*** Really happened. YOU KNOW WHAT IT'S LIKE. Everybody else is doing it, so you say: "Why not? I can handle it." You think you're in control, that you can stop whenever you want. Then suddenly you find yourself still up at 3 a.m. thinking "Just one more hit. One last URL to see me through the night." By then it's too late. The idea of Internet addiction is always good for a guffaw. Whether it's a cringer of an e-mail gag (You know you're an Internet junkie when you write "com" after every period you type.com), or a cackling news story (Man delirious after 36-hour Web binge!), we all like to mock the geek who can't get enough. But for some surfers those jokes aren't funny anymore. Stories of failed exams and marriages are growing as users start to cross the line from hobby to habit. It's what U.S. psychologist Dr. Kimberly Young calls "the dark side of cyberspace," a world where interest in RL (real life) relationships and pursuits withers, and financial and emotional fallout is inevitable. Studies from eminent institutions like Carnegie Mellon University in the U.S. and the British Psychological Society have suggested that the Internet has depressive and addictive qualities. Proof enough for some to make Net addiction the malady du jour. "I don't regard the Internet as an evil villain," writes Young in her book Caught in the Net. "But it has an addictive potential with harmful consequences that could silently run rampant in our schools, our universities, our offices, our libraries and our homes." Scary stuff. But despite Young's conviction that one in 10 of us may be predisposed to Net abuse, the wider medical community is not convinced a new syndrome exists. While it is clear that some people are spending far more time than is good for them out on the Web, studies so far are limited. Any conclusions drawn from them are "purely speculative," says psychologist Dr. John Grohol. "Do some people have problems spending too much time online? Sure they do," he writes on www.grohol.com/netaddiction. But teenagers talk on the phone for hours on end with people they see every day, Grohol points out. "Do we say they are addicted to the telephone?" So-called Net addicts suffer from plain old compulsive behavior, insists Grohol, not an exotic mental illness. They need no special treatment. "It's not the technology which is important or addicting," he writes. "It's the behavior." Skepticism hasn't prevented other doctors from reeling off snappy new diagnoses such as "acute Internet intoxication." Young has fashioned a veritable cottage clinic out of the problem. Her book doubles as a self-help tool. Its subtitle is How to recognize the signs of Internet addiction and a winning strategy for recovery. Net addicts are being shunned by traditional medicine, she says. "Therapists tell them to simply turn off the computer. That's like telling an alcoholic to just stop drinking."