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Caught in the Net: How to Recognize the Signs of Internet Addiction and a Winning Strategy for Recovery

Author: Kimberly S. Young
Publisher: New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998
Review Published: February 2001

 REVIEW 1: Thorsten Kogge

"Internet addiction" has become a fashionable term, widely distributed by mass media and therefore shaping many public debates dealing with the potential social and psychological dysfunctions the Internet might entail. Since Kimberly S. Young's book Caught in the Net: How to Recognize the Signs of Internet Addiction and a Winning Strategy for Recovery and a previous study dating back to 1994, she has been one of the most widely cited "experts" on the topic, and has been featured in newspapers and on TV, within and far beyond the United States. Thus, the book was translated in several languages. Young, an assistant professor of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and founder of the Center for On-Line Addiction, which consults educational institutions, mental health clinics, and corporations dealing with Internet misuse, has written a book that could be looked at as a personal manifesto rather than a scientific treaty in so far as it is written to persuade the reader that Internet Addiction (IA) is not only real but should also be recognized as a disorder in its own right. She had tried several times in the past to convince the members of the American Psychiatric Association to include an "Internet Addiction Disorder" (IAD) into the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM) [1]. Her paper, entitled "Internet Addiction Disorder: The Emergence of a New Clinical Disorder," can be seen as the rough draft of the book discussed here.

"It can happen to anyone" is the massage printed in big bold letters on the back cover of the book, followed by several short statements of people confessing that they are addicted to the Internet, i.e. that they had tried to stop or change their usage and failed. The reader will discover that the stories of people who unsuccessfully tried to control their own habits or who tried to convince others that they should regain control over their own lives run through the book like the famous red line. Beginning in the Introduction, Young reports that the initial reason why she started her research was that a friend phoned her complaining that her husband developed an addiction to the Internet and that she therefore was ready to divorce.

The titles of the nine chapters are all pretty much suggestive: Among other things, Young invites the reader to explore with her the "Dark Side of Cyberspace" (Ch.1) or to discover a "Terminal Time Warp" (Ch.2). She offers portraits of the lives of "On-lineaholics" (Ch.3) and their engagement in the "Faceless Community" (Ch.4). The spouses of such users are supposed to become "Cyberwidows" (Ch.5) who are usually in the dark about what their partners really do online.

So what does a closer reading of the book offers beyond the suggestive rhetoric?

The first chapter seeks to take the reader on a different side of cyberspace, a "dark side" that is usually neglected in all those fancy advertisements by dot.com companies showing young and sexy people laughing towards the screen or statements by corporate managers and politicians praising the glorious new economy. On this other side, Young sees fathers and mothers who neglect their children's needs like playing with them or making excursions, because they prefer to chat with their friends who are living a few thousand miles away. Further, she sees employees who gained Internet access as part of their jobs, who misused most of their working time, and who eventually lost their jobs when the boss found out. Others made a split in their identity between their role as a "dedicated worker" during the day and "the most aggressive bastard you can imagine" (15) at night, slaying monsters and dragons in such interactive games like DOOM-II as a conceded alternative to act aggressively against real persons. Stay-at-home husbands and housewives lied to their spouses about the massive amounts of time they spent online and what exactly they do while the other half was working.

Young identifies a "seductive lure" of cyberspace because people can escape if something hurts them in their offline life. They can act out as they want from the safety of the bedroom -- and some of them seemingly find a solution to their problems without really finding one -- because the fantasylands they build online do have no correspondence in "RL." The "mindthrill" of receiving massive doses of information is described as yet another aspect of cyberspace's seductive lure. Some of the people Young interviewed claimed that they had been so obsessed with receiving more information that they wanted to climb inside the terminal. This already indicates that the quantity of time spend online isn't the only criteria for Young to judge whether someone is addicted and in need for help but that the quality of the experience is regarded as important, too.

So how do you know whether you are already addicted to the Internet? At the end of the chapter, you'll find an "Internet Addiction Test" (31), composed of 20 questions -- examples include "How often do you find that you stay on-line longer than intended?" "How often do you prefer the excitement of the Internet to intimacy with your partner?" and "How often do you lose sleep due to late-night log-ins?" Each of them use a 5-response-scale ranging from "Not at all" (1 point), "Rarely" (2 points), "Occasionally" (3 points), "Often" (4 points), and "Always" (5 points). If your score lies between 20-39 points, you are seen as an average online user, whereas with 40-69 points you are already suspected for "experiencing frequent problems because of the Internet" (33). According to Young, if your score lies between 70 and 100 points, Internet usage causes significant problems in your life with an urgent need to be faced for regaining control.

