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David Smith, technology correspondent


Tense? Angry? Can’t get online? Internet addiction is now a serious public health issue that should be officially recognised as a clinical disorder, according to a leading psychiatrist.

Excessive gaming, viewing online pornography, emailing and text messaging have been identified as causes of the disorder by Dr Jerald Block, in the respected American Journal of Psychiatry. Block argues that the disorder is now so common that it should be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. He says Internet addiction has four main components:

a) excessive use, often associated with a loss of sense of time or a neglect of basic drives;

b) withdrawal, including feelings of anger, tension and/or depression when the computer is inaccessible;

c) the need for better computers, more software, or more hours of use;

d) negative repercussions, including arguments, lying, poor achievement, social isolation and fatigue.

A case study is South Korea, which has the greatest use of broadband in the world. Block points out that 10 people died from blood clots from remaining seated for long periods in Internet cafes and another was murdered because of an online game. Their country now considers Internet addiction as one of its most serious public health issues. The government estimates that around 210,000 South Korean children are affected and in need of treatment. 80 per cent of them might need drugs targeting the brain and nearly a quarter could need to go to hospital. Since the average high school pupil there spends about 23 hours per week gaming, another 1.2 million are believed to be at risk of addiction and require basic counselling. There has been alarm over a rising number of addicts dropping out of school or quitting their jobs to spend more time on computers. In China it has been reported that 13.7 per cent of adolescent Internet users, about 10 million, could be considered addicts.

Block, a psychiatrist at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, writes that the extent of the disorder it is more difficult to estimate in America because people tend to surf at home instead of in Internet cafes. But he believes there are similar cases and says: “Unfortunately Internet addiction is resistant to treatment and has high relapse rates.” He told The Observer that he did not believe specific websites were responsible. “The relationship is with the computer,” he said. “First, it becomes a significant other to them. Second, they exhaust emotions that they could experience in the real world on the computer, through any number of mechanisms: emailing, gaming, porn. Third, computer use occupies a tremendous amount of time in their life. Then if you simply try to remove the computer, they’ve lost their best friend. That can take the form of depression or rage.”

Harry Husted, a single 51-year-old from New York, spends 16 hours a day on the Internet. He insists that he is not addicted, but admits that he used to be. “I used to work with computers for eight hours, then get home and go online for seven hours. I would stay up until two or three in the morning or until I got so sleepy I had to go to bed. I wouldn’t go out to get the groceries and I couldn’t have cared less about friends, TV, anything. After a while I realized what was happening and did something about it. Now if I use MySpace it’s only to advertise my business.”

Internet addiction clinics have sprung up around the world in an attempt to wean people off their need for a fix. Many people have turned, apparently without irony, to web discussion boards with names such as Internet Addicts Anonymous. The Centre for Internet Addiction Recovery in Bradford, Pennsylvania, says Internet addiction has become a growing legal issue in criminal, divorce and employment cases.