CyberPsychology & Behavior
Volume 1, Number 1, 1998
Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.




Internet Addiction on Campus:
The Vulnerability of College Students



JONATHAN J. KANDELL, Ph.D.


ABSTRACT

Use of the Internet on college campuses has increased dramatically in recent years, leading to pathological use, or Internet addiction, for some students. Internet addiction is defined as a psychological dependence on the Internet and is characterized by (a) an increasing investment of resources on Intemet-related activities, (b) unpleasant feelings (e.g., anxiety, depression, emptiness) when offline, (c) an increasing tolerance to the effects of being online, and (d) denial of the problematic behaviors. Individuals exhibiting such symptoms often are dealing with underlying psychological issues. College students are particularly vulnerable to pathological Internet use due to several factors. These factors include (a) the psychological and developmental characteristics of late adolescence/young adulthood, (b) ready access to the Internet, and (c) an expectation of computer/Intemet use. The nature of the computer medium and the sense of control experienced when engaged in computer activities can also contribute to the potential for problematic computer/Intemet use. Research on Internet addiction is in its infancy. The need for greater understanding of Internet addiction and its treatment is noted.



      MCLUHAN CONTENDED THAT a medium or a technology forces society and the individual to adapt to it, rather than people adapting the technology to the current world.(1) In other words, each significant technological development fundamentally changes the way the world works. Just as the invention of the electric light enabled a multitude of nocturnal activities to occur and the VCR created an entire industry of video retailers, the development of the Internet and World Wide Web have spawned a revolution in communication, commerce, and interpersonal behavior.

      Use of the Internet on college and university campuses has shown explosive growth in the last few years, paralleling, if not outpacing, the strong advances in the society at large. While academia always has been in the forefront of Internet use, the primary focus had been on faculty research and communication. Since the advent of high-quality, low-cost hardware and software, and the development of a graphically based, easy-to-use method of accessing remote computer sites (i.e., the World Wide Web), use of the Internet by students has increased dramatically.

      Many campuses are now finding that a student culture is being created via E-mail, Web surfing, multiple user dungeons (MUDS; interactive, role-playing games), and homepage production. Many students provide E-mail addresses as the preferred mode of contact rather than telephone numbers. Although the Internet can be a powerful tool for both academic study and personal communication, for some people Internet access can prove to be a temptation that is hard to resist. Pathological or problematic use of the Internet, also called "Internet addiction," is a behavior pattern that appears to be affecting more and more people, including students.

      Although empirical investigation of Internet addiction is still in its infancy,(2,3) anecdotal data have been accumulating for several years. Universities have begun to look more closely at the Internet addiction problem and how it is affecting their students. A 1994 study at the University of Michigan showed that freshmen and sophomores averaged 10 hr per week on-line, with 18% on the Internet at least 20 hr per week.(4) The University of Washington has limited the amount of Internet time available to students to stem on-line abuse.(5) [Author's Note: Although this information does appear in the cited source, I have been informed recently through a personal communication that the information is incorrect.] Alfred University administrators discovered a relationship between high Internet use and a more than doubled rate of academic dismissals.(4) Counseling center personnel at several campuses (e.g., University of Maryland, University of Texas at Austin, Marquette University) have felt the need to offer support groups for students concerned about their time on-line.

      The term Internet addiction was popularized, if not coined, by Dr. Ivan Goldberg. Dr. Goldberg is a psychiatrist in New York who developed a Web site detailing the criteria for a DSM-IV-Iike condition entitled "Internet addiction disorder" (IAD). Although Dr. Goldberg has stated that he created the site in jest, the volume and seriousness of responses by those believing they matched the IAD criteria suggest a real problem and not simply a joke.

INTERNET ADDICTION

      For the purposes of this article, Internet addiction is characterized as a psychological dependence on the Internet, regardless of type of activity once logged on. Although evidence suggests that MUD games and Internet relay chat or chat rooms (interactive real-time conversation areas) are the most involving,(3) extended Web surfing and compulsive E-mail checking can also create problems.

      Symptoms of Internet addiction often include an increasing preoccupation with, and investment of resources (time, energy, money, etc.) on, Internet activities. Also, when not online, the individual can experience unpleasant feelings (e.g., anxiety, depression, emptiness, loneliness) that are relieved by engaging in Internet-related behaviors. Tolerance levels can also develop. One hour in a chat room or MUD game may satisfy an individual initially, but as the person becomes more involved with the online group, a need to be connected, both literally and metaphorically, can occur. A fear of missing out on something can drive users to marathon-length Internet sessions with little or no sleep or sustenance. Similar to other addictive behaviors, denial of the problem is common. Almost everyone knows of someone who is spending much too much time on-line, but it is the rare person who self-identifies with the issue.

      An individual exhibiting Internet addiction is often dealing with underlying psychological issues. These issues may include problematic relationships (e.g., with partner, family, boss), academic or work difficulties, existential or identity crises, and separation anxiety. Internet use aids in the person's avoidance of the problem and creates a buffer between the person's conscious mind and the negative thoughts and feelings the underlying issue generates. It is not surprising that the Internet frequently is used as a means of procrastination and escape. Of course, greater Internet involvement only exacerbates these underlying issues while providing temporary relief at best. Much like the drug or alcohol abuser who gets high to deal with underlying mood or tension, a process known as "self-medication," the pathological Internet user, by going on-line, exercises a similar coping mechanism. It is when Internet behaviors become the primary or even sole coping mechanism that serious Internet addiction problems occur. In this regard, pathological Internet use is little different from other addictive/compulsive disorders, such as pathological gambling, compulsive exercise, eating disorders, and the nonphysiological aspects of drug/alcohol addiction.

      In general, the closest parallel for Internet addiction among compulsive/addictive disorders is probably pathological gambling. For college students, however, the most similar dynamic may be that of compulsive exercise. Exercise is helpful (indeed it could be argued necessary) in keeping the body fit and healthy. Nearly everyone should exercise, and most do so without a problem. Some individuals, however, cannot maintain a healthful program of exercise and become dependent on the physical exertion to feel good about themselves. Similarly, the computer and Internet have become essential tools to many, if not most, students. Rather than simply eliminating the problematic behavior completely (although this may be necessary in severe cases), it is often more productive to deal with the underlying issues and reestablish a balance in the person's life.

PSYCHOLOGICAL ASPECTS OF COMPUTERS AND THE INTERNET

      Two aspects of computers and the Internet have psychological implications and contribute to pathological use. These aspects, nature of the medium and sense of control, are discussed in turn.

Nature of the medium

      In his landmark book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan(1) expounded on his famous statement, "The medium is the message." McLuhan's essential point is that to what use a technology is put (i.e., the content) is less important than the impact of the technology itself. That is, it is the very act of watching television that is crucial, rather than whether one is watching a children's show or a violence-laden adult drama.

      McLuhan also divides media into those that are "hot" or "cool." "A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in 'high definition.' High definition is being well filled with data" (McLuhan,(1), p. 22). Examples of hot media are film, radio, and books. These media provide an experience in which the participant is essentially passive. The image is viewed, the sound heard, and the words read, but the individual does not have an active involvement in how the experience is created (e.g., one can read the end of the book first, but to get the full experience of the author, it is meant to be read in a linear fashion).

      Cool media, by contrast, force the participant to engage in the transmission process. Examples of cool media are newspaper and television. In each case, the medium is not "well filled with data." The individual may read a newspaper story in a linear fashion, but the selection of the story (or advertisement) to be read first from the mosaic of the newspaper page is at the discretion of the individual. Television is considered cool due to the nature of the technology. The screen is a cathode ray tube that continually scans a series of dots (or pixels) with a beam of light. The eye only inputs a fraction of these dots, and the brain actively engages in putting the pieces together to create an image. Cool media, by definition then, create a significantly more engaging experience. Computer screens, and thus computer activities, are also cool (and therefore engaging), because they use the same basic technology as the television. Simply observing an experienced computer user (or television watcher) or, more dramatically, futilely attempting to gain his or her full attention, speaks to the level of engagement experienced.

Control

      A second psychological dynamic of cornputer/Internet use is that of control. Using a computer allows the operator to experience a level of control unattainable in other activities. You can configure the computer to appear the way you desire and organize your information any way you please, but, most important, when you issue a command, the computer (unless it is malfunctioning) obeys. Unlike dealing with other people, whether in relationships or in a professional setting, the computer is virtually guaranteed to do exactly what you want when you want. This level of control is naturally quite seductive for anyone. For people who have little sense of control in other areas of their life, however, the computer/Internet can become an increasingly accessed refuge where control can be experienced.

      A chat room, for example, can provide an interpersonal experience in which an individual can interact with others with a reduced fear of negative reaction. Whereas face-to-face meetings may create a good deal of anxiety and selfconsciousness, the chat room eliminates all but the verbal content; thus the strain of dealing with others is moderated. Pauses in conversation that in a face-to-face interaction would seem awkward or unusual cause little or no problem on the Internet. Thus, the individual can have a good deal more control over what is said. Whether one changes gender, age, race, or appearance, having the ability to create an alternate self is another means of experiencing control in the interaction.

