Hooked on e-mail and ‘virtual’ friends

There are people who can’t sleep if they haven’t checked their e-mail, or don’t check at least one website on a daily basis. They spend longer and longer each day online and have more «virtual» friends – people they have never seen in their lives – than real ones. Internet addicts are a growing band of users for whom surfing through cyberspace is not just a work tool or even simple fun but a true obsession. According to estimates, about 5-10 percent of the over 1 billion Internet users around the world are addicted to it. The syndrome has even been given a name by the psychiatric community – Internet Addiction Disorder, or IAD – which requires specialized therapy just like alcoholism or drug addiction. Even in Greece, where the Internet is used by just 17 percent of the population, cases of addiction have been recorded, particularly among teenagers and university students. Clinical psychologist Stavroula Kominakou told Kathimerini that IAD is very common. «I have seen horrifying cases in my practice, usually among lonely, introspective, insecure people who are afraid of communicating (in person),» explained Kominakou. «In other words, balanced people who are able to realize the potential dangers don’t usually become addicted to the Internet. But it is dangerous for children and teenagers as well as for gullible and vulnerable adults who are easily swayed,» she said. Kominakou referred to the case of a 16-year-old boy who had been seduced by a 40-year-old man over the Internet. «The first thing the boy would do upon coming home from school would be to check his e-mail to see if there was a message from the man,» Kominakou elaborated. In another case, a student from Thessaloniki missed an exam because he was hooked on an Internet game. «Dependence on the Web is directly linked to both sex and games,» stressed Kominakou. In Germany (where at least 1 million people are estimated to be addicted to the Internet), there is a special summer camp for young people suffering from IAD, where they are taught how to become involved in other activities. The American Psychiatric Association has issued a guide for parents about the symptoms their children might present after using the Internet for too long. For example, if a child keeps thinking about the Internet even when offline, can’t control the amount of time they are online and spends more and more time at the computer, are uneasy when away from the computer or tell lies about their use of the Internet, have become cut off from their friends or if their grades begin to suffer, then they are considered to have a serious problem. Kominakou suggests that parents not allow their children access to the Internet before they are 16 years old. «At least not until they are clear about their sexual identity. The problem is that you cannot control what they will see on the Internet or what kind of people they might ‘meet’ in chat rooms. And there are some very dangerous people in cyberspace, just as in ordinary life.» Diagnostic test for parents to gauge children’s problem It is not hard for parents to tell whether their children are, if not actually addicted to the Internet, getting into a problem area. According to the site, if the answers to the following questions are «often» or «continually,» then it is time to review the rules you have set for your children regarding their use of the Internet. – Does your child overstep the time limits you have set for him or her to be online? – Does the child neglect his household chores in order to surf the Web? – Does the child make friends over the Web? – How often do you complain to your child about the amount of time spent on the Internet? – How often does your child check his e-mail before doing anything else? – How often does your child isolate himself since getting Internet access? – Does your child get defensive or secretive when you ask what he does online? – Is your child impatient to get back online when doing something else? – Does he prefer to surf the Web than go out with friends?

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