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When the Net drives you crazy

A new study on excessive Net use finds a high incidence of psychiatric disorders in people who are spending too much time online.

If you're spending all your time on the Internet, you might be crazy.

That's the news from the latest study on excessive Internet use, which found a startlingly high incidence of various psychiatric disorders in people who are spending too much time online.

These disorders include manic depression and anorexia as well as assorted phobias, anxieties, and compulsions.

The paper, which author Nathan Shapira presented today at the American Psychiatric Association conference in Toronto, Canada, examined for a six-month period 14 subjects who exhibited "problematic use of the Internet." "Problematic use," according to the study, is "uncontrollable; markedly distressing, time-consuming, or resulting in social, occupational, or financial difficulties."

Of the small sampling of study subjects, all 14 had some accompanying psychiatric disorder. For 79 percent of these, the diagnosis was bipolar disorder, commonly known as manic depression. Half of the group was diagnosed with impulse control disorder.

Fifty-seven percent had a substance abuse problem.

Seventy-nine percent of the group reported previous treatment for mental health problems, with 71 percent having taken some kind of psychotropic medication. Medication had a marked effect on the Internet overuse: antidepressants helped 36 percent of those who tried them, and mood stabilizers helped 64 percent.

Shapira acknowledged the comparatively small sample size as a limitation of the study.

Another researcher who has studied the problem of excessive Internet use warns that you don't have to have a prior experience with mental illness to get hooked on the Net.

Dr. Kimberly Young, a University of Pittsburgh researcher and the founder of the Center for Online Addiction, said that mentally healthy people who are undergoing everyday problems such as marital or employment difficulties may be susceptible to obsessive Net use as well.

Young also said her research turned up results remarkably similar to Shapira's.

She recently published her findings in the self-help book Caught in the Net: How to Recognize the Signs of Internet Addiction--and a Winning Strategy for Recovery, published this year by John Wiley & Sons.

Young also found that the Internet can either help or hinder recovery for other compulsive disorders.

"The Net can exacerbate an addiction," she noted. "If someone has a sexual addiction, to pornography for instance, the Net makes that material much more readily available. But if it is a physical addiction, the Net can act as a physically safe substitute."