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Way Too Much of a Good Thing

Robin Apple

WEB DIS-EASE: Aboujaoude

It's not hard to find examples of obsessive online activity, but it can be difficult to map the spectrum between what's essentially harmless and what's alarmingly pathological. The simple time-sucks—things like compulsive texting, the mastery of Angry Birds or incessant Facebook posting ("well, it's Thursday again; I guess I saw this coming!")—nonetheless can interfere with daily living and relationships. Surely one of the American family's most common snarks is the slang "crackberry," used to describe the distractive allure that BlackBerry smart phones exert on Dad or Mom.

More directly harmful, however, psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude says, is online behavior that he once thought might prove therapeutic. Medical professionals have been saddened to watch Internet benefits such as greater access to medical information and easy creation of supportive online communities take negative turns. Young women with eating disorders now can visit so-called pro-ana sites that actively encourage anorexia, offering tips on how to purge and posting pictures of emaciated women as "thinspiration." Sites run by individuals in the full throes of paranoia can create the illusion of a support group for admiring followers—which, of course, discourages people from seeking real-life therapy. "Bizarre, unusual methods of committing suicide are becoming more mainstream," Aboujaoude says, because depressed people are studying them online.

In his book, Virtually You, Aboujaoude describes meeting patients who are anxious and itchy and sometimes produce a vial containing scrapings of skin. They complain of creeping parasites that produce fibers beneath the skin and they say they think they have Morgellons.

The condition has an extensive Wikipedia presence and dedicated websites with graphic testimonials by sufferers. However, like most physicians, Aboujaoude believes that Morgellons is a web invention: that it's delusional parasitosis, not a disease that originated (depending on which message board one reads) with space aliens, from ancient pathogens stirred up in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or as the escaped Franken-fibers of a mad scientist.

Treating patients whose illness is facilitated by immersive digital activity can be difficult. "It's not about asking people to log off. That's not an option. To be a functioning member of society you have to be online." Still, he wants a discussion of the dark as well as bright sides of technology. "We have to start looking at this more critically."

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