By Kevin Voigt
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Three years ago I wrote an "Idiot's Guide to Video Games," an article that explored the skyrocketing appeal of the $10 billion-a-year electronic gaming industry. With little previous experience, I played every major game system for two months -- racing cars in exotic locales with Mario and his Nintendo friends, thumbing a Gameboy on subway and taxi rides, exploring dozens of games like "War Craft," "Halo" and "Grand Theft Auto" on PC, PlayStation 2 and X-box consoles.
My assignment won the envy of friends and colleagues, but when I finished I was a wreck: Too many nights I climbed into bed -- eyes red and wrists throbbing from maniacal game play -- for a few hours of restless sleep accompanied by dreams of alien attacks and kung-fu combat. For me, the path from novice to computer game junkie was short. I vowed never to pick up a joystick again, explaining to bewildered friends, "It's like heroin to me."
Now medical research suggests that might just be true.
Stanford University polled nearly 2,600 people in all 50 U.S. states last year to analyze their computer habits. Telephone interviews found that 69 percent of people regularly go online and nearly 14 percent found it hard to stay away from cyberspace for more a few days. Most disturbing, 6 percent of respondents said their personal relationships suffered because of time spent on the computer.
Dr. Elias Aboujaoude -- principal author of the study and head of the Impulse Control Disorders Clinic at Stanford University School of Medicine -- says their investigation was the result of an alarming rise in patients seeking treatment for excessive computer use.
"We are seeing more people who lost their jobs because of too much time spent surfing the Internet during work," he says. "More relationships are breaking up because of spouses sneaking out of bed to check e-mail in the middle of the night."
While some patients had compulsions related to pornography and gambling -- addictions which predate the digital revolution -- Aboujaoude found many patients were fired because of excessive time viewing Web sites and blogs with content not traditionally associated with addictive behavior: Such research raises the possibility that the computer habit itself may be addictive.
"We don't definitively know right now if it is clinically addictive, but it certainly seems that (computer compulsion) problems are widespread," he says.
" We don't definitively know right now if it is clinically addictive, but it certainly seems that (computer compulsion) problems are widespread." - Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, Stanford University
Since the advent of the personal computer and Internet revolution, there have been Web sites dedicated to compulsive computer habits. The number of inquiries to the Web site Net Addiction "has increased as the popularity of the Internet has increased over the past decade," says Kimberly Young, a psychologist who founded the site in 1995.
Yet obsessive computer use has yet to be classified as a clinical mental illness, such as alcoholism or eating disorders. Marathon Web surfing and electronic gaming sessions could be a symptom of a pre-existing mental illness, psychologists say: A person suffering from depression may spend countless numb hours flipping through Web pages, much as they might spend sleepless days lying in bed. A person suffering from an anxiety disorder may bunker themselves in the anonymity of online postings and instant messages to avoid dealing with people face-to-face.
"We need more research before we know if this is a separate category of addiction," says Aboujaoude. Whether or not compulsive computer use fits the clinical definition of addiction, experts agree they are seeing more cases of video-game and Internet infatuations hurting careers and destroying relationships.
"The most common question I get from people is, 'How much (computer use) is too much?'" Dr. Aboujaoude says. "There is no way to answer that ... some people may be able to spend eight hours a day online or playing games, succeed at their job and have a satisfying relationship with their family."
Red flags should start flying, however, if time spent vanquishing electronic enemies or keeping up on e-mail results in reprimands from your employer and arguments with loved ones, he says.
"The first step, as always, is recognizing there's a problem," he says. Treatment typically includes keeping a record of Web surfing or gaming habits, and gradually reducing time spent on the computer.
"If someone spending eight hours a day online can reduce it to two hours, that's a lot of the day freed up for other things like work or family," he says.
A young Chinese man receives an electroencephalogram check in Beijing in 2005 as part of treatment for Internet addiction.