Caught in the Web

Zion met Koani at The Rusty Bucket. Sometimes they would play darts, sometimes they'd sit together drinking a cup of klah. They lived 1,500 miles apart, but they were together every day, for hours. They fell in love. They lived once upon a time, last year, on the Internet.

"Koani" was Jessica, a college student in Virginia. Her parents split up, and she'd been living on her own since the age of 13. "Zion" was Zach Loafman, a 16-year-old computer whiz kid, a top-notch student at prestigious St. Mark's School of Texas in Dallas. But last spring, his grades had plunged, he was neglecting his friends, and he had alienated his family, all for the sake of his obsession with the Internet. On the advice of his parents and psychiatrist, he admitted himself to Green Oaks psychiatric hospital for depression. Zach says he was addicted to the Net.

Parents carefully monitor the amount of time their teenagers spend playing Nintendo, watching TV, or talking on the phone. They limit the number of soft drinks and sweets their kids consume, they check for signs of alcohol and marijuana use. But when their kid heads for the computer, that's supposed to be a good thing--it's educational, a career skill. Schools sell themselves with how great their computer classes are; little kids begin learning computer skills in kindergarten. So it's a surprise to hear words like "addiction" linked with the computer, a learning and communication tool.

Computer addiction is not a new idea. Early hackers worked in obsessive eight-, 10-,12-hour stretches, programming computers; they compared the feeling they got from controlling the computer to a junkie's rush. But the Internet is greater than the sum of the computers that link it together. It's the hackers' wildest dream come true--millions of computers joined in cyberspace, a whole new kind of society, formed at a time when traditional forms of society--the neighborhood, the family--are breaking down, coming apart. We invented the technology and now the technology is reinventing us, inventing a community based on wired communication. There are those who believe that the cyber-revolution is inevitable, that in a few years, everyone will have an e-mail address--that we will all live in virtual reality as much as the physical world.

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But there are those who believe that the virtual world will subsume the physical world, that the rush doesn't come from you controlling the computer, that the computer controls you. Controls us.

Zach got his first personal e-mail address five or six years ago, his current account about three years ago. His parents had been on the Internet since its beginning. Zach was busy on the Net all the time, getting tips on programming, figuring out how to format messages so they could go from his local bulletin board to the Internet. The software is available for free on the Net, if you can retrieve it and figure out how to reconfigure it. It's a complicated project, even for an experienced programmer like Zach's mother--who works at Texas Instruments--one that she was proud her son was able to complete successfully by himself.

He traces his "problem" to the summer before last when he spent more than the usual amount of time on the Net to amuse himself during the blank, boring summer days. In June, he'd noticed a help-wanted notice on one of the local newsgroups--electronic salons on various subjects. A new MOO on Metronet needed local help with "building," or programming. To understand the Net is to understand acronyms wrapped in acronyms--MOO stands for MUD Object Oriented; MUD stands for Multiuser Dungeon, which stands for a role-playing game similar to Dungeons & Dragons.

Zach's passion was computers. He'd been programming since he was seven years old, and his mother had been on the Internet since its beginning. Zach re-sponded to the notice and joined the game, coming on first as a guest before asking for his own character, which he gave his own middle name, Merlynn. "It was only pseudo-themed," says Zach. "Really, it was socializing and building, sort of a futuristic theme park." More than games, MUDs have been described as the closest thing to interactive novels.

One day he heard some other characters in the game referring to "HT," and found that the acronym stood for "Harper's Tale." Zach checked it out and found another MUD role-playing game, this one based on Anne McCaffrey's series of fantasy books, The Dragons of Pern, which he'd never read. Again, Zach came on as a guest, but he didn't bother to assume a character because he was leaving to spend several weeks in Boy Scout camp--in the real world. He read McCaffrey's books while he was gone.

When he returned and started playing the game regularly, he named his character Zion, "for no real reason," he says. "I'm not religious or anything." Zion was a smith--a young smith, because it's usual to start playing these games as an apprentice, so your character can age. But Zach really was younger than most of the other players. As Zion, Zach spent most of his time "posing" and conversing on the Net. A lot of the game was "posed"--the characters playing dice, drinking "klah," hanging out. There was an actual dartboard in the MOO, "so we'd go down to the Rusty Bucket and play darts." Zion made a lot of friends on "Harper's Tale," including Vicla and Io, the character names of two college girls playing the game. That's where he and Koani, a herder girl, first met.  

