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Lost in Cyberspace

Everyone knows about the benefits of the Internet, connecting the world with information, resources and friendship. But what happens when that enthusiasm for surfing the Web turns into an obsession? 


Xu Liang is logged onto a hot online game, his furious eyes focused like a laser on the screen, his fingers adroitly thrumming the keyboard to keep his dummy warrior victorious. His speed and deftness indicate that he's played this game many, many times. Xu is 19, and he is an Internet addict.


"My highest daily record of being online is 20 hours during school vacations," brags the vocational school student, the pride in his voice unmistakable. "When school is over, I hurry to the computer because I'm afraid I might be missing something -- you know, instant messaging waits for no one!"


Xu has a point: The virtual world goes on, regardless of whether the computer is switched on or not, and the user is in front of it or not. The result, for obsessive users like Xu, is a drive to spend as much time as possible online, keeping an eye on even the tiniest changes in cyberspace. But the amount of time he is spending online worries his parents.


"My son is crazy about the Internet, and never goes to bed until midnight,'' complains Xu Xinhua, the boy's father. "Ironically, he has never shown such passion or diligence when it comes to his studies. Our attempts to restrict his use of the computer don't work, either, since he can just go to an Internet cafe -- and in the end, I'd prefer that he surf the Web where I can see what he's doing."


The Internet as a source of intergenerational conflict is an increasingly common problem in China, where the total number of Internet users reached 79.5 million by the end of last year, and is continuing to rise. The popularity has also created a new medical problem, and coined a new medical term to go with it -- "Internet addiction."


Although the concept of Internet addiction was initially met with skepticism and even denial from the public, it has became evident that the more people logged on to cyberspace, the more they got hooked. "Signs of Internet addiction include becoming more irritable and antisocial, a loss of control before the computer and covering up or being dishonest about your online activities," says Professor Du Yasong, an experienced psychologist at the Shanghai Mental Health Center.


According to Du, the Internet is a two-edged sword, and it is important to clearly define the line between normal enthusiasm and what may be an abnormal preoccupation. "Healthy Internet use includes bringing your real identity, interests and skills to the Internet, and communicating via e-mail with friends and colleagues," Du explains.


"Used properly, the Internet is an outlet for learning, creativity and self-expression. But when real life melds with cyberlife, it can be a problem." Psychologists call this condition "Internet Addiction Disorder" (IAD). It's an impulse-control disorder involving tolerance (the need for ever-increasing amounts of time on the Internet to achieve satisfaction), withdrawal symptoms, which can include anxiety, depression, irritation, obsessive thinking about the Internet and even voluntary or involuntary typing movements when Internet use is reduced, affective disturbances and the interruption of social relationships.


"Everyday we receive many IAD patients who are incapable of extricating themselves from cyberspace," Du adds. "Some even turn on the computers without knowing what to do. For them, the benefits of the worldwide Web -- the information, convenience and resources -- have become detriments."


The condition is not difficult to understand. In virtual communities and identities are easily masked -- people can become whomever they choose -- and emotional attachments are easily developed. They can also seek out the means to fulfill unmet emotional and psychological needs, which are more intimate and less threatening than real-life relationships.


Maggie Wang, a frequent 30-something netizen of a noted virtual city Website, doesn't conceal her strong desire for the Internet. She usually spends more than five hours a day on the Internet after ending her work as an accountant. "I love cyberspace as it puts little pressure on those who are exhausted with heavy working pressure and eager to accomplish an escape from the ardors of reality, just like me," Wang says, beaming. "I also have a virtual husband out there. Without the exposure of one's real identity, such emotional and psychological ties are easy, relaxed and comfortable." Wang's thoughts are echoed by Zhang Jian, an online game lover in his 20s. "Despite what people say, I don't think the cyberworld is cold and cruel," Zhang says. "The emotional connection, the love and friendship through cooperation and teamwork are the essential charm to me.


In a sense, we can expect much more from the Internet. Some Internet addicts may also create online personas, altering their identities and pretending to be someone else. Their virtual roles often represent deep-seated psychological desires. "People who suffer from low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy and fear of disapproval from others are more inclined to create new identities on the Internet," Du says. "Such behavior may be an attempt to control depression and anxiety in the real world and may reflect insecurities and feelings of inner emptiness." Just like the addicts' parents, doctors and experts never stop worrying about the consequences of Interned addiction from a health point of view.


Since addicted users are likely to use the Internet anywhere from 40 to 80 hours per week -- approximating the time spent on a full-time job -- it can be physically harmful. Disrupted sleep patterns and lifestyles can cause excessive fatigue, weaken the immune system and impair normal function at school or at work. In addition, the sedentary act of prolonged computer use can result in a lack of proper exercise and increase the risk for carpal tunnel syndrome, back strain, or eyestrain. "But the psychological harm is greater," Du says. With the rising psychological reliance on the Internet, people tend to take less responsibilities in real life.


They become less communicative and more closed, confused between the virtual land and the real one. Thus normal family relations, and even careers, are likely to be disrupted by 'net binges'." Internet addiction aside, there is also a growing reliance on cellphones and televisions, and cases of addiction to these new technologies are also found at the mental health clinic. From a sociological perspective, these addictions mask a syndrome caused by updated technologies in the modern world, such as overindulgence in short messaging.


"Nowadays People's psychological demands expand in correlation to their elevated material condition. The better they live, the more they ask for psychological relaxation. In the world of Internet or short messages, they can escape from the real-life hustle and bustle," explains Professor Yu Hai from Fudan University's Department of Sociology. "But what is important to remember is that one can find a healthy balance between the benefits of the new technologies and other meaningful activities. Moderation is the key. Adolescents, in particular, should never run their lives on the Internet alone -- follow this simple prescription, and you'll find more time to pursue all the other things that life has to offer." Overcoming Internet Addiction While professional guidance is always the best way to treat any psychological or physical problems, there are steps you can take to combat Internet abuse on your own.


1. To begin with, try keeping yourself busy with other activities -- read a book, call a friend, exercise, go to a movie or just get out of the house and away from your computer.


2. Another way to control Internet addiction is to use the computer as part of your recovery. Whenever you're online, use a time-tracking program to log your activity, and stick to a strict, time-limiting regiment.


3. List the necessary tasks you need to fulfill when you're on line. When the tasks are done, turn off the computer at once. A calm psychological condition is essential to resist the temptation of the Internet.


4. When it comes to teenagers, parents and teachers should enhance guidance and communication. Many children consider the Internet a castle for stress-relief. The point is to solve their problems in real time and give them more psychological care.


5. For some people, total abstinence may be a reasonable cure, but that may not be a practical option if your work or school requires online activity. Thus, the best solution to fight cyber addiction could be a step-by-step recovery program, which may likely mean professional assistance.


(eastday.com April 7, 2004)


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