Dr. Kimberly Young has seen a wide variety of computer joneses since founding the Bradford, Pa.-based Center for On-Line Addiction in 1995: Internet sex addicts, chat addicts, gambling addicts. But in the past year, she has been encountering a new kind of patient: Internet shopping addicts. The proliferation of e-commerce sites and online auction houses has made spending money in cyberspace not just commonplace, but for many people, compulsive. ”People get very caught up in the illusion that they’re not spending money,” Young says. ”Your card gets debited, and that removes the mechanics of shopping. It feels good for a moment, but because it’s a temporary state, you do it again and again.”
There are no figures available on Internet shopping addiction, but consider the anecdotal information from Young and her peers and combine it with the stupefying increase in U.S. online spending — from $7.8 billion in 1998 to an estimated $14.9 billion in 1999, according to Jupiter Communications. Mix in the approximately 11 million people (6 percent of Internet users) who suffer from some form of Web addiction, according to the American Psychological Association. You get the implications. ”We’re seeing a dramatic increase in compulsive behaviors associated with the Internet — including compulsive shopping behaviors,” says Dr. Eric Hollander, director of the Compulsive, Impulsive, and Anxiety Disorders Program at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.
Online shopping gets addictive for the same reasons offline shopping does: A person gets a quick thrill from the acquisition and fails to make a connection to an actual impact on the wallet. ”On the Internet, it’s not real money,” says Maressa Hecht Orzack, founder of the Computer Addiction Service at McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard University. ”If you get carried away, you can be in lots of trouble.” Worse, because people don’t cap their online experience by leaving with clothes or CDs or books, they find they need to make a larger number of buys to reach that shopping high.
Online auctions are even more addictive, their lure lying in the excitement of bidding, strategizing, and — one hopes — ultimately outbidding others. ”I see a lot of women — some men, but mostly women — get caught up in this,” says Young. ”They’re buying jewelry or pottery or knickknacks they don’t really need because they like the idea of placing a bid and winning. It becomes less about the item and more about the competition.”
The sheer variety of items offers further temptations — a person can head to eBay to pick up some old books and end up bidding on videos, antique dolls, and duct tape. There’s also the cozy feeling of community bonding in related chat rooms devoted to china dolls or Star Trek merchandise. Young says that the auction experience even becomes a confidence booster for some patients, who admit they just like reading compliments posted under their user profile.
So what’s the difference between the occasional Reel.com splurge and a Reel.com problem? The signs of an online-shopping addiction are similar to those for other compulsive disorders. Addicts neglect jobs or families. When they’re not online shopping, they’re often thinking about it. They overspend and regularly buy things they don’t need just to get the buzz. They lie about their purchases. And, of course, they rack up major bills.