The second chapter, "The Terminal Time Warp," explores the multiple ways people lose more time online than necessary, as well as their social relations and personal development. It seems to be true for most users that time, despite what a user actually does on the Net, flows quicker online than off. Another commonplace is that many, especially newbies, lose all track of time. Young agrees that most Internet users recognize this common symptom and find a way to cope with this. Moreover, most users seem to learn that they don't have to click on every blinking link that comes their way while searching for something different. However, she views the Internet as being a "Book without an Ending" (37) in principle, "a crowded field where even with helpful information-sorting systems such as Netscape, it takes patience, persistence and time to trudge through the garbage swirling in the whirlpool of info glut" (38). The seductive quality of cyberspace is stressed once more since her survey of 496 users revealed that 97% stayed on-line longer than intended. Thus, she concludes that even disciplined visitors are getting lured into exploring the Net. She confesses that she has some first-hand experiences how the Internet transcends time, how a user can become absorbed and side-tracked.

Young provides a top 10 list of the most commonly mentioned activities that suffered because of Internet use: Decreasing time spend with the partner/family and neglecting daily chores are at the top (1, 2), followed by sleep (3), reading books and watching TV (4, 5), time with friends and exercises (6, 7), finally hobbies like gardening or woodworking (8), sex (9) and social events like going to concerts, plays, or movies (10). In short, she sees that there are significant personal and social costs of excessive online engagement. Thus, she encourages the addicted to make a priority list of activities he/she neglected or reduced since their Internet habit emerged the way it did, categorised into "Very Important," "Important," and "Not Very Important" activities. The first step should help to remember how life was before the Internet and what the person misses now by giving up these considered very important activities. She suggests that the choice to neglect them might have been an unconscious one and a declared goal of her recovery program outlined in the book is to make the unconscious more consciously. In her view, moderation of Internet use is possible -- afflicted persons don't have to give up the Internet entirely to recover from their addiction to it, which is acknowledged to be a real difference compared with addictions to substances that request total abstinence for recovery.

The chapter closes with a recovery strategy introducing various time-management techniques (56), leaving the decision to the person applying them. The first technique is to "Cultivate an alternative activity," that is, doing something you always wanted to do, something you will enjoy and that would probably distract your attention from cyberspace. The second is to identify one's own usage pattern and practice the opposite, which includes that you ask yourself at which times during the day, for how long, at which places and how frequently you do something online (if, for example, you check your email before eating something, then start eating something first in the future). Third, users should find some external stoppers, say, if you know you have to leave the house at a given time, go on the Internet one hour before so that you really have to quit when the hour is over. Similar to this, the fourth suggestion is to set a reasonable goal regarding the time spent online and then incorporate that planned time in your weekly schedule, like "one time a day" for two hours. If it works, Young concludes, it "will give you a sense of being in control, rather than having the Internet control you" (59). Regarding the chances to control usage patterns by time-management tools, she admits that the heavy addicted might fail more often than the lightly addicted, so this shouldn't be seen as an instant cure.

Chapter three, "Profiles of On-lineaholics," can be seen as an enhanced description of several cases. In contradiction to the message printed on the cover, the chapter's first sentence states that "Not all Internet users get addicted to it" (60). Young sees the emergence of a profile she calls the "on-lineaholic" (an analogy to "workaholic") and states that some common features of that profile distinguish such users from normal ones. Arguing on the basis of her survey, many Internet addicts had suffered under significant emotional or psychiatric problems before they ever went online and 52 % were former alcoholics or other ex-addicts. These addicts reported that the Internet provided them with a kind of substitute for their former addiction, although the Internet was considered to be less harmful than substances like alcohol. 61% of all respondents to the survey were women, so the culturally wide spread "male-techie/computer-nerd stereotype" seems questionable from that perspective. Many addicts adopted new personas on-line and nearly 80% of all on-lineaholics depended on two-way/many-to-many environments, like chat rooms, interactive games, MUDs etc. Finally, we learn from Young that Internet addicts, like other addicts, usually deny having any problems with their behaviour at all, which makes IA a difficult thing to handle for the psychotherapist.

