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INTEREST IN ONLINE CAN GET WAY OUT OF LINE

Movie director Irwin Winkler used to come home at the end of each workday to a wife who would greet him with a drink and a shrimp cocktail.

"But now she just glances up from her computer, says `Oh, hi,' and turns back to her online world," grouses Winkler, who wrote and directed "The Net," the new movie that stars Sandra Bullock as a computer consultant whose identity is wiped out by corporate thugs with access to powerful databases.Winkler says his wife's online fixation "makes me feel like I'm being ignored, and it's partially why I made a film about the Inter-net." After coming home night after night to a wife who had her face buried in a World Wide Web page, Winkler said he realized that "I'm a Net widower."

The director is just one of thousands of people who have grown to resent the home computer almost as they might "Monday Night Football," or even a rival lover. Wives grieve the absence of husbands. Husbands mourn the loss of wives. Even children bemoan hours of togetherness lost as their parents spend hours in the gray-green glow of computer screens that serve as portals to a brave new cyberworld.

"I know spending time online is one of my dad's favorite things to do," said 14-year-old Alison Williams of Franklin, Tenn. She said her father, Doug, spends several hours each evening and on weekends downloading e-mail and games. "But sometimes when I or my brother want to spend time with him, it makes us feel left out. Now when he tells us to not watch so much television, we tease him about playing on the computer and say he ought to come out and play with us."

More than a third of all U.S. households own personal computers, according to estimates by Channel Marketing, a Dallas research firm. And more than 6.5 million computers worldwide are connected to the Internet, according to Mark Lottor of Network Wizards. Estimates as to how many people are online run in the tens of millions worldwide. Increasingly, their flesh-and-blood kin view the mechanical mistress with distrust - even envy.

Worse yet, many spouses fear their mates may be turning to virtual worlds to avoid real-life intimacy.

"I've told my husband that I draw the line where the computer infringes on the time we have to be together," said Ava Lazar, a former actress. She now runs a multimedia development business called Newspeak Media in Los Angeles with her husband, former MGM executive John Tarnoff. "Between our business and our child, I feel we have little enough time left for intimacy."

"I sometimes feel resentful," said Arlene Immerman, an Albany, Calif., resident whose husband, David Brown, likes to troll online bulletin boards on bluegrass and folk music in his spare time. "On the one hand, he's got this thing he loves to do - and that's great. But if we have plans to do something together and he's online for six hours, I have to say it isn't fair."

Occasionally, Net spouses grow jealous of online pen pals. One Northern California author said an online pal corresponding from France finally severed communications with her, in part because of his wife's jealousy.

"I think the computer just triggered her insecurities in their relationship," said the author, who declined to be identified. "But I think online communications can be extremely dangerous, because it's much easier to say things to this anonymous person than to your mate. I think it can become adultery that takes place right in your home."

Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist, agrees. "It's much easier to love someone whom you have never really met, because you can fantasize that they are your dream woman or man," she said. "They make no demands."