My Name is Jessica, and I’m a Shop-E-holic

My Name is Jessica, and I’m a Shop-E-holicfrom_our_columnists

By Suzanne Northington

Jessica has a secret. It takes place at night and she tells no one, not even her family. But she can’t stop; like an addict, she’s hooked and feels unable to control her behavior.

Jessica, by her own admission, is an Internet shopping junkie. “I can spend $10,000 in ten minutes on the Internet,” Jessica says. “E-shopping is quick and easy. Once you get the swing of it, it’s hard to stop.”

A financial planner at a San Francisco brokerage house, she asked that her real name not be used. “My job is about encouraging people to trust the Internet as a rational way to manage their finances,” Jessica says. “I can’t afford to have my colleagues know that I do this.”

And why does Jessica feel so ashamed? “I’ve discovered the incredible thrill of shopping online. The Web is this extraordinary shopping mall like no mall I’ve ever been to in the brick and mortar world. And most important, it’s private. I can do it from my bed.”

Jessica’s alarming shopping behavior has attracted the attention of psychiatrists who see it as the dark side of e-commerce. According to Forrester Research and National Research Foundation data, Americans spent $2.8 billion online in January 2000. This points to a powerful and potentially dangerous commerce engine that could create a colossal new category of shopping addiction.

“There are many reasons why the Internet would encourage people to shop to excess,” says Dr. Mark Levy, a Mill Valley psychiatrist and Assistant Clinical Professor at UCSF School of Medicine. “The privacy of the Internet is its most seductive component. Shopaholics see their spending as illicit and want to hide it. The Internet gives them the privacy to carry out their illicit activities without social disapproval.”

Dr. Galina Gorodetsky, a San Francisco psychiatrist, sees Internet shopping addiction as new wine in an old bottle. “It’s the same obsessive-compulsive disorder applied to a new technology,” she says. “I’ve seen the same thing in women who do a lot of catalog shopping in secrecy at night and on weekends. They are very similar to the Internet shoppers.”

Moreover, online shoppers can do what they could never do when shopping at stores: buy a tremendous amount of merchandise in a matter of seconds. Call it socially sanctioned impulse buying, with hundreds of banner ads that beckon the surfer and encourage indulgence.

In this context, spending $1,000 is as easy as a quick click. Instant gratification, and no one knows your guilty secrets but your credit card company and postman.

Says Jessica, “It’s all so easy. All I have to do is click, click, click, and it’s mine, tax-free no less. I can find things really fast on the Web that would take me weeks to find in stores.”

Dr. Levy cites the example of a friend who confesses to spending money to excess on EBay. “This woman would never take the time to go to 20 antique stores to find this stuff, “he says. But in cyberspace, she doesn’t hesitate to visit 20 antique stores. “Distance has no meaning in Internet space,” says Dr. Levy.

Quick-click buying may be convenient and save shoe leather, but it can also push people over the edge financially. Internet shopping addiction is not just psychologically destructive; it can also be ruinous to a person’s financial health.

Jessica admits that it’s taking a toll on her pocketbook. “I’m spending more on clothes, cosmetics, and jewelry than ever before. I just can’t resist the bargains on the Net.”

Dr. Gorodetsky believes the traditional notion of women as shopaholics may collapse in the brave new world of e-commerce. For the time being, at least, men are still the predominant Internet users, constituting 54% of the online population. And while the addiction applies equally to men and women, their shopping preferences differ. “Women tend to buy products that enhance their self-image (i.e., clothes, cosmetics, jewelry),” says Dr. Levy, “while (male shopaholics) buy things that make them feel empowered and competent such as computers, cameras, and electronics.”

“Contrary to the popular belief that women are the shopaholics, it appears that neither gender will be in the majority in this new shopping arena,” she says. “It will be a 50-50 ratio for both sexes.”

The following sites offer more information on and support for Internet addiction and debt counseling:

Internet addiction:

Debt counseling and support: