ABC News Chat with Dr. Dave Greenfield

The following edited transcript is reproduced with permission from a chat with Psychologist Dr. David Greenfield on March 29, 1999.

The Internet can be entertaining, educational and even social, allowing you to Interact with people around the globe. But its appeal can also lure you away from the real world, hooking you for hour after hour of surfing, chatting and shopping. How do you know if you’re addicted to the Net? In August 1998, and Dr. Dave Greenfield launched a comprehensive survey on Internet addiction. And now those results are in. Dr. Greenfield is an addiction expert at Psychological Health Associates in Connecticut, and can take your questions about the survey, as well as treatment for Internet addiction.

Q – What’s the criteria someone should go by to find out if they’re addicted to the Internet?

A -Essentially, if you’re spending a lot of time online and it’s really interfering with your life. That’s the quick thumbnail sketch. If it’s causing difficulty in your life, interfering with work, home or Relationships, than you may have a problem. Questions such as: Are you spending an excessive amount of time online? Are you preoccupied with the Internet? Are you keeping it a secret from people? Do other people think you might have a problem? Do you experience intense intimacy while online? Can you not wait to go online or to use the computer? These can all be signs of addiction. There’s no way to officially diagnose a condition without seeing a professional.

Q – I wonder if my attention span has been influenced by surfing the Net. It seems I have trouble concentrating on conversations and I have trouble comprehending books- I have to reread everything. Can you comment?

A – My sense is that because the Internet is such a powerful multimedia experience that you may become desensitized to less stimulating modalities, like reading. Attention and concentration can decrease as a result of depression, and there’s some evidence to suggest that excessive Internet use can increase depression.

Q – Dr. Greenfield, do you find that people who work on the Internet as their daily job, become addicted? In other words, is the Internet addictive in itself, or does the addiction stem from the person?

A – Good question. We don’t really know for sure. There seems to be elements of the Internet that are addictive. However, only about 6% of people that use the Internet appear to become addicted. So there probably are some factors that are unique to the person.

Q – How does one break the cycle of net addiction when it is necessary to use the Internet for work?

A – By very strictly limiting access to the Internet to single tasks that have to be done. Log off in between those essential uses. Let other people know you have a problem, so they can help keep you on track. That may or may not include your boss. Also, stay away from sites that you find particularly attractive. For Men these will often include sex sites.

Q – How is Internet addiction related to depression?

A – We don’t really know. There’s one study that seems to show a link between heavy Internet use, social isolation and depression. This is probably because real-time social interaction is, in my opinion, necessary for healthy psychological functioning. The Internet does not seem to be a complete substitute for the real thing.

Q – Do you have a sense at all for how successful (if at all), relationships have been for people who have met online?

A – I am not familiar with any studies yet that have looked at the ongoing success of relationships that started on the Internet versus traditional relationships. I suspect that there are some differences, although we’re not sure what they are yet. That’s a very good idea for a study. There is one difference that we do know: People report much more intense experiences of intimacy online, as compared to traditional relationships.

Q – Can you please tell me what all kind of problems can Internet use cause?

A – Internet use in and of itself doesn’t cause a problem. It has to be a combination of factors that include heavy Internet use and the avoidance of other real-life activities that are important to maintaining a healthy life.

Q – What scientific studies have there been about Internet addiction?

A – There’s probably been less than a dozen. Myself, Dr. Kimberly Young, Dr. Orzack, Dr. Al Cooper, and a handful of other people have studied the Internet. Because the Internet is so new and changing daily, there have been only a few journal articles to date, addressing the issue of addiction. Internet addiction is only now being recognized as a legitimate area of scientific study.

Q – About what percentage of Internet addiction is pornography related?

A – There’s a very high use of pornography among Internet addicts. Sixty-two percent of Internet addicts are logging on to porn sites. However, forty-six percent of non-addicts are also logging on to those sites. But don’t forget, two-thirds of the 18,000 people we surveyed were men, who tend to access porn sites more regularly. Clearly, an aspect of the addictive nature of the Internet cannot be separated from sexual interest and/or addiction, but I believe there are other aspects of the Internet separate from sexuality that are addictive in and of themselves.

Q – I have more of a statement instead of a question. I spent almost all of my time on the Internet a few years ago. It ruined my marriage. I spent as little time as possible cooking, cleaning and paid my husband of 13 years no attention. It can happen. You won’t even know it’s happening until your husband is gone, you kids are out running around and you suddenly look up and you are the only one there! I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.

A – Your story is unfortunately not unusual. It reflects the dark side of the Internet that we’re only beginning to see.

Q – What concerns you the most about Internet addiction, especially in the future?

A – Very good question. A lot. As bandwidth and access speed increase, I think we’re going to see an increase in Internet addiction, both among adults and children, but especially in the workplace. In addition, there are numerous freedom of speech issues, as well as new software that’s coming out to prevent the tractability of e-mail and Internet communication. This will potentially create new cyber-crime opportunities with virtually no means of detection.

Q – Is there a correlation between Internet addiction and gambling addiction?

A – Yes. The initial study done by Dr. Young looked at gambling addiction as a model for Internet addiction, and there seem to be significant similarities. Not the least of which are the loss of recognition of time, the feeling of disinhibition, and reckless behavior, along with the consequent negative results on their lives. My research definition of Internet addiction is also based on the psychiatric definition of compulsive gambling, which I’ve adapted to Internet use.

Q – Have any of the studies conducted shown underlying reasons or causes for Internet? addiction?