Koani was Jessica's character name. She was 22, much older than Zion or Zach. But age doesn't matter on the Internet; it erases that surface impression, the physical information on which most of us base initial attraction. The most democratic of communication systems, the Net re-groups everyone according to intellect and interests. Zach's mother felt like this was an advantage for Zach: "After all, the average dating scene is based on images, and on the Net, all you have to go on is what people are saying."

"I've always been 16 going on 30," Zach says. "I was just myself [on the Internet], I think--maybe an unexpressed part of myself, but not entirely a fabrication. It was easier to socialize on the Net, because it isn't as personal. That person I'm talking to can't reach over and slap me or shoot me." Or look you in the eyes? "Of course, you do miss some nice things, too."

It's also easier to confront people on the Net, something Zach was reluctant to do in real life. "I have a problem with shyness. I didn't have to be shy on the Net. I had a higher self-esteem, mostly because there's no physical self-consciousness."

Zion and Koani, Zach and Jess, hit it off and started spending time talking away from Pern. From the beginning, Zach was frank about his age. "You tend to answer questions like that honestly on the Net, because it's the only way you can get any physical information yourself," he says. "Jess and I exchanged descriptions. She's an English major turned CS [computer science] major--that's like complete opposites, and I liked that." Eventually, they fell in love. Zach's first serious teenage relationship was with a virtual "virtual" person, perfect for a shy guy.

The problems started when school did in the fall of 1994 and Zach was still spending all of his time on the Net. He'd always been an exceptional student; his mother remembers when he started St. Mark's after leaving the private Lamplighter School at the end of fourth grade, and "he came out to the car after his preview visit, all excited. He said, 'Mom, I saw some math problems in class that I didn't understand.'" That's what made him choose to go to St. Mark's instead of Greenhill. Challenges turned him on, math turned him on. Schoolwork had always come easily and had never been a problem.

He was living with his father and stepmother (his parents divorced when he was 11) when the "addiction" became apparent. His parents were having to hound him, constantly checking to make sure his homework was done. Most of it was done, Zach says--or he didn't think it needed to be done. "I was 'skate-studying,' doing it during passing periods or free periods at school." And some homework, like history reading assignments, he considered unnecessary. "I didn't read much of anything for about a year. Reading requires a certain pattern that I didn't have because of the time I spent on the Net. I know a lot of history, anyway, and most of it you could pick up if you listened in class. I mean, I didn't do the reading, and I still made an 'A' the first quarter."

Zach was also taking computer science as an elective, more because he wanted it on his transcript than because he expected any illumination. His first-quarter "A" went to a "C" in the second quarter--the first clue to his parents that something was wrong. A "C" is hardly cause for parental anguish in most homes, but for Zach to slip that much, in that particular course, in one quarter, set off an alarm. "It was mostly because I was apathetic--bored and apathetic. I knew it all," Zach says. "How could I not know it? Three out of four 'parental units' are computer programmers"--all but his stepmother. His mother, Jeri Steele, has degrees in math and computer science and started programming back in 1972.

Zach was literally raised on computers. A regular family outing was the monthly First Saturday computer swap meet on Ross Avenue. "It started as a ham radio swap," recalls Jeri Steele. "Then as people became computer hobbyists, the stuff for sale changed. We bought and sold boards there before there were computer stores, when we still had to get everything through the mail." The market starts about midnight on Friday, and an entire parking lot is filled with tables of boards and monitors, some lit up in rows like blue airport landing lights to land the hackers, nerds, and computer people like Zach and his family who live half their lives in cyberspace.  

But Zach didn't like computer science at school. "I like to think through the algorithms," he says. "But I don't like to write down the coding. It's drudgework." (As an example, Zach compares it to a geometric proof. He says he can see the solution quickly, but hates to write it down--coding can be 200 lines or longer. "Geometry proofs are more fun because you're showing someone how you did it.")

"If the teacher had let us use algorithmic abbreviated codes, I wouldn't mind so much. I just didn't turn in my computer assignments." Zach was much more interested in what he was doing on the Net.