VULNERABILITY OF COLLEGE STUDENTS

      College students as a group appear more vulnerable to developing a dependence on the Internet than most segments of society. Several factors contribute to this increased likelihood of Internet addiction, including psychological and developmental characteristics of the student, ready access to the Internet, and the expectation of computer/Internet use.

Psychological and developmental dynamics

      The most important factors contributing to the vulnerability of college students are the psychological and developmental dynamics with which late adolescents and young adults must contend. Traditional-age college students (and nonstudents of this age as well) face two important tasks: (a) development of a firm sense of identity and (b) development of meaningful, intimate relationships, both emotionally and physically, with romantic partners.(6)

      Successful completion of these stages is by no means a given. Many people have not achieved an independent identity and remain overly attached to their families. By the same token, other individuals live a life of loneliness and isolation, unable to establish and maintain intimate relationships. The demands of these transitions, especially for students, who must also balance academic requirements, frequently produce a good deal of stress, depression, interpersonal problems, and other psychological symptoms.

      Identity. The first task, identity formation, may have started prior to matriculation, but it needs to be resolved adequately during this time so the person can fully separate from his or her family and move toward independence. The identity consists of several parts, including understanding one's personality, knowing one's likes and dislikes, finding where one belongs on a social basis (i.e., in what subgroup of the larger society does the person fit), and determining a career or vocational path.

      The role of the family and the student's ability to gain sufficient independence from the family system are crucial at this point. Parents need to relinquish control and act much more as consultants than authorities. When an adolescent goes to college, whether living on or near campus or commuting from home, the level of independence increases greatly. The adult world found on campus, with its diversity of ideas, behaviors, attitudes, and people, forever changes the student. If parents (or the family system) do not allow the child to form an independent identity, many problems can and frequently do occur. It is no surprise that most addictive behaviors, including drinking, drug abuse, gambling, sex, exercise, and food, begin or intensify during this period of life. Sometimes in dysfunctional homes, crises may occur when this stage comes, forcing the adolescent to remain tied to the family system and preventing his or her launching into the larger society. Another problem occurs when the adolescent has not achieved sufficient strength to exit the system and falls back on the financial and emotional support of the parents.

      In these circumstances, the addictive behaviors serve two purposes. First, they serve as a coping mechanism for the adolescent having trouble negotiating these developmental challenges. Whether the person is too weak to launch or is being pulled back into the family system, the demands of the family war with the demands of the self. To resolve the dilemma, the person may self-medicate the pain through the addictive behavior, escaping and numbing himself or herself to the internal conflicts.

      Second, the addictive behaviors provide a mechanism to resolve (although pathologically) these conflicts. If the person becomes addicted to drugs, gambling, the Internet, whatever, he or she becomes unable to care for himself or herself in an independent way. Thus, the family is forced to accept the return (or prevent the launch) of the person back into the system, stabilizing the family functioning as had been the case when the person was younger. The family can then proceed "normally" at the expense of the late adolescent.

      Under these circumstances, use of the Internet itself becomes more important than what the person is doing. Whether involved in MUD games, chat rooms, pornography, browsing for new Web sites, or even creating one's own homepage, the fact that too much time and energy are spent in Internet-related activities to operate successfully is the key. It is much harder to leave the family system if you flunk all your courses and cannot get a job that pays well. Other mechanisms to prevent the launching process could be incurring financial debt due to computer upgrades and fees, physical problems due to neglect and abuse of the body, and other psychological disorders as a result of the isolation of Internet addiction.

      Intimacy. Developing meaningful relationships is the second major issue at this stage. Although dating may (or may not) have occurred during the earlier stages of adolescence, it is during this period that deeper, more serious, and more committed relationships generally begin to occur. Sometimes concurrent with the identity formation process, but often following it, the development of the capacity for true intimacy at this time, whether with someone of opposite or similar gender, creates the foundation for such relationships throughout the remainder of the person's life. Failure to develop these skills, behaviors, and depth can lead to a life of loneliness and unfulfilled longings for life partnership. To develop an appropriate capacity for intimacy requires testing and experience through the fullest possible means. Face-to-face (and body-to-body) contact is required to learn the art and skills of sexual interactions. Even on a purely emotional level, the looks, the body language, and the tone of voice are all vital to learning how to interact successfully with someone on a deep level. In fact, they are vital in learning to interact successfully with anyone in any context.