A – My latest study has looked at the factors I think may be contributing to the addictive nature of the Internet. They include multimedia stimulation, ease of access, 24-hour availability, lack of boundaries, loss of time, disinhibition, stimulating content, among others. What we’re not sure about yet is what among these elements are most significant in contributing to addiction, and how they interact with other personal factors.

Q – Where is the line between an enjoyable activity and an addictive behavior?

A – Good question. The line, from my perspective, is when it interferes with your life. If somebody enjoys using the Internet six or eight hours a day and they’re still living a healthy and balanced life, I’m not sure there’s a problem. However, I’m not sure how one can spend most of their time online and still have a balanced life, in my opinion.

Q – Don’t you feel the Net just causes new “couch potatoes?” I can’t see any difference between those addicted to TV, video games, or the Net. Are couch potatoes considered addicts?

A – That’s very interesting. Of course, Internet addicts would be “chair potatoes.” You’re quite right in drawing an analogy between TV and the Internet. I believe there is a similarity between the two mediums. However, the Internet is more potently addictive because of its interactive nature. However, I have numerous patients who I see are significantly affected by the fact that they watch 30-40 hours of television a week. The average American watches four to six hours of TV a day. It is not surprising that one’s life can become unbalanced if one is not moving off of the “couch” or the “chair.” I have seen numerous marriages affected by the attention they pay to the television and/or the Internet.

Q – From the medical literature, it is stated that approximately 90% of unmarried men masturbate. While 2/3 of your study were men, how many were unmarried? Your study indicates that about 40% of “addicted” people masturbate, but only 10% of “non-addicted” people. Could your data be skewed or biased? Could those who are “addicted” simply be younger men?

A – You’re quite right in some respects. The survey only asked about masturbating while online, not masturbating in general. The survey certainly is skewed insofar as two-thirds of the respondents were men, with 49 percent married, 36 percent separated, and 7 percent divorced. Among the women, only 5% of the general sample admit to masturbating while online, versus 17% among the men. Among Internet addicts, there is clearly a greater likelihood for men to masturbate as compared to women, however women are still admitting to this behavior 25% of the time.

Q – What are some other strategies my partner and I can consider regarding use and amount of time spent on the sex sites? If it is an addiction, is zero time at these sites the way to break the cycle? Are there any research studies which show the impact on marriages and the use of Internet sex?

A – There are some new study results on cybersex and Internet sexuality that are being released today, done by Dr. Alvin Cooper. I co-authored a book chapter on Internet sexuality that will be coming out next year, called The Psychological Science of Sexuality: A Research-Based Approach, edited by Muscarella and Szuchman, which has a chapter on Internet sexuality. There are proponents of the Internet, who feel that pornography can be a stimulating addition to marriages, and if it’s not interfering with other aspects of your life or marriage, then I’m not sure there’s a problem. However, cybersex, which is a form of online explicit sexual dialogue, may be viewed as a violation of the marital contract similar to an affair, and this could cause problems in a marriage. Finally, if you feel you are becoming addicted to these sites, yes, total abstinence may be required if you are unable to manage your use in a moderate manner.

Q – Is a chat on this really the best idea?

A – Good question. My research is not about condemning the Internet. I think the Internet has extraordinary uses and possibilities. What my research is about is helping to determine psychological aspects of Internet use and abuse, but I do view the Internet as a viable tool in both conducting and disseminating information. Any tool, whether it be television, the Internet, etc., can be abused.

Q – Can Internet addiction lead to other addictions?

A – We don’t know. There appears to be some correlation between Internet addiction and other addictions, but there is not enough research that I’m aware of to show a definite relationship. We do know, however, that many people who have one addiction frequently have other addictions simultaneously or may switch addictions when discontinuing a previous one. Thirty-three percent of those surveyed were told that they had an addiction of some type by someone they knew.

Q – I realize there might be a correlation between pornography and Internet use. I feel that if pornography were less accessible, I might not use my computer as much. Are their any studies that show a correlation between addiction and restricting access to pornography?

A – There are no studies at this point. However, for Net addicts who tend to use pornography excessively online, it may be difficult to resume normal Internet use unless they are able to block access to the adult Web sites, which can be very difficult to do. It’s too prevalent. Approximately 20 percent of Internet addicts describe themselves as sex addicts. This translates to approximately 1.25 percent of all Internet users.

Q – Are you addicted?

A – That’s the best question yet. The answer is no, but I certainly could be if I didn’t have a strong value on other parts of my life. I do see the power of the Internet. In fact, my interest in this topic came from my own initial reaction to going online. However, you should speak to my wife for the real answer. One other thing: There is a difference between addiction and abuse. I, like many people, have been guilty of abusing the Internet at times.

Q – What about the Internet as an avenue for compulsive shopping and spending? The Net makes it very easy to find and buy things. I can already feel this becoming a problem for myself.

A – This is an excellent question, and I have a chapter in my book about it. You’re quite right that the Internet makes it extraordinarily easy to find and buy things. I think this is primarily because of the anonymity and instantaneous gratification that is available while shopping online. You might also consider that there are support groups for compulsive shopping and spending that could be useful, whether you’re shopping online or in stores. You might want to consider restricting your Internet shopping in attempting to address this. It’s likely to become a much bigger problem because, as speed increases, there will be ways to store your financial data in your computer so you won’t have to re-enter your info each time you order, so you can click a button and instantly order. It’s going to make the Home Shopping Network look like a Mom and Pop store.