There's a fear of the Internet because most people still don't understand it. It seems wildly unregulated, uncharted, uncontrollable. Zach's parents were exceptions. They knew the fascination for Zach wasn't the dreaded Internet pornography we've read so much about. And Zach wasn't like those movie hackers, breaking security codes, stealing credit card information or threatening national security. For Zach, the Net was simply the perfect escape, a world free from parental friction, from social problems at school and family problems at home. It was a universe where he had the feeling of control, where logic prevailed, his computer curiosity was fed, where people are more like he is. "Attributes that work in cyberspace work in the adult world," says Steven Levy, a long-time observer of computer culture who covers it for Newsweek. "In cyberspace, people are more interested in your mental abilities than kids in high school usually are. There's no jock culture."

Zach started ignoring his friends at St. Mark's as he made more friends on the Net--friends who were physically located in Boston, Missouri, Virginia. At school, he'd always hung out with a small group of like-minded students who took the same honors courses--Latin was the language of choice, since they were all on the math team. It was a brilliant group, but limited. In his computer knowledge, Zach was probably at the level of a lot of college juniors and seniors, so--as far as that goes--Zach fit in better with this young college crowd than he did with most boys at his school.

Zach is shy, he's big and tall, and he wears glasses. He plays bass clarinet in the school band. He doesn't drive without music--his musical tastes are eclectic, to put it mildly. Right now, he prefers a mix of heavy metal, "Mars" by Holst, some Indian sitar music, some bagpipe music, Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong, and Monty Python ("I had to have the Spam skit"). He suffers from allergies and occasional asthma. He speaks softly and revises a lot, trying to be perfectly precise, muttering often under his breath, "How can I explain this?," "How can I describe this?" Wild-haired, slightly eccentric, he wears a black trench coat over his school uniform--gray flannel shorts and oxford cloth shirt. Zach's an outstandingly bright guy in a school designed for bright young men, but he is a little lopsided. His favorite emoticom on the Net is the winking smile--; )-- to indicate irony or gentle sarcasm.

Zach speaks in acronyms. Conversing with him is like talking to someone in another language, especially if, like me, you're still having trouble getting the computer to perform basic functions. Like a lot of people my age, I'm still trying to learn what to do with the computer. Zach is interested in teaching the computer what to do. He has some difficulty translating from computer-ese into English. His mother knows this is the norm for "computer people"--she's in Toastmasters to sharpen her communication skills, and she encourages Zach to practice communicating face to face.

He's absent-minded in the classic professor's way--he manages the school basketball team for P.E. credit, but he doesn't always know the final score of the game. He was raised with more awareness of the Netiquette than etiquette--it's OK to put your elbows on the table occasionally, but you should never "SCREAM"--use all caps--on the Net. He's scornful of America Online users and their "stupid questions," people who think the Internet is a new thing, who didn't know about it before AOL and barge around without knowing how to use it.  

Zach's a computer idealist. He's offended by the idea of patented algorithms, regarding them as public intellectual property, like the old hackers who programmed in the public domain, who believed information on the Internet should be free to everyone because that's what's going to make the cultural difference in the future. He resents the culture trying to impose itself on the Net--"the traditional hacker is a rebel by nature," he says, referring to his heroes, the early computer prodigies at MIT as portrayed in Steven Levy's book, Hackers, which Zach calls an "important book."

"Early hackers are better role models than, say, football players," Levy says, speaking from his office in New York. "Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith might be great people, but their accomplishments off the field aren't inspiring. There's an iconoclastic--but not violent--element to the hackers' ethic that would appeal to teenagers. And society is really rewarding these people now--they're millionaires."

The hacker ethic: Access to computers should be unlimited and total. All information should be free. Mistrust authority. Computers can change your life for the better.

St. Mark's only offers two computer science courses, which Zach took in the first two years of upper school. He's trying to schedule a CS class at a local college--Southern Methodist University, University of Texas at Dallas, or even University of North Texas, where his stepmother works--which is allowed by St. Mark's as long as it meshes with his courses there (difficult, since the school is on a trimester system). He thinks about returning to St. Mark's to teach computer science, and he already has his course planned--"object-oriented--they have nothing on that." He's even imagined the first day of class. "I'd just walk in and throw them an orange, and say, 'Tell me about this. What properties does this object have?'" He likes to imagine creating a computer virus that would break through anti-virus programs, one that, after announcing its presence to a dismayed user, would actually attack and destroy other computer viruses--a T-cell computer virus.

