Caught in the web
We use it for such innocuous everyday things as paying bills and chatting with friends, but an Irish expert has warned that the internet can be as addictive as crack. And more of us could be virtual junkies than we think.
From a quick fix of Facebook to a hit of Twitter or even day-long gaming benders, Irish society is strung out on internet abuse, say bosses of a top rehabilitation centre here.
The medical world may be divided as to whether internet addiction actually exists, but to those who witness its side effects, there's nothing cyber about the condition.
"Internet addiction is very real," says Colin O'Driscoll, principal psychologist at Forest Rehabilitation Centre in Wicklow.
"We first encountered the problem about four years ago and the number of people coming to us for help with internet addiction has grown steadily since then.
"It's a massive problem and it's going to get worse very soon."
Three years ago, UK journal Advances in Psychiatric guesstimated that a "substantial minority" of the 46.6 million web users there -- up to 10pc -- may be addicts.
While in the States, a report from Stanford Medical School in 2006 posited that around 14pc of the country's 180 million internet users couldn't kick the habit for more than a few days.
Here at home, there's no quantifiable evidence as to how many of us are under the influence of the internet.
But with virtually all of us using the web for working, gaming, shopping, banking and socialising, modern techno-philes are treading a wobbly tightrope between 'use' and 'abuse' on a daily basis warns Colin O'Driscoll.
"Like drinking in Ireland, internet addiction can be very hard to detect.
"So many people over-use the internet without actually being addicted to it. When lots of your peers are over-using, it normalises addiction on the surface.
"But it doesn't matter whether it's recognised, acceptable, stigmatised or even glorified -- addiction is addiction."
It might be seen as harmless in comparison to our national battle with the bottle -- but getting hooked on the internet is every bit as dangerous as drugs or booze, he adds.
"Internet addiction is similar to alcoholism or drug addiction in that it provides people with a medication of sorts.
"Logging on is a way to distract from stress, painful memories, low self-esteem, relationship problems, anxiety and depression. Used in this way, the behaviour can quickly develop into an addiction that's very hard to break.
"And like a hangover or coming down, the user usually ends up feeling worse than before -- suffering guilt and shame."
In more extreme instances, staring at a computer screen for too long has even been linked to death.
In Asia, there have been at least four cases since 2002 of young men dying in internet cafés after gaming marathons lasting up to 86 hours, during which they didn't sleep and hardly ate -- their deaths were attributed to heart failure induced by exhaustion.
While Wisconsin mum Elizabeth Woolley blamed the suicide of her son Shawn in 2001 on his obsession with EverQuest, an online game sometimes dubbed NeverRest or EverCrack because it can be so compulsive. The 21-year-old, who had learning difficulties, depression and epilepsy, shot himself while seated in front of his computer.
MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games) like EverQuest, Final Fantasy, Warhammer and the new Star Trek Online unite millions of gamers in the guise of avatars in cyberspace. In World of Warcraft, for example, users join 12 million others across the globe -- including actor Vin Diesel and chat show host Jonathan Ross -- in a band-of-brothers-style battle.
Most are pay-to-play -- charging monthly subscriptions -- but others such as Guild Wars and RuneScape are free.
And the image of the sullen teen boy who spends hours holed up in his bedroom playing computer games isn't just a stereotype -- young men are especially susceptible to this type of addiction, says David Smallwood of The Priory in London.
Despite the sociable nature of MMOs, it's ironically often those who feel they don't fit in who are drawn to them, according to the addiction treatment programme manager.
Assuming an ass-kicking avatar, the player "progress(es) to being someone more important" -- but in order to remain a virtual VIP, they must get better at the game, playing for longer and longer periods.
"What then happens is that kids become withdrawn," he explains, "their schoolwork suffers because they are not doing homework . . . Plus there's the problem of not eating, as they have no time to eat in the middle of a battle."
So should computer games come with a health warning, just like cigarettes?
When Shawn Woolley's mother accused Sony Online Entertainment's EverQuest of playing a role in her son's tragic death, company president John Smedley countered simply: "It's entertainment. Is a book dangerous? Is a TV show dangerous? I think the answer is no."
Back at Forest addiction centre, psychologist Colin O'Driscoll agrees that quitting the net is just like trying to get clean or sober. And seeing if you can 'sign out' is the only way to know if you should sign in to rehab.
"The ultimate test as to whether or not you're addicted to something is to try to stop doing it. If you can't stay away from it for a defined period of time, then you're certainly addicted.
"Addiction is a scary place to be," he adds, "so it's important to talk to somebody."