. She's doing well in law school and looks forward to becoming a lobbyist.

"It's amazing how I adapted my life to the Internet,'' says Pappas, "but it's good to have that all behind me now.''

Source: ABC News

next: Psychology of Computer Use: Addictive Use of the Internet: A Case that Breaks the Stereotype
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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2009, January 4). Why Some People Can't Stay Offline, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 18 from

Last Updated: June 24, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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