When I started using the Internet, it ranked along with polo or a fish supper at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons as one of those indulgences which only the seriously rich could afford. Internet providers charged an arm and a leg, debiting your account, not only for the monthly standing charge but for every unforgiving minute you clocked up online. Worse still, if you had the misfortune to live outside the major cities, BT charged the long distance rate.
It meant that, like most sensible people, I treated the Internet as I would a public urinal: although obliged to pay an occasional visit, I made a point of never hanging around longer than was strictly necessary to do what had to be done.
Old habits die hard. Although it soon became possible to connect to the Internet for the price of a local call and eventually most ISPs abolished their charges, I always strictly ration my visits to the Net. Or at least, I did until last week when I took out a subscription to BT's Surftime. A monthly fee of pound;9.99, allows me to stay online every evening and the whole weekend without adding a penny to my phone bill.
As a result my attitude to the Internet has undergone a sea change. In order to justify the pound;9.99, the moment Huw Edwards intones the six o'clock headlines, I race to the PC where I remain logged on until migraine, RSI or the dawn chorus drive me reluctantly to bed and a troubled sleep in which dreams come adorned with Java script.
I do try to keep my sessions short but the moment I decide to click on Quit, I remember a couple more URLs which I must check out. I've joined dozens of newsgroups, dawdled in chat rooms, played online games, had my first confused sessions in assorted MUDS and MOOs (these are multi-player fantasy adventures where you pretend to be something you're not - a bit like job interviews, really).
I've downloaded gigabytes of software I don't need, MP3 files I'll never play, and e-texts I'll never find time to read because I spend every available moment gathering even more files, facts and Favourite Bookmarks which I'll never use. But it's all for free, so who cares?
I'll tell you who cares. The dog, for starters, would like to see the imminent resumption of his evening walkies. I've also upset those few good souls who have had the decency to include me on their BT Friends amp; Family lists but have given up trying to phone me as my line is permanently engaged. And my wife is none to pleased. She asked me to visit the Relate website to check if a computer can be cited as a third party in a divorce case.
Obviously, the more time I spend online, the less time I have to do all those things I used to do. I can't really claim I was ever much of a one for painting the town red or visiting the gym or doing sterling wok for worthy causes. But I did, at least, make the effort to put the bins out and sometimes talked to people - I mean the yackety-yak kind of talk, not the chatroom variety: badly spelt, ungrammatical, littered with TLAs (Three Letter Abbreviations) and inane emoticons :-(
Of course the Internet is a valuable resource. The trouble is that when you spend too long online you become so obsessed with tracking down new sites, there's no time to enjoy any of them. Being on the Net becomes an end in itself. You get a positive adrenaline rush when you're connected and real withdrawal symptoms if you're denied your daily fix. In fact the Internet shows many of the characteristics of any other narcotic. After the first quick thrill, some users find that they grow dangerously dependent upon it.
In fact, so many surfers are now displaying the symptoms of chronic addiction that psychologists want the American Psychiatric Association to recognise Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) as a genuine clinical condition.
From the anecdotal evidence, it certainly seems that lots of people - according to some experts 6 per cent or more of Net users - have a real problem. The true confessions of Internet addicts, published in the forums dedicated exclusively to them, paint a bleak picture of how a compulsive need to be on-line can result in loss of job, marriage, family, health and self-esteem. Newspaper headlines tell the same sad story. A 16-year-old girl in Co Durham ran away from home after she ran up a BT bill for pound;873.70 just by hanging out in chat rooms. A mum in Orlando lost custody of her children because the County Circuit judge ruled that she was "addicted to the Internet". Etcetera. Etcetera.
Everybody is potentially vulnerable to IAD, although the research seems to indicate that children and middle-aged women in low-tech professions (for example teaching) are particularly at risk. For teachers who are worried that they or their pupils are spending too long online, there is an abundance of research and expert advice which can be easily found - yes, you guessed it - online.
Unlike every other form addiction, IAD is being actively encouraged by the Government which is willing to spend millions encouraging us to spend more time online. Unless teachers make a point of warning pupils about the risk of IAD, the National Grid for Learning could create a generation of virtual junkies.
I have made up my mind to just say "no". I will cancel Surftime, bury my modem at the bottom of the garden and let friends and family know that I am back in the world of the living.
But not just yet. First there are a couple more URLs I need to check out...