It starts out slowly. At first you're on-line occasionally, just paying your bills, maybe checking out a newsgroup or two. But then it grows. Soon you're ignoring your family and spending spare moments in chat rooms. Before you know it you're up all night debating the merits of Independence Day in an on-line cafe with someone named StinkyWolf. You're hooked.

But fear not, computer junkie. For $100 an hour for individuals and $45 an hour if you're part of a group (sliding scale also available), cognitive behavior therapist Maressa Hecht Orzack, Ph.D. (617-855-2907, orzack@tiac.net) can help you descend from cyberspace. Founder and coordinator of Computer Addictive Services at McLean Hospital, in Belmont, Mass., Orzack applies standard behavioral techniques to the growing number of victims of "pathological-computer-use disorder" she sees each month. "Cognitive therapy teaches coping skills," says Orzack. "If the problem is an addiction to computer games, the cure could be as simple as deleting the offending programs from the hard drive. But if someone spends hours arranging his files, therapy might call for his using a stopwatch to set a limit on the amount of time he allows for the task."

The syndrome, Orzack cautions, is only going to spread. With more and more employees telecommuting, the line between work and play has blurred, opening the door to increased sessions on the Internet and longer stints of Solitaire during business hours. Schools are bringing even young kids on-line, making for ever-greater numbers of folks with hyperlinks on their mind. "People often gravitate to the computer when they want to kill time or avoid an unpleasant task," says Orzack. "The problem is, nobody's teaching them when it's time to get off."

-- Stephen Morales