By Peter Svensson, ASSOCIATED PRESS February 7, 2006

[image: Linden Research, Inc. In the online world ??oSecond Life??? visitors report spending 12-hours-plus participating as characters.]

NEW YORK ??" A trailer in theaters for ??oStay Alive??? ??" a movie about about video gamers dying because they played the wrong game ??" splashes this message across the screen: ??oThere are 100 million gamers in America. One in four is addicted.???

Video games and the Internet have been subject to suspicion since the computer became a household fixture. One complaint: People get sucked into spending enormous amounts of time on the computer, to the detriment of other parts of their life.

But are they addicted?

The answer depends on what you mean by ??oaddicted.??? Most experts say computers are not addictive in the same sense that drugs are, but they could be on the same level as gambling.

??oWhen I started out particularly in Internet addiction in back 1995, I thought that this could potentially be a major problem,??? said Professor Mark Griffiths, who studies behavioral addictions at Nottingham Trent University in Nottingham, England. ??oIn no way has the hype lived up to what has actually been found in research.???

Donna Meyer doesn't think she's addicted, even if she spends up to 12 hours a day in Second Life, a game-like world on the Internet. The 49-year-old grandmother in New York shares a virtual home with a partner who lives in New Mexico.

??oMy daughter gets annoyed,??? Meyer said. ??oShe's like, 'My God, Ma, you used to go out, now you're always on the computer.'???

Meyer is unapologetic: ??oI'm unemployed, don't really have the money to go out anymore, so I enjoy this,??? she said. ??oIt's a way of still meeting people.???

Griffiths believes there's a large difference between people who use the Internet excessively and those who have problems with it, and even those who have problems may not be addicted. To count as a real addiction in Griffith's view, it has to be destructive, cause withdrawal symptoms and prompt ever greater use to maintain the kick.

??oWhen you apply those criteria to something like Internet use or video game use, you find that yeah, lots of people display some of those components, but very few display all of them, and in that sense, to me, they are not classically addicted,??? Griffiths said.

Tellingly, he said, people who establish a romantic relationship online and spend hours on it usually stop using the Internet when they meet in the real world and continue the relationship there.

Jason Ellis, 32, has felt the negative side of computer games, which have cost him one job and at least one girlfriend.

??oIn 1998, when StarCraft came out, I was playing 10 hours a day and trying to work 8 hours a day,??? said Ellis, who lives in New York. Now, he has pulled back a bit on the games in favor of making music.

??oI don't blame them for things in my life that haven't gone the way they're supposed to,??? Ellis said. ??oIt's my most consuming pastime, and it has been for such a long time that I'm comfortable with it.???

Experts believe that computer addiction does happen, if rarely. Robert LaRose, a professor of telecommunications at Michigan State University, has studied the phenomenon among students, and estimates that it happens to a fraction of a percent of users ??" about the same rate as gambling addiction.

??oFor the people who can't catch themselves for some reason, there's the possibility of a downward spiral,??? he said.

In South Korea, a hardcore video-gaming culture was blamed last year for at least four deaths. Three men died after or during gaming bouts, one as long as 20 days. A four-month-old baby suffocated while its parents were out playing games.

In cases like that, game addiction is probably not the only factor, said Cynthia Moreno Tuohy, executive director of NAADAC, The Association for Addiction Professionals. She said mental illness could play into it, for instance.

Looking at underlying causes is also useful in treating milder forms of obsessive computer use, in Moreno Tuohy's opinion.

??oIf you're not feeling connected at home, at work, with your parents, with your loved ones, or with your family, then you're going to look for it somewhere else,??? she said. ??oThe human being is made to need other people.???

If parents find their kids are spending too much time online or with video games, they should ask themselves if they're providing an alternative, she added.

??oDifferent research has pointed out that most kids would rather spend time with a positive, nonjudgmental adult than with a machine, a toy or a TV, or even their peers,??? Moreno Tuohy said.

Psychologist Kimberly Young estimates that 5 percent to 10 percent of Internet users have compulsive bouts. Young has provided counseling over the phone and online from her Center for Online Addiction in Bradford, Pa., since 1997.

Compulsive users may not be addicted in a stringent sense, but to Young that's an academic distinction ??" they have a problem and may need outside help, which the mental health profession is in poor position to provide.

??oSo many people come to me after going to three or four other psychologists who didn't get it, and just told them to turn off the computer,??? Young said. ??oThat's like telling an alcoholic to stop drinking.???

To Young, the skepticism surrounding Internet addiction is typical of new diagnoses. She pointed out that it took decades for gambling addiction to enter the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the psychiatric profession's bible.

For Internet addiction to get there, more research needs to be done to differentiate it from other compulsive patterns, she said.

??oIt's so new,??? Young said. ??oI mean, you're only talking about something that's a decade old.???

But that's forever in Internet time.

------------------------

 On the Net:
Center for Online Addiction:
www.netaddiction.com

NAADAC, The Association for Addiction Professionals:
www.naadac.org/

--------------

article source