Volume 18, Number 5
July/August 2001

Other Bumps in the Road


By Kimberly S. Young

Donald is a solo practitioner from Pennsylvania who knew the benefits of the Internet. He relied upon e-mail to contact colleagues and clients and used online databases to conduct legal research. One evening, alone in his office, he accidentally stumbled upon an adult entertainment website and out of curiosity scanned through several of its pages. The next week, stressed after a long workday, he returned to the site for a little relaxation. "Just a few minutes won't hurt," he rationalized as he surfed.

Over the next few months, Donald searched for new pornographic websites as a way to relieve his job pressures. Soon, he found himself going to work early, taking more breaks, staying late, and even coming in on the weekends to surf. His behavior grew more and more out of control, and his life gradually became unmanageable. He cancelled appointments, missed deadlines, lost cases, and ignored his wife and family just to find more time at the computer. Repeated promises to stop failed until he finally admitted that he was addicted.

Welcome to the age of the Internet. The emergence of this new technology has also created a new clinical disorder. Internet addiction affects 5 to 10 percent of all online users, and treatment centers across the country and abroad have already developed specialty rehabilitation programs.

The legal professional has already seen the impact of this disorder with an alarming number of divorce cases, child custody battles, and criminal litigation prompted by Internet addiction. In a recent development, employees fired for Internet abuse have launched disability claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act against former employers for giving them access to the digital drug. The disorder is especially troublesome when lawyers themselves become hooked, only to become impaired professionals. To educate lawyers on the dynamics of the disorder and aid in its prevention within their own practices, this article reviews the warning signs, consequences, and treatment implications involved.

Are You Caught in the Net?

How can you tell if you are already hooked? Perhaps you spend a little too much time online. Does that automatically mean you are addicted? No. The volume of time alone is not the best way to diagnose the disorder. We can't say, for instance, that ten hours per week is okay, but that the eleventh hour is a sign of an addiction. Instead, you must evaluate your online usage against the following set of behaviors that characterize the basic warning signs of Internet addiction:

1. Do you feel preoccupied with the Internet; i.e., do you think about previous online activity or anticipate your next online session?
2. Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop Internet use?
3. Do you feel restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop Internet use?
4. Do you repeatedly stay online longer than originally intended?
5. Have you neglected sleep, proper diet, or exercise just to surf?
6. Have you experienced eyestrain, back strain, or carpal tunnel syndrome because of your Internet use?
7. Have you jeopardized a significant relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity because of the Internet?
8. Have you lied to others to conceal the extent of your involvement with the Internet?
9. Do you use the Internet as a way of escaping from problems or feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, or depression?

Answering "yes" to five or more of the questions suggests that addiction is present. However, given the popularity of the Internet, legitimate business usage may mask the addictive behavior even when a person meets all of the criteria.

Internet addicts are commonly attracted to online pornography or adult sex chat rooms. They may also obsessively check stock quotes, day trade, play computer games, gamble in virtual casinos, chat online with strangers, or search for information not relevant to work. The immediate and often required access to the Internet becomes a constant distraction that can wreak havoc on the addict's professional and personal life.

Consequences of the Addiction

So what does this mean for you, a lawyer in a solo or small firm practice? Having such job independence most likely means that you have a private office free from a corporate "big brother," making it that much easier for problems to develop. Since no one monitors your computer usage, counterproductive and maladaptive online behavior is easily concealed. Job productivity suffers as the Internet-addicted lawyer wastes enormous amounts of time and energy at the computer when he or she should be working. The addicted lawyer will gradually withdraw from colleagues and staff, miss deadlines, and even jeopardize cases-all to maximize unproductive use of the Internet.

Not only is work performance hindered, but family problems may also develop. The addictive behavior may extend to home computer use when addicts lie to their spouses about their Internet habit and spend less time with their children. Their habit may even lead to canceling family or social outings and an overall lack of involvement in the community, just to find greater amounts of time for the computer.

Despite these consequences, addicts believe they can handle their obsession. Soon, however, the addict discovers that time slips by and the behavior is not so easily contained. A period of deep regret may follow as the addict realizes that work is piling up and feels guilty for all that time wasted on the computer.

Addicts view their behavior as a personal failure of willpower and promise never to do it again, so a short period of abstinence follows. During this time, the addict temporarily engages in healthy patterns of behavior, works diligently, resumes interests in old hobbies, spends more time with the family, exercises, and gets enough rest. However, cravings eventually develop as temptations to go online emerge during stressful or emotionally charged moments. The addict recalls the self-medicating effects of the Internet and the relaxation and excitement it can provide. Soon, the rationalizations start again, and the immediate availability of the computer easily starts the cycle anew-and the addict feels too helpless to stop and isn't sure where to turn.

Getting Unhooked

Do you have to detach the modem or dismantle the computer just to kick the online habit? Complete abstinence is not possible when Internet use is required for work. Therefore, one goal of successful recovery is to moderate legitimate business use of the Internet while abstaining from those aspects of cyberspace that are most troubling. Begin by incorporating a tangible schedule of Internet usage that will give you a sense of being in control, rather than allowing the Internet to take control of you. Learn to set reasonable time limits pertaining to your computer use. For example, instead of a current 20 hours per week, set a new limit of only ten hours per week and schedule those hours in specific time slots. Keep your Internet usage on a routine schedule to help maintain discipline and avoid future relapse. Other ways to keep your Internet use under control include:

  • Utilize external aids such as an alarm clock or an egg timer to remind yourself when it's time to log offline.
  • Use another person's Internet account to increase accountability of online actions.
  • Find new places to use the Internet that are more public and visible.
  • Apply filtering software that blocks access to problematic websites.
  • Cultivate new activities or interests that take you away from the computer.

Just cutting back on Internet usage is only part of the solution. Internet addiction often stems from underlying psychological or situational factors that increase the risk for the disorder to develop. For example, addicts often use the Internet to escape from stress, depression, anxiety, job burnout, work pressures, or marital discord. By seeking help, the addict fears family members and colleagues will discover the secret online habit, which may cause further problems in an already troubled marriage or fragile work situation.

Successful recovery means finding healthier ways of coping with these issues, which may include individual therapy, couples counseling, or support group participation. Although therapists and clinics that specialize in Internet addiction recovery are often difficult to locate given the relative newness of the disorder, any qualified mental health provider should be able to help you recover from your addiction.

Dr. Kimberly Young is a clinical psychologist and director of the Center for On-Line Addiction, the first training institute and treatment clinic to specialize in cyber-disorders (www.netaddiction.com). Using e-mail, chat, and telephone therapy, the virtual clinic provides clients with immediate access to a healthcare specialist knowledgeable in this evolving field while protecting their privacy. She is the author of the first recovery book for Internet addiction, Caught in the Net. She can be reached at ksy@netaddiction.com.

The author of this article has granted permission for reproduction of the text of this article for classroom use in an institution of higher learning and for use by not-for-profit organizations, provided that such use is for informational, non-commercial purposes only and any reproduction of the article or portion thereof acknowledges original publication in this issue of GPSolo, citing volume, issue, and date, and includes the title of the article, the name of the author, and the legend "Reprinted by permission of the American Bar Association."

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