Caught in the Web

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

"There are all kinds of addictions. Some you can control. Some you have to give up completely. You can't give up food, for instance," says Zach, repeating what he learned in the hospital. And for a family like the Loafmans, and a boy like Zach, it's as unthinkable to turn off the computer as it is to throw out everything in the pantry. We're already a computer-dependent society, and for Zach's generation, computers and the Internet will be as vital as the telephone or the car is now. He comes from a family of computer people. After his time at Green Oaks, Zach moved back with his mom again, a programmer for TI. She's married to a programmer, a former ham radio junkie who remembers that his own teenage passion for hardwiring was similar to Zach's obsession with computers.

"Zach was raised with the computer," says his mother Jeri. "It's hard to say when it got to be an obsession. During the summer, he had extra spare time, so the computer seemed like a good thing for him to concentrate on. MUD presented a programming challenge he hadn't experienced before." Like most hackers, Zach has always had a voracious appetite for new computer challenges. And during school, as long as his grades were good, she didn't worry too much. "How do you tell when your child is going through normal teenage ups and down and when he's depressed? He got real grumpy and he wouldn't do his schoolwork."

She found a mailing list on the Internet, a support group for Internet addicts and their families, where people can talk if they think they have a problem. But not only is it like "holding AA meetings in a bar," as Zach says, it's also too wide open to be very useful. It's been deluged by reporters and by people who don't understand addiction to the Internet. "When I tried to post some symptoms of addiction," says Jeri, "I got responses from people saying, 'these are all the things that make a good computer programmer.' And to some extent, that's true." She has been able to connect with interested people and then continue the conversation via private e-mail.

All together, Zach was "on" the Internet a couple of years. He doesn't use it at all now, though his mother says that's his decision. "It's meaningless to rip out the modems and phone lines," she says. "He has to know his own limits. You have to use technology responsibly." Zach's a junior now and beginning to consider colleges--MIT, Carnegie-Mellon--where he'll study computer programming. He's interested in artificial intelligence. Computers will be his life. He knows he'll have to get back on the Net eventually.

But not for a while. He does miss the Internet; he misses the friends and the chat. He's been back on the Net just twice, once to say goodbye to his virtual friends, once to give them his voice phone number.

He's busy with friends at school. He's still working with his psychiatrist on his depression and the issues behind it. He drove to Missouri to spend Thanksgiving with friends he met on the Internet, but he's being careful.

Cusumano admits that "the word 'normal' and the word 'adolescent' almost don't go together." And normalcy implies a standard that can change with time. It could be that the behavior standards one generation applies to another are always somewhat outmoded.

The Internet is a new universe with few, if any, boundaries, offering unprecedented freedom of expression and access to information. It is, as we tire of hearing, a revolution in human communication. Zach, raised computer-literate a generation ahead of his time, belongs to the new cyber-culture, or "kulcha"--; )--as Zach calls it (he's fond of Indian food), which most of us have yet to join or even understand. After all, in a way, Zach's problem was just like generations of teens that came before: He was spending too much time hanging out, and not enough time studying. Zach just happened to be hanging out on the Superhighway.

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