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.

They say all addicts bottom out. Zach was still spending every spare minute on the Net, sometimes "building," mostly immersed in MUD and the chat channels. He'd been skipping classes all spring; finally he decided to skip school completely. "One day I decided to drive around and then go back home to the Net when my parents were at work. My car and the Internet were the only places that were really mine." After a while, he called from a pay phone to make sure they were gone. But his stepmother answered--it turns out she was home with the flu. So Zach spent the day driving around, only returning home for his ATM card so he could get money for something to eat. When he walked in, his stepmother was talking to his father, and they told Zach they were going to revoke the Net completely. Zach threw the phone across the room, threatened suicide, and stormed out.

The day ended at the psychiatrist's office. And Zach decided to check into Green Oaks Psychiatric Hospital.

"At first, I didn't want to solve the problem even if I could admit I had one," Zach says. "It scared me when I went into Green Oaks and they showed me a list of symptoms of chemical dependency. Except for physical characteristics [you don't suffer withdrawal symptoms if you can't get a Net fix], mine were all the same."

Levy is wary of the term "Internet addict." "There are literally millions of kids who watch four or five hours of TV a day--time spent in a MUD is healthier than that," he argues. "TV is passive; on the Internet you're using your imagination, and you're actually with other people. It's not like a drug. It's more comparable to reading--your brain's engaged, it's a broadening experience. Most people don't understand what goes on on the Internet--they're scared of it. They think these kids are engaged in skulduggery or pornography. Most of what goes on there is an organized activity, a Discovery Zone for bright adolescents.

"Of course, it's not healthy to do anything to the point of exclusion, especially not skipping school. Like any activity, even a pleasurable one, you want to do it with a degree of moderation."  

Sherry Cusumano, director of Green Oaks' adolescent unit, says the hospital uses the 12-step program (devised by Alcoholics Anonymous and used by other groups such as Overeaters Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous) as a "framework" or a "map" for addressing a variety of problems, not just addiction. "It's a tool patients can use outside of the hospital, on their own. Some people are addicts, others have bad habits. Green Oaks defines addiction as a behavior that causes consequences in a person's life--if there are dramatic and sudden changes in their peer group, if they went from being quiet to being openly rebellious, if their grades drop, if they abandon family ties that used to be close." By this definition, Zach is an addict. "It's harder to tell with kids; it's more cut and dried when they're adults. The need for privacy is normal, but secrecy is not."

Of course, it's easy to be flip and say that most parents would be thrilled if Internet "addiction" were their kid's biggest pitfall, but depression, dependence, and self-destructive behavior are dangerous problems--no matter how they manifest. Dr. Jerry Lewis, a Dallas psychiatrist who works with children, adolescents, and adults, agrees with Cusumano that "An avid interest becomes an obsession when it interferes with normal activities...when the relationship to the addiction is more important than other relationships." He adds, "Addictions end up as replacements for relationships. Usually an addict is experiencing some kind of pain in their relationships--not necessarily because of the environment; it could be their needs are excessive. So they withdraw from the interpersonal into the perverse relationship--eating, drugs, or whatever--while they continue to starve emotionally." The result is depression.

The first thing to establish to overcome traditional depression is a network of friends to keep yourself balanced. Zach had an Internet full of friends, yet that's what he had to give up. Lewis points out, "The Net is a web of relationships, of course, but they're really just a sliver of a physical relationship, and they require a very intense intimacy."

Levy counters that "physical relationships can be a 'sliver' of a real relationship. You can have a sexual relationship, for instance, where you're not mentally engaged. Lots of relationships are a 'sliver' of a whole relationship."

Zach's craving wasn't for a controlled substance--it was for greater knowledge and for involvement with a peer group, a truer peer group, perhaps, than the one in his physical world. But this drive on the Superhighway was a dead end. He'd lost interest in school; in the hospital, he wasn't sure whether he wanted to go back to St. Mark's at all. His mother says at this point she "shut up, backed off, and let him find his own path" even though she felt strongly that Zach should stick with St. Mark's and go to college--because the things he needs to learn, the tools he needs to use, are there. It's one thing to drop out of college, like Microsoft's Bill Gates did; it would be disaster for Zach to crash before he got there.

"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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