Collaboration

Talking Shop: Causes and control strategies for Internet addiction

Controlling the abuse of Internet access by employees to improve productivity


By Ruby Bayan

It's ironic that the very people companies trust to help control inappropriate use of the Internet may be the ones most likely to abuse it. Because network/system administrators and support pros spend so much time on the computer—and their typical work environment puts them in windowless rooms alone with the resources to be online during work hours—they may be among the most vulnerable to the 'Net-related pathological condition that's come to be known as "Internet Addictive Disorder" (IAD).

The term was coined facetiously by Dr. Ivan Goldberg, a psychiatrist and former staff member of the National Institute of Mental Health, when he posted a parody of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to the members of a listserv. He posted "diagnostic criteria" for the condition, inadvertently triggering trepidation over a new type of addiction that could afflict online users.

But could there really be something to the notion of Internet addiction? We interviewed various net admins to find out how "addicted" they are to the Internet and how they prevent this behavior from affecting their work productivity. They came up with three basic causes of compulsive Internet use and a list of control strategies for the workplace.

Test your level of addiction
If you're wondering whether you're addicted to surfing, e-mail, and other cyber activities, take this online assessment to see whether your habits are healthy.

Cause 1: Longing for community and like-mindedness
"Being a system administrator myself, I know that it's very easy and very tempting to retreat into the world of pixels and the 'Net and spend enormous amounts of time there," said John M. Grohol, Psy.D., a Boston-area research psychologist who maintains a psychology Web site, PsychCentral.com.

"Since the aspects of the Internet where people are spending the greatest amount of time online have to do with social interactions, it would appear that socialization is what makes the Internet so 'addicting'—plain old hanging out with other people and talking with them," he said.

"My real addiction would be e-mails, particularly the net admin mailing list I belong to," said Big Dog, a net admin who prefers to shield his identity. "This is mainly because I have no friends that I've actually met in person."

He said he knows it's an addiction because he finds himself annoyed with users when they interrupt his mailing list time with real work.

Jon B. Lewis, network administrator for Myriad Data Solutions, also admitted to his dependence on mailing lists. Because he sits in a large room with no windows and few visitors, he said e-mail is his only regular interaction with people in the outside world.

Mailing lists generate a sense of community, he said. "I would imagine that a lot of people in this particular field are cut off from like-minded individuals, and people will find a way to communicate with others they connect with."

Jim Terryberry, a net admin for Excel Engineering, summed up IAD as having to do with just being connected. He recalled that on the weekend his office was moving, his most immediate concern was restoring his connection to the guys on his net admin mailing list.

Cause 2: A hunger for knowledge
Richard Davis, professor of industrial/organizational psychology at the University of Western Ontario and director of Victoria Point Consulting, calls this fascination with the Internet "Information Masturbation."

"With so much information at our fingertips, it is no astonishing phenomenon that some users can't seem to get enough," he said.

For hours on end, people sit at their computers and breathe in the entire universe of knowledge, he said.

One net admin we interviewed, "Wally," admitted his Internet addiction. He was afraid to give his real name because he fears repercussions from talking about goofing off during work hours. Wally said that his mind works really well in an environment where there is constant information and stimulation because he has attention deficit disorder (ADD).

"I write e-mails to friends and acquaintances a paragraph at a time between doing real work, reading tech news and columns, and devouring tech books," Wally said, noting that he'd probably flip out temporarily if he didn't have any Internet access at all.

"It's gotten to be kind of like an extension of my brain for tech stuff and news. Basically, information on just about anything that I want to know something about is available upon command."

That's pretty attractive to someone who loves information, he said.

Cause 3: Masking embedded problems
If the compulsion to log on does not come from longing for virtual group hugs or daily doses of data streams, the craving may be the result of problems that have nothing to do with the Internet itself. For example:
  • Feeding a diagnosed addiction. Barrett Blackburn, a system administrator for Perlos Inc., said that it's not addiction to the Internet but rather a case of the Internet feeding another addiction by making it easier to access the addictive material. "They're not addicted to the Internet, they're addicted to pornography… to gambling... to fantasy football." The Internet allows them to do it at work more easily, he said.
  • Escaping from a life problem. Most people who think they are addicted to the Internet may instead be trying to avoid dealing with other problems in their lives, Grohol said. The problem could be a mental disorder—like depression or anxiety—a serious health problem, disability, or relationship problem.

A convenient excuse
Dan Evans, a freelance administrator and "tech guy" for Barcelona.com Inc., dismisses the idea of Internet addiction altogether. He suggested that calling excessive Internet usage an addiction merely provides slackers with an excuse for wasting time on the job.

"IAD is a buzzword someone invented for the 'I'm the victim here' moaner who got fired for goofing off at work," said Evans. "Before, it was harder to goof off, as it involved being able to find a reason to not go to work," he said. "Now, you can turn up at the office and goof off in other ways." And, if you get in trouble, you can hide behind the IAD excuse.

Strategies to control Internet use in the workplace
The jury is still out on whether compulsive interaction with the online world can be likened to pathological gambling, alcoholism, or substance abuse.

"IAD is not a diagnosis in the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders]," Grohol said. "And it's not recognized for payment by insurance companies."

Nevertheless, this type of compulsion can put IT pros in hot water at work. Here are a few suggested strategies to control the urge to surf during work hours:
  • Professionalism. Evans said there are no excuses for not getting his job done. "If I get to the end of the day and the job list is not completed because I have been goofing off, it's a case of work later to get it finished or tomorrow make it a point to get the job done," he said. "Most of us are responsible or professional enough to realize that."
  • Self-discipline. It's possible to fit in a little surfing during the workday, as long as it doesn't interfere with work, said Drew Nicholson, LAN system administrator of FullAudio Corporation. "Sometimes, I can be online e-mailing or Web-browsing while I'm working—such as when I'm monitoring, or checking my T-1 line's response time. But I work when there's work to be done, and I have fun when there's time."
  • Efficiency. Wayne Lentz, a net admin for Knust-SBO, said the solution is to "get more work done faster, thereby giving you more surfing time." He uses the Microsoft Windows NT Resource Kit and PsTools to make the most of his time. "As I continue to improve my net admin skills and knowledge, I am able to do much more work in less time, due in part to those utility suites. That affords me plenty of time to bump around the 'Net without hurting my job performance."

Should you seek help?
If you're concerned that you're spending an unhealthy amount of time on the Internet but can't seem to stay offline, you may want to try therapy.

"Most people I've interviewed experience this 'addiction' as a phase that resolves itself over time," Grohol said. The rewards decrease over time, and it becomes less enjoyable, until it takes up a normal amount of a person's time, he said. "So to folks who might be in [the addiction] phase right now or who are concerned that the phase is lasting a very long time (years, for instance), I'd suggest they seek help in the form of therapy."

If you do go that route, Grohol said your chances for resolving the problem are good.

"Psychologists have studied compulsive behaviors and their treatments for years now," he said. "And nearly any well-trained mental health professional will be able to help you learn to slowly curb the time spent online and address the problems or concerns in your life which may have contributed to your online overuse or that were caused by it."

Real addiction or an excuse for goofing off?
Is IAD a real problem or just an excuse to surf the Web during work hours? Either way, what strategies do you use to keep yourself on task? Post your advice and opinions to the discussion below.

 

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