About 30 million Germans use the Internet. Experts believe up to one million people are addicted to surfing online. Reasons vary, but addicts have one thing in common: They're virtually trying to escape the real world.
It shouldn't be man's best friend
Neglecting real relationships and daily tasks to spend more time in front of the computer are clear signs for a budding online addiction, according to experts. But it's still difficult to say at what point Internet use becomes obsessive. "It's not clearly defined yet," said Rainer Gölz, who heads mediarisk international, a German organization that offers help to online addicts and the people around them.
Gölz recounted the story of a 19-year-old woman as an example: She completely shut herself off from her circle of friends and spent the whole day online. Her mother finally contacted mediarisk for help. "It's an addiction that takes over quickly," Gölz said, adding that he sees it as an "escape from the real world."
Hiding behind a screen name
Judging from e-mails received by Gölz's organization, people become addicted for different reasons. Many say that the possibility of hiding behind a screen name and the irrelevance of personal appearance have allowed them to completely immerse themselves in the virtual world.
Forms of addiction vary as well: Some spend hours downloading pornographic images from the Web, others play games for several days without interruption. A third group obsessively bids on items at internet auctions, regardless of whether they actually need the products or not.
Online addiction is common among single people.
While a team of scientists at Berlin's Humboldt University has done extensive research on the topic, online addiction is still not recognized as an illness, Gölz said. The university study, headed by psychologist Matthias Jerusalem, was based on interviews with 10,000 Internet users. It revealed that men under 20 and singles are especially prone to online addiction.
Some experts are recovering addicts themselves. Gabriele Farke doesn’t like to talk about her own history of excessive online surfing but knows what she's talking about when she advises people who come to her for help. "The allure of constantly staying online is completely subconscious," Farke said. "They live in a dream world and feel like they can talk about their problems and desires all the time."
Farke says that reality looks a lot different: People stop making time for their friends, hobbies or even daily chores. "You don't realize it," she said. "You think that you still have a lot of friends around you."
Invisible friends, that is. Friends you can't see. Friends you can only communicate with via the keyboard.
Realizing one's own addiction takes drastic things to happen, Farke said, adding that the loss of a partner can force people to start thinking about their problem. Once online addicts come to her for help, she sets up a plan of action with them to return to a healthier level of Internet use. Addicts slowly reduce the amount of time they spend in front of the computer and some even begin therapy to deal with the problem.
Support from friends and relatives is crucial, Farke said: "It often helps when people talk about the use of the Internet: What are you looking for? Why don't you talk to me about your problems?" Relatives should also make sure that addicts are included in family life. They should be encouraged to eat their dinner at the table instead of staying in front of the computer. "Relatives often become co-dependants," Farke said, adding that it's a harmful response that's often recognized too late.