CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — PHIL NOAH, a computer-support technician at the University of Buffalo, tells the story himself.
``I guess I was addicted to it. Sometimes I would spend eight or nine hours talking to people on the computer. I spent a whole summer doing that once.''
``After awhile, I found that once I was done at work I'd go home and log onto the computer. There are so many interesting people and weird people to talk to. I think that's the big attraction of talking over the computer. It gives you something to hide behind.''
Mr. Noah's story is typical. He is like many users who find solace in cyberspace because they're uneasy meeting people in the real world. Or maybe they're just dissatisfied.
``A lot of people who get addicted to the Internet are not necessarily lacking in social skills,'' says Nash Foster, an Internet technical assistant here at the University of North Carolina. ``They are unhappy with the way things are in what we call reality. So they go to the Internet to create it.''
Mr. Foster says his longest stretch on-line has been 16 hours. ``I lost a lot of weight for awhile,'' he says. One couple he knows met over the Internet and are engaged even though they have only met twice in person.
But the overwhelming majority of students aren't addicted, says Jonathan Magid, administrator of an Internet project on campus. And among those who are, ``at least they are communicating.''
The phenomenon is hardly new. Steven Bellovin of AT&T Bell Labs remembers college friends in the 1960s who logged on for hours on end.
``For some people, using computers is an all-consuming passion,'' he says.
Experts aren't even sure whether to call it an addiction.
``Heroin is addictive and that's a property of heroin,'' says Amy Bruckman, an education research assistant at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. But if deeply troubled persons overuse an on-line service, ``it's a reflection of them rather than the technology.''
Sometimes, the electronic communication helps.
``One young woman has said to me in so many words: If it weren't for the supportive community of on-line worlds, I would have killed myself,'' says Ms. Bruckman, who has closely followed three on-line junkies for more than a year each in the course of her research. ``She is a deeply troubled young woman [and] used the network day and night. And after a time she worked through her problems.''
Sometimes, on-line overuse hurts.
``The on-line services have moved people into a new era of pseudo-interactive relationships,'' says Michelle Weil, a licensed psychologist in Orange, Calif., who studies the psychological impact of technology.
One of her clients, hooked on-line, made a friend in cyberspace but was hugely disappointed when they met face-to-face. The virtual relationship often reveals only a small part of the other person, Dr. Weil says.
``That's the dangerous, seductive quality of these on-line services.... Electronic `connectedness' is a wonderful thing as long as it doesn't substitute for interacting with real people,'' she says.
In Noah's case, the technology helped. ``Being more outgoing over the computer ... helped me get used to being that way,'' he says.
``I found that I would rather socialize with people in person.'' So he started going to parties with people he'd met on-line.
But he's given up the electronic chat lines completely. ``I have a job and I have a girlfriend,'' he says, ``I don't have time for that [on-line world] now.''