Internet addiction: Anatomy of a problem.
Take a look at these graphs:
Most bloggers and web designers will find this sort of chart familiar — it’s a record of Cognitive Daily’s visitor statistics for the month of November. The first graph records the amount of traffic we received each day. Notice that the pink bars are shorter — these correspond to the weekends. You might think that weekend traffic is lower just because we don’t post new articles on weekends. But we didn’t post an article at all on November 14, a Monday, yet still saw an increase in traffic compared to the day before. The second graph charts a number of indicators of traffic based on hour of the day (U.S. Central time). Here you’ll notice that our busiest hours are right smack in the middle of the U.S. workday (over 75 percent of our traffic comes from the U.S.).
It’s no leap of faith to suggest that many, if not most, readers of Cognitive Daily are doing it at work. This is not to say our readers don’t have legitimate, work-related reasons for visiting this site. They may be psychology teachers. Or they may simply be seeking information for their employers: for example, employers might want to know that 64 percent of corporations in a recent survey have disciplined employees for inappropriate use of the internet at work. However, the site statistics on my personal blog follow a similar pattern. I have a hard time imagining an employer that would want its employees to read about my video game marathon with my son or my hike with my daughter, on company time.
One survey of employee internet use indicates that nearly 15 percent of workers surf the internet “constantly” while at work, and over 27 percent use active measures to conceal their surfing habits from their bosses.
One caution about the vault.com study — unlike the other studies we cover on Cognitive Daily, this one does not appear to be peer-reviewed. So what does peer-reviewed research have to say about the subject? In a 2004 descriptive article, Kimberly Young documented the phenomenon of internet addiction. She bases her definition of internet addiction on models for gambling addiction. Internet users are asked the following eight questions:
- Do you feel preeoccupied with the internet (think about online activity or anticipate the next online session)?
- Do you feel the need to use the internet with increasing amounts of time to achieve satisfaction?
- Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop internet use?
- Do you feel restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop internet use?
- Do you stay online longer than intended?
- Have you jeopardized or risked the loss of a significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunity because of the internet?
- Have you lied to family members, therapists, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the internet?
- Do you use the internet as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a dysphoric mood (e.g. feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression)?
Using a similar model, Louis Leung surveyed 699 Net-geners (members of the generation born between 1977 and 1997 who grew up in a world dominated by computers and electronic communication) in 2001 in Hong Kong and found that 37.9 percent met the criteria for internet addiction.
So what’s special about these internet addicts? Perhaps surprisingly, they don’t spend a lot more time online than non-addicted Net-geners: 34.8 hours a week compared to 27.1 for the non-addicted. They don’t use the internet more than average Net-geners for commercial activity, seeking information, or social interactions such as online forums, games, or bulletin boards. The only significant correlation between internet addiction and a particular online activity in this group was use of ICQ (generally called IM — Instant Messaging — in the U.S.), and even that was a relatively moderate correlation of β = 0.13.
But some other general patterns about internet addiction emerged from Leung’s study. Internet addicts tended to be female students, in contrast to previous studies finding that most problem computer use was among socially unskilled males — the traditional “computer geek.” There were few socioeconomic differences between addicts and non-addicts, and Leung believes that as internet availability becomes more widespread, whatever small differences that remain will disappear.
Finally, and perhaps most critically, there was no difference in experience using the internet between addicts and non-addicts: addicted users averaged 2.64 years online, compared to 2.75 years for non-addicts. It seems that the critical dimension of addicted versus non-addicted behavior is the ability to control one’s use of the internet.
Kimberly Young points out that there are several factors which make internet addiction difficult to treat. Employers and schools often encourage internet use, even to the point of integrating it into business and curriculum procedures. This makes addiction difficult to identify, and potentially legally problematic for businesses who are providing the very item their addicted employees crave. The newness of the disorder makes it difficult both for victims to be taken seriously, and for practicable treatments to be created.
In reading through the research, I’ve identified another problem: the technologies that researchers are trying to study are progressing so quickly that they often have changed or ceased to exist by the time of publication. Leung writes extensively on ICQ and bulletin boards, which have now virtually vanished from the online landscape, even though the article was published in late 2004. Young’s 2004 article cites data on online use dating from the late 1990s — an eternity ago in internet time. Today, we want to know about the impact of MMORPGs and podcasts, but in the several years it takes to carry out a peer-reviewed experiment on the subject, these technologies may have morphed into something else entirely. In the meantime, there’s little doubt that addictive online behavior will continue to be a problem, so continuing research on the issue, no matter the difficulties, is essential.
Leung, L. (2004). Net-generation attributes and seductive properties of the internet as predictors of online activities and internet addiction. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 7(3), 333-348.
Young, K.S. (2004). Internet addiction: A new clinical phenomenon and its consequences. The American Behavioral Scientist, 48(1), 402-415.