In the mid ’90s, back in the infancy of the internet age, a psychologist named Kimberly Young heard a disturbing story. A friend’s husband had become obsessed with AOL chat rooms and, at a time when internet providers charged by the hour, was spending up to 60 nonwork hours a week on AOL. Not only was that taking a toll on the couple’s finances, but it soon became clear that the husband was going online to meet women. He didn’t stop, and the marriage didn’t survive.
Young, who’d studied computers as an undergraduate, began to wonder if others were getting similarly hooked on the temptations available on the internet. Using criteria for a gambling addiction, she posted a small survey online, substituting the word internet for gambling. Stories poured in about the connection between internet overuse and ruined marriages, devastating debt, lost jobs, teenagers who’d stopped sleeping, and college students who'd dropped out.
Then an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Young soon expanded her survey into a study that she submitted to the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, suggesting that a new breed of addicts could be emerging. Her research ignited a controversy that remains to this day.
Young’s internet overusers, she’d insisted, showed all the hallmarks of a substance or behavioral addiction. Maybe they weren’t smoking cocaine or blacking out after drinking, but they couldn’t resist this new kind of…