Drawing insight from several cases outlined in the book, she develops the thesis that first of all, IA could serve as a substitute addiction for alcoholism and more behavioural addictions like chronic overeating. Second, she mentions unconscious "addiction triggers" (like low self-esteem, feelings of guilt and loneliness etc.) which are assumed to influence almost every decision at a "choice point" where the alternatives are to go on-line (anticipating that this might make you feel confident, competent, fulfilled, and respected) or to face some of the problems triggering the addiction (which might be painful and therefore avoided). One reason why Young believes that some problems are better faced off-line than with help of the Internet and maybe an explanation for her overall scepticism regarding the potential of online interaction is that relationships there seem to be more vulnerable and unpredictable than in "the real world."

At the end of the chapter, in her "Recovery Strategy 8," she tries to sensitize readers listening to the "Voices of Denial," which means for her to uncover how someone denies to have a basic problem which he or she avoids facing by abusing the Internet. Addicts are suspected of either stonewalling ("I don't have a problem with using the Internet"), minimizing ("Hey, it's just a machine"), blaming ("It's not the Internet, it's the stress in my life"), excusing ("My life is so hectic, I need this computer world for fun"), rationalizing ("The on-line fees have gone down, so I can use it more often"), or even attacking ("When you tell me when to log off, you act just like my father") someone when they are confrontedwith the idea that something might be wrong with their usage patterns.

Chapter four, "The Faceless Community," argues that the idea of virtual communities is a neat innovation but not as effective as building face to face communities, because "you can't pull a lifeline through a computer screen" (90). Thus, 'Internet addicts' who rely mainly on support and guidance "from a faceless community eventually run smack up against the Internet world's very definite limitations" (91). Which limitations does she mention? First of all, there is always the chance that someone who is a perceived friend of another one leaves the show suddenly, without reason, without saying goodbye, and with no chance to make a request any more. In other words: the costs for exit are lower than in face-to-face relationships, so that when compared, the former might seems to be more vulnerable than the latter. Young claims that people build "Connections without really connecting" (95), because they only provide each other with selected information about themselves and they fail to integrate online with offline life (they don't leave the shadow of the persona). In addiction, idealization -- or exaggerated projection -- is quite common and the disillusion may follow in case people finally decide to meet offline. Feelings of guilt and shame are likely to emerge when people begin to recognize that they escaped from a long-lasting relationship/partnership which might have been in a crisis in favour of a short-lasting romance or affair. From her interviews and reports of clients, Young identifies a phase structure of escape leading to addiction in the end. The first step is engagement and identity building in some kind of interactive environment (MUDs, MOOs, Chat rooms, etc.) by regular usage. During the second phase, the Internet slowly turns into a substitute for "what you didn't have or couldn't find in life" (115), like stimulation, trust, care or support. Escape from all problems, stress, or other challenges of life and total attention-focusing on an always happy, always reachable, and always peaceful community is described as the lastmove towards addiction.

Chapter five, "Cyberwidows: Victims of Terminal Love," reports and discusses several cases where a cyber affair is suspected to have been the major reason for a marriage or partnership break-up: "We'll look at the warning signs that tell you a cyber affair could be about to blow a hole through your marriage" (121). Young received dozens of distressed calls from partners of "Internet Addicts" who had no clue why they hadn't been able to communicate Internet usage with their partners and why they preferred living online to living with them. As in other chapters, Young has a catalogue of "warning signs" that should be recognized as part of a recovery strategy: A change in sleep patterns, a greater demand for privacy, ignorance off household chores, evidence of lying about online usage, personality changes ("A once warm and sensitive wife becomes cold and withdrawn. A formerly jovial husband turns quiet and serious." 126), loss of interest in sex and a declining investment in the relationship are the seven signs she mentions. She realizes that there have been cases of successful transformations from online to offline, but her overall judgement from the cases is that most transformations end up in disappointments because of false projections and hopes towards cyberlovers.

