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Germany

When the Internet Gives You a High

As the world's largest computer fair kicks off in Hanover, experts are highlighting the problem of Internet addiction. It afflicts an estimated 1 million Germans and has disastrous social consequences.

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You have a problem when this is all you want to do all the time!

They turn the night into day, give themselves funky names such as "Jocool", "kreec" or "Juliese", know their chat partners better than their own kids, partners and friends, and often end up facing the collapse of social and personal relationships.

Internet addiction is the name of the game, and experts say it’s taking on frightening proportions in Germany.

Just a day before the Cebit -- the world’s largest computer fair which presents the latest hi-tech products and trends in the computer world -- began in Hanover on Wednesday, experts were ringing alarm bells to highlight a problem they say the technology sector would rather turn a blind eye to: an increasing number of people can no longer control when they switch on their computers and enter the World Wide Web.

One million Germans are online addicts

Although there are no exact statistics on the number of people who can be described as Internet addicts in Germany, experts say the number is close to 1 million. The number amounts to about 3 percent of the on-line population in the country.

André Hahn of the market research organization Research International conducted a study two years ago on the phenomenon and found that 2.67 percent of Internet users in Germany displayed acute symptoms of addiction. "This percentage has not changed up to today, but the number of Internet users has risen in the time from 25 to 30 million," he told DW-WORLD.

"Drug available much too easily"

Usually those addicted to the Internet display the same behavior: They spend increasing amounts of time on-line, ignore their families, friends, school and work.

For such people, the Internet is often a drug that helps compensate for problems. For instance, those who lack self-confidence can often assume a new, stronger identity in chat rooms or in on-line games. Others are addicted to on-line sex.

Astronomical telephone bills -- a common occurrence until recently when flat rates and fixed tariffs were introduced -- also drove many Internet addicts to bankruptcy.

"The flat rates have lowered the financial risks for the addicts. But, on the other hand, the conditions for entrance have been considerably lowered, too. Now, the drug is available much too easily," Hahn said.

The researcher said that much like conventional drug addicts, Internet addicts show psychological withdrawal symptoms if they don’t get access to the Net: They often become nervous, irritable, and at times even aggressive and unfocused.

" Internet became more important than family"

Gabriele Farke is a case in point. The 47-year-old industrial sales representative acknowledged that she was an Internet addict for over two years. She said the problem began with innocuous surfing for a couple of hours in the office. She then bought a computer, and the harmless pleasure turned into a numbing addiction as she began to spend hours surfing the net after she got home from work.

"The Internet became more important to me than my family," she told DW-WORLD. Farke spent hours on end in chat rooms, discussed under a variety of pseudonyms until the early morning hours with fellow junkies who she felt understood her better than her own friends.

In retrospect, Farke described her obsessive chatting as "superficial hogwash." She said she displayed all the symptoms of a classic Internet addict: She lost her social contacts and her daughter felt ignored and left home at 18. Farke lost her job and is still reeling under the financial implications of her telephone bills.

Moved by her own experience with Internet addiction, Farke wrote a book about it. The cathartic therapy helped her break out of the addiction cycle. In 1999, she founded a self-help organization for Internet addicts wanting to kick the habit.

Industry and politics not taking responsibility

Though on-line addiction has now been recognized as a serious problem, the question of whom to hold responsible for it is a difficult one.

Wolfgang Schmidt, head of the Regional Center for Addiction-related Questions in the state of Hesse, said that on-line addiction was just not taken seriously enough by business and politics.

"In public debates and discussions, the Internet is only good and modern. Even all schools are now supposed to be linked to the Internet," he told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper.

Schmidt said that the policy was good in principle, but there was a minority of people who were susceptible to enslavement through new technology.

He urged that both industry and politics should at least acknowledge responsibility, and finance independent studies to determine the size of the problem.

Kicking the Internet habit not easy

Internet addiction is still a relatively new phenomenon, and psychologists and psychiatrists are still researching the actual causes and forms that the addiction can take.

Werner Platz, a psychiatrist at the Free University in Berlin, has been counseling Internet addicts for several years. He described the addiction as a modern form of gambling that often conceals underlying psychological disorders such as depression.

Platz said Internet addicts often displayed a susceptibility for addiction that can manifest itself in another obsession if the root psychological cause was not treated. He said therapy for such addicts is a step by step process, in which the on-line junkies gradually need to reduce the time they spend surfing on the Internet and at the same time seek counseling to talk about their experiences.

But even if the on-line addicts are eventually weaned off the habit, information technology already has new attractions in store that can easily turn into potential obsessions for hi-tech nerds. Several thousand people are already thought to be suffering from the addiction to SMS (short messaging service) texting.

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