The Internet lets you communicate instantly, tap vast knowledge, watch news unfold, run a business -- you name it and the Net is your servant.
But could it become your master?
Psychology professor Kimberly Young, Psy.D., founder of the Center for Online and Internet Addiction, began studying Internet addiction after a friend sought help with her husband's online activities. "The husband's actions -- the preoccupation with being online, his lying about the amount of time in front of the computer, the extreme moodiness, and his avoidance of family and friends -- were all traits common to addictive behavior," says Dr. Young, who is also a professor at St. Bonaventure University, near Buffalo, N.Y.
In one survey, "6 percent of the respondents met the criteria for compulsive Internet use and over 30 percent reported that they were using the Net to escape from negative feelings," she says. "The vast majority admitted that while online they lost track of time, felt extremely uninhibited and were more likely to be intimate with another person than in a face-to-face relationship."
How much of a threat?
Some other experts doubt that Internet addiction poses much of a threat.
"The Internet is merely a tool, not a saint or a villain," says New York psychologist Michael Fenichel, Ph.D., founder of the International Society for Mental Health Online. The danger, he says, lies in some people's inability to separate themselves from the Internet's offer of freedom, knowledge and self-gratification.
But both experts suggest watching Net use:
Track family time online. Keep a log for sign-on and sign-off.
Schedule computer use. Set blocks of time for kids' homework, your bill paying and your spouse's games.
Find some chores or entertainment that doesn't use a computer.
Get outdoors. If you're online too much, you're missing exercise and risking back pain and repetitive use injuries to hands and arms.
Spend face-to-face time with family, friends and neighbors.
Get professional help if the Net becomes the focus of your life.
Online or over the line?
The Center for Online and Internet Addiction offers a test of online activities' damaging effects. Only consider online time unrelated to school or work -- and be honest. Use the following scale:
0, Does not apply
1, Not applicable or rarely
How often do you stay online longer than you intended?
How often do you neglect household chores to spend more time online?
How often do you prefer the excitement of the Internet to intimacy with your partner?
How often do you form new relationships with fellow online users?
How often do others in your life complain about the amount of time you spend online?
How often do your grades suffer because of the amount of time you spend online not doing schoolwork or studying?
How often do you check your e-mail before something else that you need to do?
How often does your job performance or productivity suffer because of the Internet?
How often do you become defensive or secretive when anyone asks you what you do online?
How often do you block disturbing thoughts about your life with soothing thoughts of the Internet?
How often do you find yourself anticipating when you will go online again?
How often do you fear that life without the Internet would be boring, empty and joyless?
How often do you snap, yell or act annoyed if someone bothers you while you're online?
How often do you lose sleep due to late-night log-ins?
How often do you feel preoccupied with the Internet when offline, or fantasize about being online?
How often do you find yourself saying "just a few more minutes" when online?
How often do you try to cut down the amount of time you spend online and fail?
How often do you try to hide how long you've been online?
How often do you choose to spend more time online over going out with others?