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Where the Real World Ends
By William Kanapaux

Is the near-ubiquity of the Internet evidence of its utility—or of its alarming addictiveness?

Are you hooked on the Internet?

Psychologist Kimberly S. Young first asked this question way back in the mid-1990s. And while the debate over Internet addiction has never been fully resolved, her question is even more relevant today.

Young’s research into Internet addiction and cyberdisorders caused quite a stir in 1998, when true-life stories of bad times on the information superhighway culminated in her book Caught in the Net. Psychiatrists and addiction specialists questioned whether an attachment to a machine and the virtual world it enabled could be considered an addiction at all.

Five years later, the book’s examples are outdated. It tells of college students pulling all-nighters in computer labs to play MUD (the old, text-based “multi-user dungeon” games) and Net-addicted housewives running up outrageous Internet access charges. Our Web-connected world has moved far beyond the one that Young describes.

But the book’s main concern is as timely as ever. If things have changed as much as they have in five years, how much more will have changed five years from now? The ever-evolving technology that makes up the Web is sure to continue compelling us to while away our hours online, especially as it extends its reach into cell phones and other wireless gadgets.

The proliferation of broadband connections in the home means that a growing number of computer users are always just one click away from the Internet’s expanding universe. Anyone who knows what it’s like to download a 300-page Acrobat file or a significant chunk of software in less time than it takes to fill a cup of coffee understands just how obsolete a 56K modem has become. And mp3 downloads? If you don’t have broadband, you’re wasting your time.

The Web has gotten flashier too. All sorts of souped-up coding gizmos in JavaScript and Flash can make cyberspace seem like an extension of your own mind. Or make your mind seem like an extension of some larger consciousness—albeit one that suffers from bad posture, sleep deprivation and a lack of exposure to sunlight.

But is it addiction to be held in thrall by the Net? Even after taking into account that most Net addicts are probably in denial, it’s hard to imagine that any more than 10 percent of Internet users can be classified as addicted. One 1998 study of 18,000 Internet users found that only 5.7 percent met the criteria for compulsive Internet use.

The bigger problem seems to be Internet dependence. As Web technology reaches its tendrils into more aspects of our lives, few seem to question the potential downside. Sure, there will always be the occasional story about a cybersex affair destroying a 20-year-old marriage, or Internet porn fanatics losing their jobs because they can’t control the urge to download, or students flunking out of college because they can’t tear themselves away from chat or interactive gaming. And worse.

But what about the rest of us? Those of us who wonder how in the hell we just spent two hours immobilized in front of a monitor the size of a television, our brains and eyeballs sucked dry in the vacuum of cyberspace?

Sure, a portion of that time is related to professional work, but the Internet has increasingly encroached upon our personal lives as well.

The official line from those who profit from the Internet is that Web-based technology makes our lives better, bestowing knowledge and freedom upon us while enhancing our chances for love and friendship. A grandmother gets to experience her newborn grandchild from hundreds of miles away, even as she looks for the best deal on airfare. A boy gets a date with a girl across a crowded lecture hall through the miracles of wireless Internet and instant messaging.

The list goes on. The good times never end.

But is it possible that our increasingly inclusive cyberculture is doing more psychological harm than we care to admit? That the people we feel we know online—whether it be through e-mail or list-servs or message boards or chat rooms or interactive online gaming—are eating up a serious chunk of our time?

If cornered, avid Internet users are likely to defend those hours spent in cozy cybercorners as time spent with friends. That would be friends made on the Internet, of course, as opposed to friends made in that three-dimensional space known as RW (Real World), where things like touch, smell and body language all play a key role in our interactions.

And yet, people tend to develop just as strong an emotional attachment to online friends as Real World friends. Sometimes stronger. How does this happen?

Perhaps it was inevitable. As the World Wide Web evolved, people grew more comfortable communicating with friends and loved ones through e-mail and instant messaging. Maintaining relationships through the Internet quickly became second nature. At the same time, people embraced the information-gathering capabilities of the Net, which brought them in contact with people and places outside their normal lives.

Once we got used to the Internet as a medium for maintaining relationships, it wasn’t such a great leap to develop meaningful feelings toward people we only knew online. A protocol emerged: First comes chat and message boards, then comes e-mail and instant messaging and Web cams. And, after all that, maybe a Real World meeting.

Because online communication lacks the closure found in normal interactions, it’s not too difficult to see how people might devote more and more time to it. E-mails need replies. Message board and list-serv threads need reading. Research needs to be done for the upcoming fantasy-baseball draft.

In her book, Young suggests that people get addicted to the Internet for any number of reasons, mostly involving dissatisfaction and avoidance. One person doesn’t like his job, another wants out of her marriage. But as the Internet itself becomes harder to avoid, it’s possible that getting drawn into the cyberchasm will become a commonplace side effect, rather than a driving desire to avoid Real World unpleasantness.

Otherwise well-adjusted people are spending increasingly greater amounts of time in cyberspace and devoting a greater percentage of their curiosity, creativity and intellect to do it. But why? Why devote so much time to a medium where any connection—no matter how meaningful—can disappear with a mouse click?

In many ways, the Internet has become the boob tube for the new millennium. It titillates and stimulates, delivering all forms of entertainment from downloadable DVDs to Internet radio to a wickedly funny comment from an online friend. And the Internet changes each time we interact with it, making it all the more compelling to use.

With each use, we forge a new identity. An Internet persona that becomes as much a part of us as our Real World functions of colleague, friend, neighbor and loved one.

Maybe you’re not addicted to the Internet, but can you imagine life without it? Can you identify the point at which the real you ends and the virtual one begins? Are they one and the same, or would you feel as if a part of you had died if you gave up the Net today?

William Kanapaux is a freelance journalist living in Albany

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