Caught in the Web

Zach Loafman, a gifted St. Mark's teen, fights an addiction to the Internet.

On the Internet, Zach could use all his intelligence and ambition without worrying about things like physical appearance or awkwardness, the curse of all teenage boys. The computer screen allows openness but removes the threat of a personal encounter--the effect of a confessional screen. The Internet was a safe place to go, an alternate reality that allowed Zach to be who he wanted to be. After all, if relationships got too difficult on the Net, he could always disengage from the personal and go back to the programming--or just move on to a more distant cyber frontier.

He was a master--an expert--on the Net, and its graphic extension, the Wide World Web. His days were spent at a rigorous, regimented traditional all-boys' prep school where the emphasis is on the well-rounded boy, where everyone is encouraged to participate in sports, and football stars are still the school heroes. The Net widened his view of the world. And it provided a filter. The Net was a logical place for a kid like Zach to meet people--chances are, they would at least share his main interest. No wonder relationships seemed to work well for him on the Internet.

Zion and Koani, Zach and Jess, fell in love. Via the Internet. The age difference didn't seem to matter. The distance hardly mattered. They talked every day on the Net, getting to know each other, hanging out, laughing, quarreling, doing almost everything that young lovers do, but doing it in cyberspace. Author Mark Slouka has railed against the Net, arguing that "what the wires carry is not the stuff of the soul. A cyberkiss is not the same thing as a real kiss." Others insist that communication on the Internet actually is experience.

By last spring, Zach was obsessed, if not addicted, to the Net and began seeing a psychiatrist about it. Usually an honors student near the top of his class, he was failing two courses. His problems at home were escalating. All the Eagle Scout thought about was how to outwit his parents and deceive his psychiatrist so he could spend more time at the computer. He stayed up late into the night to talk to friends in other time zones. He figures he was spending an average of "one out of four" minutes on the Internet, about six hours a day. Over a period of 10 months, that's 1,800 hours. It's typical of Zach that he would work the math on his own emotional problem--though in the end, he decided he needed help to solve it.

"At first Dad tried to talk me off the Net. Before he'd go to bed, he'd ask me if I'd done my homework and tell me not to get on the Net till it was done." Sure. Then, working with Zach's psychiatrist, his father made several attempts to restrict Zach's access. "They told me I could only be on the Net two hours a day, and twice for two hours on the weekends. I was on the honor system." When that didn't work, either, his Dad was the monitor, "but it was unenforceable unless he stood right there," watching what Zach was doing on the computer. He threatened to disconnect the modem completely. Instead, he changed the password so only he and Zach's stepmother knew it.

But Zach is a hacker. The first secret password was "Bad Boy," easy to decipher when his dad keyed it in just by catching a few letters over his father's shoulder and logically filling in the rest, like a game of "hangman." Then it was changed to a random word, a more difficult code because it's illogical. But Zach managed to get the password as easily as other kids manage to steal the car keys. "There's a communications program for the modem. At the password prompt, I put in a command to get the password from the keyboard and send it to the modem like it usually did, but also put it in a file. So I would ask my stepmother to come in and put in the password, and she'd come in, make sure I wasn't looking, and type it in. Later I could retrieve it from the file and use it when I wanted to. Rather devious, really."

And Zach was back on-line, chatting with his friends, talking to Jess.

Long-distance love affairs are nothing new. Literature is filled with love letters. But unlike letter writing, the Net's style is instantaneous, not considered. You respond spontaneously, not thoughtfully. It's as intimate as the telephone, but can be as abstract as haiku. Zach and Jess exchanged photographs and wrote a few cards to each other, but the mail was so slow, they could hardly think what to write to each other. After all, in their way, they were together every day. Zach did get to meet Jess in person once, on Thanksgiving 1994. His father flew with him to Virginia, and Zach and Jess spent the long weekend together. "Her picture didn't do her justice," says Zach. Five months later they broke up .on the Net. And several months after that, Zach broke up, too.

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