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Hooked on the Web: Internet Addiction

Recent studies of college students begin to clarify the relationship between Internet compulsion, depression and other serious problems.

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By Melanie Eckhoff

12/18/12

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Word is spreading about the dangers of texting while driving. But what about texting and walking? Walking into someone when you’re sending a text or playing angry birds on your iPhone may be rude, but at least it’s not fatal. Walking against the light and straight into the path of a moving car is another story.

Internet addiction (IA) is a disorder with symptoms similar to those found in pathological gambling and, to a lesser extent, substance abuse. Colleges nationwide are seeing the negative consequences of IA on their students. Reports estimate that 8% to 13% of undergraduates are addicted to the Internet, resulting in serious harms including impaired psychological health, family and peer relationship difficulty and lower academic performance. In addition, a link has been found between problematic Internet use and depression in college kids.

There is considerable confusion about what Internet addiction is (is not). Here are answers to common questions that may get you started:

1. How does a healthcare professional spot Internet addiction?

There are eight criteria for diagnosing IA; these symptoms include preoccupation with the Internet, unsuccessful efforts to control or cut back Internet use, staying online longer than originally intended and using the Internet daily as an escape. Internet addicts can spend anywhere from 40 to 80 hours per week online, with sessions lasting up to as much as 20 hours. Some observers suggest that given the nation’s high unemployment rate over the past five years, a growing number of people are turning to online experiences to fill the empty hours and to escape the anxiety and depression of not having a job or a paycheck.

2. Does what we use the Internet for make a difference?

Certain online activities, such as cyber-relationships and online gaming, seem to be particularly potent in inducing compulsive use. A recent New York Times article reported on a study finding that in a sample of 216 undergraduates, an individual’s scores on a depression scale rose with increased levels of sharing files (movies, music, etc.) and of email usage. The authors spoke of their intention to develop a software application that could be installed on computers and smartphones to monitor your Internet activities and alert you if depressive patterns emerge. (It is far from certain that many people would consent to such an intrusion into their privacy)

3. Do Facebook and other social networking create a feeling of togetherness?

Social networking is truly changing the way people communicate and interact with one another. Facebook is the largest social networks, and “Facebooking” has practically reached epidemic proportions among the college population. In a 2009 University of Missouri survey of some 1,000 college students, more than 95% had a Facebook page and 78% of them accessed the site at least twice a day. The study also found that in terms of relatedness, Facebook use is—somewhat paradoxically—correlated with both connection and disconnection. As for addiction, the researchers suggested that their subjects were habituated to a coping device that distracts from rather than resolves everyday problems.

4. Are texting and tweeting included in the IA diagnosis?

It is an open question whether the IA spectrum should include mobile, phone-based activities such as texting and tweeting. A 2010 study of college students in Pakistan found that many texted during class lectures; the majority of their texting activity occurred during late evenings and early morning hours. Several students said that their parents have tried to stop them from texting during meals and study time. If you’re the parent of adolescents in the US, you would probably not be surprised if one child texted the other one sitting next to him or her at the dinner table rather than bothering to vocalize, “Pass the chicken.”

Online gambling, downloading files and texting are associated with negative events, while college satisfaction was linked to chatting online and using the Internet for school.

Texting while walking can in fact be dangerous. A recent study of 138 college students using an online test found that when listening to music, texting or having a conversation on a smartphone, they were more likely to look away from the virtual street they were crossing than were the subjects with no distraction.

5. Are colleges being “taken over” by the online universe?

Not yet. But the signs are there: for example, college professors are using Twitter as a way to encourage discussion of subject matter among students, according to a 2010 US News and World Report article. Yet abuse of the Internet on college campuses has received relatively little attention, compared to substance abuse. And given that the Internet is an increasingly integral component of the typical college curriculum, college may be a risky environment for vulnerable students.

6. What are the risks if a person engages in abuse of both substances and the Internet?

In a study I conducted of 165 undergraduates (126 women and 39 men) at the New School for Social Research, in New York City, I found that students in the control group (i.e., no problematic substance or internet use) had fewer negative outcomes than those engaged in problematic use of both substances and the Internet. However, no differences were found between the students in the control group and students who had only one of the two habits.

The negative outcomes included psychological distress and decreased satisfaction with college. Yet not all online activities were associated with the same negative outcomes—and some actually correlated with positive results. Examples: online gambling, downloading files and texting were all associated with less academic success or other negative events. High college satisfaction was associated with chatting online and using the Internet for school.

Future studies might home in on behaviors like downloading or sharing files to learn why they particularly are detrimental. Answers could help mental health professionals gain insight into how best to work with these individuals. Some observers suggest that a lack of in-person social contact initiates the depressive symptoms, which in turn are exacerbated by continued face-to-face avoidance.

7. Are those of us who are past our college years at risk?

Age doesn’t exempt anyone from the problem since most of us rely on the Internet in our jobs and our home life. Ask yourself if your use is compulsive. Do you spend more time online than you originally intended? Do you go on Facebook because you prefer it to actual face-to-face contact? If combining Internet addiction with substance abuse can lead to more negative consequences for college students, the odds are that it will have the same effect on all of us.

Melanie Eckhoff received her PhD in clinical psychology from the New School for Social Research. She specializes in the treatment of addiction, including both substance abuse and behavioral disorders. Her email is drmelanieeckhoff@gmail.com.

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