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Internet Addiction: Latest Obsession

Throughout history, people have struggled with addiction – to alcohol, drugs and compulsive behaviors, such as gambling. Now, as Rose Hoban reports, psychologists in many countries have noted the emergence of a new kind of obsession: Internet addiction.

Psychologist Louise Nadeau heads a new institute for the study of dependencies at the University of Montreal in Canada. She says addiction is marked by two phenomena.

The first is that a person has a behavior he or she can't control. "You would want to drink less, but you drink much more than you want," Nadeau suggests. "You would like to gamble less… in spite of the fact that it doesn't necessarily give you the pleasure it should, or you feel bad about that."

The other key is that the behavior causes a series of problems in many spheres of your life. "You're having problems with your work, you're having problems with your social network, you're having problems also with your mental health," Nadeau explains.

To study Internet addiction, Nadeau asked mental health clinics in her province of Quebec to report on cases of Internet addiction they had seen. She says that over a several year period, some dramatic cases emerged.

"What we're dealing with here are people who stop eating, who don't sleep, who work until the early hours of the day, have a complete unbalanced schedule and that goes on, and on, and on for months," Nadeau reports. Many of the people suffering from Internet addiction had other problems – either psychological, or with their families.

Nadeau says this new addiction is difficult to treat. She recounts how psychologists worked with a young man who spent two years in his room playing games on his computer. "When he emerged to go to the treatment center he literally had been out of the world for two years," she says. "So in fact, it was slowly working on a process of A, reintroducing him to real life, and B, trying to find alternative activities to being on the screen."

She tells the story of another man who was finally induced to go on vacation after being treated for several months. But when he got to the airport, he got online in the airport's Internet café. He spent the next two weeks at the airport and never went on his vacation.

Nadeau says there's no standard of treatment for Internet addiction. But over the next few years, she will be gathering information and ideas from therapists all around Quebec. She says her goal is to create treatment guidelines and examples of best practices that other psychologists can follow to treat people with this problem.