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Internet `addicts’ and disorders linked

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People who seem addicted to the Internet often show a bumper crop of psychiatric disorders like manic-depression, and treating those other conditions might help them rein in their urge to be on-line, a study suggests.

On average, Internet "addicts" in the study reported having five psychiatric disorders at some point in their lives, a finding that "just blew me away," said psychiatrist Nathan Shapira of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.It's unclear whether the Internet problem should be considered a dis-order or just a symptom of something else, or whether certain disorders promote the excessive online use, he said.

Shapira will present the study today at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in Toronto.

He and colleagues studied 14 people who had spent so much time online that they were facing problems like broken relationships, job loss and dropping out of school.

One 31-year-old man was online more than 100 hours a week, ignoring family and friends and stopping only to sleep. A 21-year-old man flunked out of college after he stopped going to class. When he disappeared for a week, campus police found him in the university computer lab, where he'd spent seven days straight online.

The study participants, whose average age was 35, were interviewed for three to five hours with standard questions to look for psychiatric disorders.

Being hooked on the Internet is not a recognized disorder. But Shapira said the excessive online use by the study participants would qualify as a disorder of impulse control, in the same category as kleptomania or compulsive shopping. In fact, he suggested the Internet problem be called "Internetomania" or "Netomania," rather than an addiction.

But the striking thing, Shapira said, was the other psychiatric problems that turned up:

- Nine of the 14 had manic-depression at the time of the interview, and 11 had it at some point in their lives.

- Half had an anxiety disorder such as "social phobia," which is a persisting and unreasonable fear of being embarrassed in public, at the time of the interview.

- Three suffered from bulimia or binge eating, and six had an eating disorder at some time in their lives.

- Four had conditions involving uncontrollable bursts of anger or buying sprees, and half reported such impulse-control conditions during their lives.

- Eight had abused alcohol or some other substance at some time in their lives.

The participants said medications for some of these conditions helped them gain control over Inter-net use. That happened nine of the 14 times they tried mood-stabilizing medications and four of 11 times they tried antidepressants.

They still used the Internet too much, Shapira said, but "the difference between three days straight online and spending two to four hours a day . . . is an important move in the right direction."

Kimberly Young, a University of Pittsburgh psychologist, said she has found a similar pattern of prior psychiatric problems in most people hooked on the Internet. Some people who'd abused alcohol or other substances told her they were using the Internet as a safer substitute addiction.