TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Virtually Addicted

Virtually Addicted

Catherine Holahan (
Thu, 14 Dec 2006 21:41:14 -0600

A lawsuit against IBM is reviving debate over whether Web overuse may
be classified as an addiction. The answer will have big implications
for business.

by Catherine Holahan

By his own admission, James Pacenza was spending too much time in
Internet chat rooms, in some of them discussing sex. He goes so far as
to call his interest in inappropriate Web sites a form of addiction
that stems from the posttraumatic stress disorder he's suffered since
returning from Vietnam. Whatever it's called, Pacenza's chat-room
habit cost him his job.

After 19 years at IBM's East Fishkill plant, Pacenza was fired in May,
2003, after a fellow employee noticed discussion of a sex act on a
chat room open on Pacenza's computer. IBM maintains that logging onto
the Web site was a violation of its business conduct guidelines and a
misuse of company property -- and that it was well within its rights
to terminate Pacenza's employment.

Pacenza and his attorney beg to differ. They filed suit in a New York
U.S. District Court in July, 2004, seeking $5 million for wrongful
termination. Earlier in the year, Pacenza had admitted to a superior
that he had a problem with the Internet at home. Pacenza's attorney,
Michael Diederich Jr., alleges that the perception that Pacenza was
addicted to the Internet caused IBM to fire first without asking
questions or "even attempting to examine the situation." Diederich
says there are several steps IBM could have taken, including limiting
his Internet use or blocking certain sites. "It's not productive or
useful for the employer to unfairly terminate employees," says

The case was held up for two years due to Pacenza's medical problems
and his attorney's service as a military lawyer in Iraq. But it has
come back to the fore recently, and IBM on Dec. 8 sought a dismissal
of the case, saying it's without merit. On the surface, Pacenza's may
appear to be an open-and-shut case. He doesn't deny logging onto the
chat room at work, and company policy provides for the termination of
employees who access inappropriate Web sites.

Certifying Addiction.

But cases like Pacenza's, which involve Internet misuse, may no longer
be quite so simple, thanks to a growing debate over whether Internet
abuse is a legitimate addiction, akin to alcoholism. Attorneys say
recognition by a court -- whether in this or some future litigation --
that Internet abuse is an uncontrollable addiction, and not just a bad
habit, could redefine the condition as a psychological impairment
worthy of protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

That in turn would have far-reaching ramifications for how companies
deal with workplace Internet use and abuse. For starters, businesses
could be compelled to allow medical leave, provide counseling to, or
make other accommodations for employees who can't control Internet use,
says Brian East, co-chair of the disability rights committee of the
National Employment Lawyers' Assn. East says recognizing Internet abuse
as an addiction would make it more difficult for employers to fire
employees who have a problem. "Assuming it is recognized as an
impairment -- it is analyzed the same way as alcoholism," says East.

That's a big assumption, and there's intense debate over whether
compulsive Internet use should be recognized as an addiction. The
American Psychiatric Assn. (APA) doesn't include Internet addiction in
the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth
Edition, which serves as the basis for many ADA claims related to
mental disabilities. Substance abuse, on the other hand, is listed in
a special category under substance-use disorders. Internet addiction
would not be eligible for inclusion in the manual until nearly 2012,
when the next edition is scheduled to be released, according to the

Compulsive Behavior.

Whatever the APA stance, several psychiatrists and psychologists
already say compulsive Internet overuse can legitimately be called an
addiction. Among them is Dr. David Greenfield, an assistant clinical
professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of
Medicine and author of the 1999 book Virtual Addiction. He compares
compulsive Internet use to alcoholism, drug abuse, or pathological

Like alcoholics or those who abuse drugs, people who are addicted to
the Internet use it to change their mood and feel better, says
Greenfield. There are also many who can't stop using it, despite
reprimands from work, disputes with family and friends, and other
negative effects such as debt due to compulsive Internet shopping or
gambling. "It's not surprising that it is not defined yet, because
these things change very slowly," says Greenfield. "But when you are
in clinical practice and you are dealing with people's lives, you
can't wait for those issues to be addressed. There is a huge problem
with Internet abuse in the workplace, and you can't pretend that they
don't exist because there isn't a label."

In October, researchers at Stanford University's medical school
released a study showing that a significant number of Americans show
addiction symptoms with regard to the Internet. Some 14% reported that
it was hard to stay away from the Internet for a several-day
stretch. More than 12% said they stayed online longer than intended
and nearly 9% said they hid their Internet use from loved ones or
employers. Roughly 6% said relationships had suffered due to excessive
Internet use.

Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, director of Stanford's Impulse Control Disorders
Clinic, which conducted the study, says there are clear similarities
between excessive Internet use and other addictions. "People are very
secretive, people will tell me that they feel restless when they go for
a whole afternoon without checking e-mail, there is mounting anxiety
when they try to cut back on their online use," says Aboujaoude.

However, he stops short of calling it an addiction. The clinic is
designing a more rigorous study aimed at determining whether Internet
abuse is an addiction and not just a bad habit, or a manifestation of
another addiction or psychological problem. "Based on our studies there
are definitely red flags and there are things that should be followed up
on. But until that is done, you are not going to find a serious
researcher calling this Internet addiction," says Aboujaoude. "It's too
early to coin a new term 'Internet addiction.'"

Treatment Options.

Not according to psychologist Kimberly Young, founder of the Center
for Internet Addiction Recovery in Bradford, Pa. She says that the
U.S. lags behind other countries in its recognition of compulsive
Internet use as a legitimate addiction worthy of specialized
treatment. Korea, for example, has launched the Centre for Internet
Addiction Prevention & Counseling in response to what the government
sees as the growing problem of Internet addicts in its highly wired
society. In October, a 24-year-old died after playing an online game
nonstop for 86 hours (see 9/11/06, "Online
Gaming: Korea's Gotta Have It"). "They have been able to move faster
than we have in America," says Young of the Korean government. "They
have a lot of government funding to put together these clinics."

China also recognizes Internet addiction as a legitimate problem.
Chinese employers can send workers to a two-week rehabilitation clinic
for Internet issues. Besides counseling, the clinic provides
regimented exercise and medical treatment to help people become
healthy and redirect their energy.

U.S. companies ought to wake up to the problem in order to avoid lost
productivity from workers and liability for unjust termination or
disciplinary action regarding the Internet. "If you have something
like the Americans with Disabilities Act, which recognizes many
addictions as a disability, it is not a stretch to see that people who
are getting in trouble with the Internet are going to see it as a
legitimate addiction and sue," says Greenfield. "It is only a matter
of time before one of these suits is successful."

Just how many suits are coming down the pike isn't clear, and
Pacenza's is among the earliest to weave Internet addiction into a
wrongful termination suit. There have been several other legal battles
relating to presumed Internet addiction, though often those involve
online games or chat rooms that parents say contribute to a child's

Workplace Prevention.

Even as the debate rages on within the medical community and
increasingly in the courts, some businesses are taking steps to combat
Internet addiction beyond implementing Internet-use policies. Young,
author of Caught in the Net, says she regularly speaks to companies
about Internet addiction. "They want to deal with the problem of abuse
and minimize that as much as they can," she says. Young says she sees
everyone from IT professionals obsessed with Web surfing, to
administrative assistants glued to eBay (EBAY), to self-employed
lawyers who are missing deadlines because of a fixation with Internet
porn. Still, most companies are leery of treating Internet abuse as
an addiction. "Overall companies are still a little hesitant to look
at it as an addiction," says Young. "But if they look at the costs, it
makes more sense than just firing people."

Employers try to alert employees to the potential of the problem, by
paying for talks or literature, in order to avoid problems such as
lost productivity, too much demand on company bandwidth, and
sexual-harassment claims from employees who see objectionable material
on a colleague's computer. However, some businesses are concerned
enough about the cost of replacing otherwise good employees that they
send employees to rehabilitation clinics.

When it comes to Internet overuse, some companies are finding the best
cure isn't firing, but preventive medicine. Some limit Internet access
to only those employees who need it to do their jobs. And they are
spending money on filtering and blocking software to keep employees
from surfing the Web for personal use.

Sensible Limits.

Continental Airlines (CAL) acknowledges it's impossible to ban all
personal use of the Web at work. Louis Obdyke, Continental's managing
attorney for labor and employment issues, says the company lets
employees occasionally surf the Web, shop, bank, or do other
activities online -- providing it doesn't interfere with
productivity. "It's pretty much under a rule of reason," says
Obdyke. "If you get your work done and you go on the Internet during
the workday, we wouldn't see that as a problem."

When Internet use causes work to suffer, stiffer measures are
taken. And an employee who can't improve or who visits adult or
pornographic sites while at work is susceptible to firing. As for
whether Internet abuse is comparable to other disorders such as
alcoholism, Obdyke is clear: "We don't recognize this Internet
addiction idea."

Depending on the outcome of Pacenza's case and others likely to
follow, companies like Continental may have to.

Holahan is a writer for in New York.

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