Regarding all the different challenges and dangers the Internet seems to offer like the easy access to x-rated material or the chances of meeting pedophiles around the age of 40 pretending to be 15 in some teenage chat rooms, the worst is assumed for school performance and mental health of children. One problem is that many parents have a gap in knowledge about the Internet: "If parents don't even know how to turn on a computer themselves, they're in the dark about the working of the Internet and how their children are adjusting to it" (146). Therefore, chapter six, "Parents, Kids and a Technological Time Bomb," argues against the dominant interpretation of the Internet as being the educational tool of the future. While she distances herself from technological optimism, Young nevertheless admits banishing the Internet from the home is hardly a viable alternative: "Neither blinding yourself to your child's Internet use or prohibiting it completely will help parents of teens and preteens effectively confront the important issues the Internet raises for families today" (147). On the other side, she joins public concerns regarding the Internet as one "big city with no police" (163 ff.), meaning that behavior that would be a crime offline isn't controlled or punished online --censorship laws as well as effective parental control devices are lacking in her view and this is seen as a qualitative difference to other mass media, most notably TV.

Of course, the list of social groups showing "addictive" usage patterns wouldn't be complete without students - almost everyone has at least a free e-mail account (in most parts of the Western World, the author of this review wants to remind!). The "Fraternities of Netheads" (Ch.7) are described as a result of the public service called computer labs, which are usually open during the day and maybe even during the night. Some teachers are concerned that students might use the Internet for everything else instead for studying in their rather big blocks of unstructured time outside class. With a warning voice, Young concludes that "no official at any university would ever promote opening an all-night bar on campus. Yet what college decision makers need to realize today is that by granting students unlimited Internet access at 24-hour computer labs, they've opened the door to addictive behavior with many of the same harmful consequences" (193). Peer pressure is still high in college, especially among younger students, and the intense usage of the Internet is certainly expected by many of them to prove one's own technological sophistication. Few of them are supposed to question the value of the medium or of special environments like chat rooms, therefore Young fears that traditional forms of socializing on campus are disvalued more and more, leading to a decline in face-to-face contacts. Despite the computer lab where there might be a real chance to meet other people in person, some students seem to spend most of their time sitting in their dorms.

Looking at most organizations where people work with online access every day (Ch.8: "No work Today Everybody's Gone Surfin'"), IA among employees is perceived as yet an even bigger challenge than among students, because the economic effect -- i.e. the decline in productivity is perceived as more direct and threatening, for the employer and maybe for the employee as well: the former risks a negative annual balance and the latter risks to be fired. A survey is cited which claims that only 23 percent of the usage a major company registered across its Internet connection was business-related. Such findings are somehow contradictory to a dominant idea in today's working world, namely that connecting with the Internet is an important basis for success and the only way to stay competitive in the long run.

As in other chapters, recovery strategies are a distinct part of the text. "Learn the Workplace Warning Signs" (Recovery Strategy 16) and "Help for the Addicted Employee" (Recovery Strategy 17) are less strategies to be adopted by individual employees and more hints to employers who are clueless how to monitor the Internet usage of their workers. Warning signs are (among others) an already mentioned decrease in productivity, an increase in mistakes, less interaction with co-workers, and excessive fatigue.

"Staying on track" is the name of her final chapter. Again, the message is loud and clear: "Don't wait, as they say in other addiction circles, until you hit rock bottom before recognizing how the Internet may be impacting your life and the lives of those you love" (215 f). Young reports that 86% of the respondents confessed that they continued to use the Internet excessively despite significant problems it brought to their life and her related hypothesis is that most of them fooled themselves about the long-term negative consequences of their habits, i.e. they falsely thought that problems will either be temporary or that they didn't exist at all. Thus, Recovery Strategy 18 appeals to "Consider the Long-Term Consequences" of addictive usage patterns: "Whom are you hurting? Who were you before this new obsession, and do you really want to continue to lose that person?" are examples of questions which should, in Young's opinion, be answered if someone wants to become more strongly motivated to regain control over his/her own habits. Although she does not try to root her argument by referring to neuropsychological evidence of any kind -- at least not through the rest of the book -- Young finally mentions that "scientific evidence suggests that it may be possible to experience habit-forming chemical reactions to behavior as well as to substances" (220), which means that an increased level of neurotransmitters like dopamine might alter behavior without the chance for real choice left. However, she hesitates to draw the conclusion that people whom she regards as addicted are so caught by words and images on the computer screen that this unconsciously alters their behavior. Thus, she leaves the short discourse about scientific criterions and evidence for addiction undecided, by stressing at the same moment that these people are nevertheless "hooked on a certain emotional and perhaps even mental response" (221) they get from on-line practice, but not from the Internet per se! Consequently, instead of investigating more time and energy searching on-line, Young encourages them to rediscover the offline world, the significant others they left behind, the relationships, the partners, the hobbies etc. In the end, there is no real conclusion, but a really strong call for taking Internet Addiction seriously as separate disorder.

