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Interventions for Problematic Internet Use
Web Addicted Teens continuing education psychology CEUs

Section 17
Problematic Internet Use

CEU Question 17 | CEU Test | Table of Contents | Internet
Counselor CEUs, Social Worker CEUs, Psychologist CEs, MFT CEUs 

Do you feel as if you spend a lot of time reading and writing, but you need to spend still more? Do you ignore family members in order to concentrate on theories, research, or lectures? Do you postpone personal activities just to eke out a few more minutes for revising a manuscript? If so, you may be an acadaholic — someone who is addicted to academe.

Of course, "acadaholism" isn't a real disease. But some scholars have claimed that Problematic Internet Use is — using criteria very similar to those we invented for acadaholism.

A few well-placed conference presentations, a book or two, a couple of chapters in other volumes, and an overwhelming number of stories in the mass media have brought the phenomenon of Problematic Internet Use to the public's attention. We are told that the problem — sometimes called pathological Internet use, Internet dependency, and even onlineaholism — is widespread.

Professors are cautioned to look for signs of trouble in their students, monitoring the amount of time that the students are online, and taking action when their Internet use exceeds a certain level. The media have reported that millions of people are addicted to the Internet, and it's ruining their lives. Shouldn't you be concerned? Or are you just in denial?

Despite the increasing attention to Problematic Internet Use, nobody knows whether it really exists, or what the theoretical or conceptual nature of such an problems might be. Certainly, some individuals who have spent a great deal of time online have had serious problems in their lives: People have gotten divorced, gone into debt, or lost their jobs. But we must be careful not to use pathological labels for what may be someone's passing immersion in the Internet. And we must guard against directing someone who does have deep-seated problems to therapy that deals primarily with Problematic Internet Use, rather than looking for underlying psychological issues. Above all, we must avoid launching a technological witch-hunt instead of conducting substantive research about whether the Net causes problems or dependence.

Unfortunately, responding to some frightening cases of people whose Internet use seemed to be out of control, a handful of researchers have attempted to define and classify Problematic Internet Use, using criteria from other fields: gambling problem, and drug and alcohol dependency.

Mark Griffiths, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University, in England, listed the core criteria for Problematic Internet Use in a chapter in Psychology and the Internet, edited by Jayne Gackenbach (Academic Press, 1998). Those criteria included considering Internet use your most important activity; feeling good when you use the Internet; needing to use it more and more to achieve the same satisfaction that you had before, with less use; feeling symptoms of withdrawal, such as uneasiness, when you don't use it; and allowing Internet use to interfere with your normal life.

Other researchers have used such criteria to develop questionnaires, and sought volunteers who were interested in the topic to complete them, to see how widespread Problematic Internet Use might be. For instance, in 1994, in one of the first and best known efforts, Kimberly Young, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, posted notes around her campus and online, requesting that frequent Internet users complete her survey. She reported that 80 percent of her 496 respondents were addicted to the Internet.

More recently, in late fall of 1998, the psychologist David Greenfield invited those interested in the topic of cyberspace problems who came upon ABC News's World Wide Web site (http://www.abcnews.com) to answer Yes or No to 10 questions about Internet use. Almost 6 percent of the 17,251 people who took the survey answered Yes to five questions, which meant that they met Greenfield's criteria for Problematic Internet Use. Extrapolating to the estimated number of Internet users, Greenfield suggested that 11.4 million people might be addicted to the Internet, a conclusion that the Associated Press reported widely. Since then, Greenfield has posted on his Web site (http://www.virtual-addiction.com) numerous disclaimers about the tentative nature of his data and conclusions, but he still offers — for a fee — cybertherapy for Problematic Internet Use.

Skeptics responded quickly to those studies, suggesting that almost anything could be classified as addictive, using such criteria. In response to Kimberly Young's study, The New Yorker observed that breathing meets her criteria. One of us suggested, in a tongue-in-cheek talk at last summer's meeting of the American Psychological Association, that Problematic Internet Use might actually be a new manifestation of a more insidious compulsion: to communicate by any means possible. The talk cited James C. McCroskey and Virginia P. Richmond's analysis of "talkaholism" in a 1995 article in Communication Quarterly.

Cheap shots, perhaps. But such responses come out of a well-warranted frustration that — no matter how noble their motivations — researchers and practitioners have not conducted more-rigorous work before offering scary statements about Problematic Internet Use.

We should not use value-laden terms such as addiction to label something we know so little about. We need more information before we start monitoring the amount of time that our students are online, and taking action when their Internet use exceeds a certain level. And it is troubling that some researchers are offering online therapy to treat Internet addiction — which seems, as the reporter Anne Federwisch put it, to make as much sense as celebrating someone's success in Alcoholics Anonymous by throwing a cocktail party.

The next round of Internet studies must include more-solid questions. First, it is extremely important to consider the nature of people's activities on the Internet, rather than simply the extent of their use of the Net. People are obviously using the Internet to do things, but we have yet to focus on what those things are. Do people do basically the same things offline? The common presumption is that offline activities are better — healthier, or more natural — than online behavior, but we haven't examined whether that is so.

