Knowing what can happen to you, your friends or even your children won’t necessarily help. Heavy users will tell you that the Net will change you. If you spend enough time on-line, the rest of the world starts to look unreal or strange. You may not even notice the change. There is no sure way to know if you will get hooked or how long it can take. Here’s how it happens.
Prolonged chats on-line and mouse clicking on the Internet will produce what psychologist call a dissociative state. Net users separate from reality and enter cyber reality. Anyone with children has seen how children can watch television for countless hours. Children and even adults watching television long enough will enter a "hypnotic trance." They "meld" into the television and disconnect from reality. Limited use is a form or healthy recreation or escape. Prolonged and repeated use can create problems.
People can disappear into a good book or a movie, but there is always an end to a book or a movie. The Internet is especially addictive because the Net is endless, interactive, social and exploding with never ending images and information. The Net offers exciting relationships 24 hours a day all over the world. Before the Internet children and couples stopped working and talking with their friends after dark. Spending the evening together reading, playing games and watching television together was the norm. But not anymore.
How do people get caught up in the Net? For one thing, human beings are curious. We like to see more and do more. Many of us like to travel. When we can’t travel, we like to read books and go to movies. We like to feel competent and in control. Human beings like to feel better and they don’t like to feel bad. We like to do things that feel good and avoid things that feel worse. We especially like doing pleasurable things more and more. Being on the Internet is not necessarily about having a good time. Being on-line might make you feel better but it might just change how you feel. It can be an escape from reality that isn’t necessarily better for you. For some people, a painful or disgusting fantasy is preferable to a less painful or disgusting reality.
Have you ever noticed that some people watch television even when there is nothing good to watch. And instead of turning the TV off, they resort to channel switching. The act of switching channels repeatedly is an annoying process that makes the rest of us want to leave the room or take the remote control away from somebody. The Net is a lot like television only the Net is timeless, interactive, challenging and endless.
Psychologists explain the seduction and addictive nature of the Net primarily in terms of a behavior modification process called a variable reinforcement schedule. That means you don’t know how much of a reward you will get and when for your behavior. A variable reinforcement schedule is the most addictive reward system. Slot machines are designed and operate in the same principle.
When you keep playing a slot machine, the odds are that you will eventually loose everything. But the human brain loves the possibilities and excitement of "winning" in the moment and it ignores the long term consequences. The occasional win doesn’t make up for the overall loss. People play anyway because the occasional win is highly rewarding for those who play long enough. Some people can walk away and stay away. Other can’t walk away or they always come back.
The Internet is also more addictive than a slot machine – especially once they begin to master the technology. Playing on the Net can give you self-confidence. A slot machine doesn’t. The most common rewards from a slot machine are those curious noises, spinning pictures and flashing lights. Once in a while a person wins some money.
Would you believe it, a cable modem is more addictive than a slower dial-up modem. Most people had no patience for the Internet when they had a dial up modem. The rewards were slow and boring. That changed when high speed modems allowed for rapid "clicking" and responses. People with high speed modems are now disappearing into a world where they wait anxiously for the result of the next click. The surprise, shock value and speed in which a person gets these "hits" of information and imagery are the key to creating a compulsion and addiction. Time begins to have no meaning when your next "hit" is just a "click" away. There is no time to think about something else you could or should be doing - unless you are waiting. People don’t think of what else they should be doing and they increasingly find there is always time for one more click and one more chat.
More than a slot machine, everything on the Internet is an adventure with social opportunities. It can be mildly or tremendously exhilarating. People feel rewarded when they finally figure it out why their software or a web site is not working. Every improvement in your skills including upgrades in software and your access to new and exciting links can produces a mind altering change in your brain chemistry. The most powerful change is called a dopamine rush. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that controls brain function including decision making, impulsiveness, and it is released when you experience certain stimulation. It can improve your mood, confidence and produce a feeling of pleasure.