A lawsuit against IBM is reviving debate over whether Web overuse may be classified as an addiction. The answer will have big implications for business
By his own admission, James Pacenza was spending too much time in Internet chat rooms, in some of them discussing sex. He goes so far as to call his interest in inappropriate Web sites a form of addiction that stems from the posttraumatic stress disorder he's suffered since returning from Vietnam. Whatever it's called, Pacenza's chat-room habit cost him his job.
After 19 years at IBM's East Fishkill plant, Pacenza was fired in May, 2003, after a fellow employee noticed discussion of a sex act on a chat room open on Pacenza's computer. IBM (IBM) maintains that logging onto the Web site was a violation of its business conduct guidelines and a misuse of company property—and that it was well within its rights to terminate Pacenza's employment.
Pacenza and his attorney beg to differ. They filed suit in a New York U.S. District Court in July, 2004, seeking $5 million for wrongful termination. Earlier in the year, Pacenza had admitted to a superior that he had a problem with the Internet at home. Pacenza's attorney, Michael Diederich Jr., alleges that the perception that Pacenza was addicted to the Internet caused IBM to fire first without asking questions or "even attempting to examine the situation." Diederich says there are several steps IBM could have taken, including limiting his Internet use or blocking certain sites. "It's not productive or useful for the employer to unfairly terminate employees," says Diederich.
The case was held up for years due to Pacenza's medical problems and his attorney's service as a military lawyer in Iraq. But it has come back to the fore recently, and IBM on Dec. 8 sought a dismissal of the case, saying it's without merit. On the surface, Pacenza's may appear to be an open-and-shut case. He doesn't deny logging onto the chat room at work, and company policy provides for the termination of employees who access inappropriate Web sites.
But cases like Pacenza's, which involve Internet misuse, may no longer be quite so simple, thanks to a growing debate over whether Internet abuse is a legitimate addiction, akin to alcoholism. Attorneys say recognition by a court—whether in this or some future litigation—that Internet abuse is an uncontrollable addiction, and not just a bad habit, could redefine the condition as a psychological impairment worthy of protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
That in turn would have far-reaching ramifications for how companies deal with workplace Internet use and abuse. For starters, businesses could be compelled to allow medical leave, provide counseling to, or make other accommodations for employees who can't control Internet use, says Brian East, co-chair of the disability rights committee of the National Employment Lawyers' Assn. East says recognizing Internet abuse as an addiction would make it more difficult for employers to fire employees who have a problem. "Assuming it is recognized as an impairment…it is analyzed the same way as alcoholism," says East.
That's a big assumption—and there's intense debate over whether compulsive Internet use should be recognized as an addiction. The American Psychiatric Assn. (APA) doesn't include Internet addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, which serves as the basis for many ADA claims related to mental disabilities. Substance abuse, on the other hand, is listed in a special category under substance-use disorders. Internet addiction would not be eligible for inclusion in the manual until nearly 2012, when the next edition is scheduled to be released, according to the APA.
Whatever the APA stance, several psychiatrists and psychologists already say compulsive Internet overuse can legitimately be called an addiction. Among them is Dr. David Greenfield, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and author of the 1999 book Virtual Addiction. He compares compulsive Internet use to alcoholism, drug abuse, or pathological gambling.
Like alcoholics or those who abuse drugs, people who are addicted to the Internet use it to change their mood and feel better, says Greenfield. There are also many who can't stop using it, despite reprimands from work, disputes with family and friends, and other negative effects such as debt due to compulsive Internet shopping or gambling. "It's not surprising that it is not defined yet, because these things change very slowly," says Greenfield. "But when you are in clinical practice and you are dealing with people's lives, you can't wait for those issues to be addressed. There is a huge problem with Internet abuse in the workplace, and you can't pretend that they don't exist because there isn't a label."
In October, researchers at Stanford University's medical school released a study showing that a significant number of Americans show addiction symptoms with regard to the Internet. Some 14% reported that it was hard to stay away from the Internet for a several-day stretch. More than 12% said they stayed online longer than intended and nearly 9% said they hid their Internet use from loved ones or employers. Roughly 6% said relationships had suffered due to excessive Internet use.
Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, director of Stanford's Impulse Control Disorders Clinic, which conducted the study, says there are clear similarities between excessive Internet use and other addictions. "People are very secretive, people will tell me that they feel restless when they go for a whole afternoon without checking e-mail, there is mounting anxiety when they try to cut back on their online use," says Aboujaoude. However, he stops short of calling it an addiction. The clinic is designing a more rigorous study aimed at determining whether Internet abuse is an addiction and not just a bad habit, or a manifestation of another addiction or psychological problem. "Based on our studies there are definitely red flags and there are things that should be followed up on. But until that is done, you are not going to find a serious researcher calling this Internet addiction," says Aboujaoude. "It's too early to coin a new term 'Internet addiction.'"
Not according to psychologist Kimberly Young, founder of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery in Bradford, Pa. She says that the U.S. lags behind other countries in its recognition of compulsive Internet use as a legitimate addiction worthy of specialized treatment. Korea, for example, has launched the Centre for Internet Addiction Prevention & Counseling in response to what the government sees as the growing problem of Internet addicts in its highly wired society. In October, a 24-year-old died after playing an online game nonstop for 86 hours (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/11/06, "Online Gaming: Korea's Gotta Have It"). "They have been able to move faster than we have in America," says Young of the Korean government. "They have a lot of government funding to put together these clinics."
China also recognizes Internet addiction as a legitimate problem. Chinese employers can send workers to a two-week rehabilitation clinic for Internet issues. Besides counseling, the clinic provides regimented exercise and medical treatment to help people become healthy and redirect their energy.
U.S. companies ought to wake up to the problem in order to avoid lost productivity from workers and liability for unjust termination or disciplinary action regarding the Internet. "If you have something like the Americans with Disabilities Act, which recognizes many addictions as a disability, it is not a stretch to see that people who are getting in trouble with the Internet are going to see it as a legitimate addiction and sue," says Greenfield. "It is only a matter of time before one of these suits is successful."
Just how many suits are coming down the pike isn't clear, and Pacenza's is among the earliest to weave Internet addiction into a wrongful termination suit. There have been several other legal battles relating to presumed Internet addiction, though often those involve online games or chat rooms that parents say contribute to a child's problems.
Even as the debate rages on within the medical community and increasingly in the courts, some businesses are taking steps to combat Internet addiction beyond implementing Internet-use policies. Young, author of Caught in the Net, says she regularly speaks to companies about Internet addiction. "They want to deal with the problem of abuse and minimize that as much as they can," she says. Young says she sees everyone from IT professionals obsessed with Web surfing, to administrative assistants glued to eBay (EBAY), to self-employed lawyers who are missing deadlines because of a fixation with Internet porn. Still, most companies are leery of treating Internet abuse as an addiction. "Overall companies are still a little hesitant to look at it as an addiction," says Young. "But if they look at the costs, it makes more sense than just firing people."
Employers try to alert employees to the potential of the problem, by paying for talks or literature, in order to avoid problems such as lost productivity, too much demand on company bandwidth, and sexual-harassment claims from employees who see objectionable material on a colleague's computer. However, some businesses are concerned enough about the cost of replacing otherwise good employees that they send employees to rehabilitation clinics.
When it comes to Internet overuse, some companies are finding the best cure isn't firing, but preventive medicine. Some limit Internet access to only those employees who need it to do their jobs. And they are spending money on filtering and blocking software to keep employees from surfing the Web for personal use.
Continental Airlines (CAL) acknowledges it's impossible to ban all personal use of the Web at work. Louis Obdyke, Continental's managing attorney for labor and employment issues, says the company lets employees occasionally surf the Web, shop, bank, or do other activities online—providing it doesn't interfere with productivity. "It's pretty much under a rule of reason," says Obdyke. "If you get your work done and you go on the Internet during the workday, we wouldn't see that as a problem."
When Internet use causes work to suffer, stiffer measures are taken. And an employee who can't improve or who visits adult or pornographic sites while at work is susceptible to firing. As for whether Internet abuse is comparable to other disorders such as alcoholism, Obdyke is clear: "We don't recognize this Internet addiction idea."
Depending on the outcome of Pacenza's case and others likely to follow, companies like Continental may have to.