After so many books praised the brave new information age, an overall criticism like that offered by Caught in the Net might be necessary to raise public attention of the Net's potential downsides. Yet despite this achievement, the general claim that a behavioral addiction to the Internet is emerging appears to be rather obscure. First, there are few theoretically informed explanations of compulsive Internet usage and far too many ad-hoc interpretations of anecdotes. What most of them show is that some people utilize the Internet to avoid facing problems they should face. Yet there is not a single page in the book where one finds an elaborate argument that the Internet is a cause for that problems or a self-reinforcer. If Internet usage is a self-reinforcing habit, no reduced or controlled usage could be the cure (Young said that reduction and control is the cure), only abstinence like in the case of alcoholism would be appropriate.

Second, the diversity of forums and forms of communication that are offered by the Internet (Chat doesn't equals email exchange, MUDs are not the same as message boards, searching for information is not the same as gambling on a casino site, etc.) makes it somehow ridiculous to cluster them altogether and to claim an addictive quality per se. As long as people get rewards from online activities that are very similar to the rewards they would get from similar offline activities -- like gambling in a casino, or watching pornography, or to chit-chating with the neighbor for hours about everything and nothing -- it makes little sense to create a new mental disorder or to break-up the concept in sub-addictions like "Cybersexual addiction," "Online Gambling Addiction" etc. [2].

Third, it is plausible to assume that these people are escaping from problems in their lives or act them out in the chosen (not inherent!) anonymity of the Internet. Yet it is extremely important not only to conduct a few qualitative interviews or to interpret a 7-item-questionnaire filled in by 496 respondents, from which to then draw general conclusions about the motives regarding the total population of users. For example, what does an increasing number of chat rooms specializing on exploring the nature of sado-masochism tells us about the motives of the chatters? If we are honest, we have to say "perfectly nothing"! On the contrary, it only gives sociologists and psychologists more empirical homework to do.

Young's double-strategy to write an accessible self-help guide for directly/indirectly concerned persons on the one side and to present a collection of case studies for strengthening her claim that an official recognition of an rapidly emerging "Internet Addiction Disorder" is needed on the other side, may be a praise-worthy ambition, but there is much causal reasoning in the book, a comparatively weak empirical basis, no clear method of combining her quantitative survey with her qualitative material, and clearly too much negative and generalized rhetoric towards the Internet, so that the scientific value is rather modest. Nonetheless, concerned and otherwise affected people of excessive Internet usage might derive some practical value from her recovery strategies, since they are pretty detailed and applicable in various circumstances.

In the end, the book will most likely not convince someone who hasn't already believed that "Internet Addiction" is real. Yet it may be persuasive to those who suspected or feared the Internet and it's "seductive lure." The reviewer belongs in the first group, but that should be secondary for the readers of this review.

1. I want to thank many brilliant minds from a private community which helped me to frame these thoughts. The people in quest will know in case they read this note.

2. A harsh critique of attempts by Dr. Young and Dr. Greenfield (another leading advocate wanting IAD added to the DSM and founder of the Virtual Addiction clinic) to make their point on the basis of empirical estimates can be found in an article by Janelle Brown. In a similar direction, Howard Rheingold questions much of the populist claims, like the one that 11% of all users world-wide are addicted.

3. In some recent publications, Young distinguished these varieties of IA.

Thorsten Kogge:
Thorsten Kogge is an assistent at the Institute for Social Science at Humboldt University, Berlin. His general interests cover various sociological topics (sociological theory, social interaction), political science fields (interest representation, EU - politics), and psychological issues (identity theory, developmental psychology). He is currently conductingonline-research with the aim to explore differences in adolescents identities and how they translate into different individual and social behavior online.  <Thorsten.Kogge@student.hu-berlin.de>

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