Mighty mouse addiction

Among the many new, high-tech words included in recent editions of the New Oxford Dictionary of English is a listing for "mouse potato."

While this sounds like an exotic dish (perhaps one they enjoy in England), this term actually refers to someone who spends too much time sitting zoned in front of a computer, akin to the TV addicts known as "couch potatoes" or "sofa spuds." (Which also sounds like something they'd eat in England.)

It's easy to make light of mouse potatoes, but the levity disguises a serious social ill.

Recent studies show that mouse potatoes -- even if they do not consume British food -- generally are an unhealthy lot, spending too much time sedentary and alone. They suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome and poor posture and overlooked hygiene. They tend to be "quiet types, who always keep to themselves," and we all know what that means.

So today, for the safety of yourself and others, let's take an in-depth look at "Mouse Potato Syndrome" or MPS. This diagnosis is so new that many health experts have yet to recognize it, and the general public hasn't been properly informed of the symptoms. You, yourself, may currently be a mouse potato and not even know it.

If you think you might suffer from MPS, answer these questions:

--Do you spend more than 14 hours a day sitting at a computer? On Sundays?

--Do you suffer from sore wrists, headaches, neck pain, numbness, irregularity, back pain, sciatica, insomnia, nausea, trivia or ennui?

--Do you know, off the top of your head, your current winning percentage at "Free Cell?"

--Do you resent sleeping because it cuts into your time online?

--Do your "virtual" friends outnumber your "actual" friends? Do you have "imaginary" friends? What are their names?

--Are there crumbs in your computer keyboard? Enough, taken together, to shape into a coffee cake?

--Do you have trouble remembering your spouse's name?

If you answer "yes" to any of these questions, then you might be a mouse potato. Take precautionary measures. Get up, right now, and go outside. Even it's raining or pitch dark. Just go. Fresh air is the only known palliative for Mouse Potato Syndrome. Yes, it's a temporary remedy, but there's no limit on the doses you can take. The more, the better.

Sadly, many Americans know MPS all too well because of the toll it takes on their families. MPS, like any addiction, results in domestic turmoil and alienation of affection. Spouses report they lose all contact with their mouse potato husbands or wives, who are trapped in a "virtual" world of instant stock quotes, pirated music and hourly reports on the love life of Britney Spears. And untold families have felt the shock of losing a child to "Myst."

Many people who aren't computer-addicted become infected by living in the same house as a mouse potato. They're seduced by talk of chatrooms and e-Bay and free downloads. They start to experiment with the Web. Before you know it, the whole family is twitching and sniffling and bickering over who gets the DSL connection next.

Often, the spouses of MPS victims become "enablers," protecting their mouse potatoes from the outside world, "covering" for them, providing for their care and feeding. For some, living with an infestation of mouse potatoes can be cheaper than eradicating it, particularly in cases involving pre-nuptial agreements.

If you're living with a mouse potato, you don't have to suffer in silence. You can stand up. You can force your mouse potato to return blinking to the real world, even if it means taking drastic steps such as cutting electric power to the house.

Remember, you're not alone. If someone you know suffers from Mouse Potato Syndrome, seek help from family, friends, neighbors and medical professionals. (It may take two or three full-grown adults to pry a truly addicted mouse potato away from his computer and drag him outdoors.)

And if you think you may be a mouse potato, know that the condition doesn't have to be permanent. All it takes is will power. You can take back your life.

Just go outside. It helps if you can bring along a laptop.

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