Are people using the Internet to do the online equivalent of flirting with strangers in bars? Or are they doing research, making new friends, collaborating on projects, expressing themselves artistically, learning computer programming, and exchanging social support? We have no reason to believe that if people were not able to use the Internet, they wouldn't engage in basically the same activities offline.

There is one catch: Typing has been shown to require four to five times as long as talking, and an hour's worth of socializing offline might take four hours online. Internet use may be a time sink, but it isn't necessarily pathological behavior.

Second, we need a formal and theoretical understanding of the Internet's particular allure. Researchers so far have focused on symptoms rather than causes. Only recently have some scholars speculated about the properties of the Internet that may make it attractive. For example, Young has tried to explain the gratification of cybersex with her "A.C.E." model: anonymity, convenience, and escape. Storm King, a student at the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology, is investigating whether people with addiction-prone personalities are using the Internet more than members of the general public are; if so, something about the Internet — perhaps its lack of face-to-face contact, which encourages uninhibited communication — may be particularly attractive to some people. Those hypotheses, however, still await verification.

In addition, researchers need to do a better job of collecting and analyzing data about Internet use. Most surveys of users have recruited their subjects by asking for volunteers who use the Net frequently, or who suspect that they might be addicted. By ignoring a broader range of subjects, that approach makes excessive use appear more common than it really is. Few studies have tried to show whether a great deal of use actually corresponds with other problems in the subjects' lives — as either a cause or an effect.

Next to none of the research has examined the accuracy of the questionnaires' measurements, or their consistency over time. Yet Lynn Roberts, a graduate student in social psychology at Curtin University of Technology, in Australia, has shown that online chat activity goes in phases, with initial exploration of chat rooms followed by seemingly obsessive enchantment, followed in turn by disillusionment and a sharp decline in use. Moderate use, or equilibrium, is the typical final stage. If Roberts is correct, it's important for researchers to retest their subjects who report that they spend a great deal of time on the Net.

Researchers must also understand that spending a lot of time online may be productive, rather than dysfunctional, behavior. The journalist Howard Rheingold related numerous stories about productive and moving uses of the Net in The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Malcolm Parks, of the University of Washington, and his coauthors have reported that online newsgroups and chat rooms simply function like many offline public places in which people meet and form friendships. Friendships formed online are no less valuable in several respects — such as commitment and understanding — than face-to-face ones, and a significant number of them move from virtual to physical acquaintance.

In a widely noted 1998 study published in American Psychologist, linking Internet use to depression, Robert Kraut and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University speculated that virtual friendships and online social-support networks were poor substitutes for face-to-face connections, undermining users' real-life support systems. However, their data do not support such a claim. Not only did they fail to assess the strength of online friendships, as Parks and his colleagues did, but Kraut and his coauthors actually found no deleterious effects on people's social support as a result of their Internet use.

In fact, Internet activities may be exceedingly beneficial to people in certain circumstances. Even Kimberly Young points out that the Net might be a good place to meet people for individuals who have low self-esteem and find it difficult to initiate conversations face to face, or those with a severely distorted body image. The face-to-face realm may be less attractive than cyberspace to other kinds of people: someone with a rare medical condition, who can find fellow sufferers online but not in his or her home town; the beautiful junior executive whose male coworkers look her in the chest instead of in the eye; and the college student who would rather discuss postmodernism to excess online than drink to excess with his roommates offline.

That is not to say that we should dismiss people who have problems with their Internet use. But it seems prudent to suggest that, even in some of those cases, we should focus on the sources of maladjustment that led them to the Net, rather than on the Net itself.

In sum, we mustn't forget that the Net has actually improved the lives of many people. We need more and different research before we say that Problematic Internet Use exists, and before we use questionable criteria to diagnose thousands of people as addicted.

Walther, J., & Reid, L. (2000). Understanding the allure of the internet. Chronicle of Higher Education, 46(22).

Personal Reflection Exercise #10
The preceding section contained information about understanding the allure of the internet for teenagers.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Acuff, S. F., Pilatti, A., Collins, M., Hides, L., Thingujam, N. S., Chai, W. J., Yap, W. M., Shuai, R., Hogarth, L., Bravo, A. J., & Murphy, J. G. (2021). Reinforcer pathology of internet-related behaviors among college students: Data from six countries. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology.

Baggio, S., Starcevic, V., Studer, J., Simon, O., Gainsbury, S. M., Gmel, G., & Billieux, J. (2018). Technology-mediated addictive behaviors constitute a spectrum of related yet distinct conditions: A network perspective. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 32(5), 564–572.

Ciarrochi, J., Parker, P., Sahdra, B., Marshall, S., Jackson, C., Gloster, A. T., & Heaven, P. (2016). The development of compulsive internet use and mental health: A four-year study of adolescence. Developmental Psychology52(2), 272–283.

Xiao, J., Li, D., Jia, J., Wang, Y., Sun, W., & Li, D. (2019). The role of stressful life events and the Big Five personality traits in adolescent trajectories of problematic Internet use. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 33(4), 360–370.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 17
What are the five criteria for Problematic Internet Use? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Test

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