Can We Become Caught In The Web?

I've lived and worked on the Internet for nine years now. At first, the online world threatened to engulf me. But now it has made possible a life I love and couldn't sustain any other way.

I have an intense relationship with the Net. Because my boyfriend lives in England, it is our primary means of communicating. And since I work as a freelance journalist, I spend much of my time doing research on the Web and communicating with editors by e-mail. I'm online at least half my day.

When I began my wired life, the Web hadn't been invented. A friend founded a "bulletin board" in New York City in 1990 called Echo, and invited me to help start the conversation. I was immediately hooked by a world where what you write--not how you look or sound--is who you are. It had definite appeal to someone who has always found socializing difficult. And as a writer, I even had an advantage. My style online is conveyed by my sentences and syntax, not my fashion sense or physical appearance.

But there are some serious problems with an online existence. If you aren't careful to limit yourself, you can start to find human contact frightening--even phone calls become scary. Computers do what you want for the most part, but life outside is noisy, unpredictable and crowded. Seeing friends comes to seem a chore; getting groceries an unwanted adventure.

The repetitive nature of online tasks--checking e-mail, searching for data, sending replies--has a soothing, ritualistic quality, somewhat like preparing and using drugs. The Net also offers druglike distractions: engaging in flame-fest arguments with people you will never meet, discussing topics you love but rarely get a chance to share in real life. You write, but don't feel isolated as your words generate near-instant responses. The sense of connection--whether true or false--is compellingly attractive.

Still, I wouldn't call my Internet use an addiction. As a former heroin and cocaine addict, I know that experience all too well. Addiction inherently moves you away from love and work. My relationship to the Internet is far more complex.

While heroin and cocaine failed to deliver what I thought they'd promised, the Internet lived up to its billing. For one, I don't know how people sustain long-distance relationships without it. My boyfriend and I use a chat program that allows us to see what the other is writing as we type. We usually spend at least an hour a day communicating this way. Many couples who live together don't spend that much time "listening" to each other.

In today's mobile world, the Net also provides community that geography sometimes can't. While many pundits claimed that the Web helped push the Columbine High School shooters to the edge, I figure that it may have prevented many other such situations. After all, outcast teens can now find friends online--without fear of ridicule or attack. I wish I'd had the Net when I felt there was no one in the world who understood me.

My sister's life has also been bettered by the Net. When Kira conceived her first child in 1995, she joined an online group of mothers around the world who were due to give birth in the same month. Over the years, they've shared the ups and downs of parenting. They've met in person only rarely.

When Kira posted about her profound postpartum depression the other mothers became concerned. Since Kira lives in Florida and most of her family is in New York, the list members offered to fly me down for support. Kira was so moved that she cried when she was told I was coming and how it had been arranged.

Her depression had made her feel that no one cared. Her husband's frequent relocation had given her little chance to set local roots. But online, she found companionship. And it wasn't limited to words on a screen: it was real, practical and vital.

Like anything else that is pleasurable, the Net can be misused. My boyfriend's first few years on the Net included a lot of 18-hour days online.

Such compulsive use can be harmful--but it is probably less so than many other distractions. People can and do use everything from methamphetamine to mountaineering to avoid doing what they should. If you can't face the world, you'll always find somewhere to hide. And even my boyfriend's Net overdose wasn't entirely negative: he now knows UNIX, Linux and other programs I can't even name and has started a Net-related business.

I think psychologists looking to treat "Internet addiction" and fear-mongering pundits hype the bad side of the Net for their own purposes: profits and ratings. What you find in the vast chaos of the Web is mainly what you choose to look for. If you don't look for trouble, chances are, you won't find it.