      The Internet, especially through chat rooms, E-mail, and MUD games, does provide opportunities for interaction with others. The quality of the interactions, however, is greatly limited compared to face-to-face or even telephone conversations. Although adolescents and young adults need as much information as possible about others, the Internet provides only words on a screen and artificial methods of expressing emotion. Unfortunately, what can happen when much of a person's interpersonal contact occurs on-line is that the sense of what a relationship is, or can be, becomes distorted. The ebb and flow of real-life conversation may become lost (or in some cases remain unlearned), leading to increasing difficulties in real-life interaction. The Internet, then, becomes a more attractive medium in which to converse and interact. The skills for developing meaningful experience relationships and true intimacy, however, may not be gained (or are lost or blunted), making attempts to bond in real life more frustrating.

      Paradoxically, what people may view as intimacy--the revealing of details, feelings, and thoughts about the self--may become just as problematic as an inability to "open up" at all. The Internet provides a certain psychological distance from the person with whom you are interacting, due to the lack of visual, aural, and emotional feedback, which can allow for a greater taking of risks. In fact, the greater psychological distance may actually require a higher level of emotional investment to make the interaction have value or substance. An inappropriate level of self-disclosure on-line may turn people off, even in cyberspace. Even if the response is positive, the level of self-disclosure in this circumstance does not necessarily translate to real life. Social conventions dictate what is appropriate in various types of interaction, and those who continually break the rules can find themselves without real-life companions.

      Another aspect of intimacy on the Internet is actually meeting in real life those with whom you have been involved on-line. In that an Internet user is again only seeing words and symbols on a screen, the universe of information about the other is very limited. Although a great deal of facts (and/or fictions) may be obtained, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to really know someone without seeing them, hearing them, and interacting with them on a face-to-face basis. This is not to say that all relationships must be face to face. Good relationships can be formed through any medium as long as the parameters and limitations of the medium are understood. If a person's primary (or sole) interactions occur on-line, however, then much is being missed, and how interpersonally fulfilled the person is comes into question.

      The process of gestalt (i.e., filling in the gaps) that occurs in the brain can take the paucity of information provided by the Internet and complete it with a person's own wishes, hunches, projections, and ideals. Thus, the person with whom you converse can become the "person of your dreams" whether it reflects reality or not. Often when people meet on the Internet and later in real life, especially if the link between the two becomes emotionally or romantically charged, disappointment will occur, if not immediately, then some time later. This happens to an extent in all romantic relationships, and, if handed appropriately, can still lead to a positive, perhaps even more fulfilling, relationship based on reality. The greater the lack of information, however, the greater the chance of disappointment and the stronger its depth. This heightened disappointment occurs because your investment in the relationship (the ideals, projections, etc.) is greater and less likely to be real.

      Of course, when interacting on the Internet, you can never be 100% sure that the person is who they claim to be. Instances abound of people on the Internet changing their ages, their body descriptions, their vocations, even their gender and race. Although the anonymity of it all can provide some excitement and freedom, the limitations of the medium must be understood.

Access to the Internet

      A second factor contributing to the vulnerability of college students is their free, readily available access to the Internet. Although Internet access is available to interested parties in the larger society, cost can become a factor in the amount of time spent on the Internet. Online services, such as American Online and Compuserve, and Internet service providers frequently charge hourly rates for access (though the unlimited access for a monthly fee model is becoming more popular). In either case, cost of access can be a deterrent for overuse (although it may also become another facet of the problem). Many institutions now provide free educational Internet accounts to students upon their matriculation. It is likely a selling point for some colleges. With the cost factor eliminated, students have no financial reason to limit their Internet use.

      Many universities now are busy creating, or have already created, campus-wide networks with links to the Internet. The wiring of the campus reaches not only the academic and support buildings but is making its way into the residence halls. All resident students could have their own individual access point (if they have a computer, which several schools are already offering as incentives to enroll) or have terminals available in a hall-based computer lab. Commuter students often can use terminals in their department, library, student union, or other common area. Although universal access helps anyone who wants to do research or converse with others, another barrier to overuse is eliminated.

Expectation of computer/Internet use

      Computer use by college students is strongly encouraged, implicitly if not explicitly, and in some courses is required. Although the need for computers is obvious in science and math courses, it is also difficult to imagine many students foregoing a word-processing program for a typewriter when composing an English or history paper. In addition, the business curriculum, as the realm of business itself, has adopted a greater involvement with computers. The use of the Internet (E-mail, listserv, and/or the Web) is a logical and frequently occurring extension of the classroom. Some courses are now Internet dependent; that is, the Internet has become part and parcel of the course, from syllabi to homework assignments, from group projects using the Internet to communications with the instructor. The positives of such an adoption of technology include helping students feel more comfortable with, and understand the potentials of, the work world they will soon be entering. The downside, however, can be for those unable to balance their activities on the computer/Internet with other parts of their lives. It only takes a few keystrokes to move from a homework assignment to checking E-mail or visiting a chat room, a common and often time-consuming pattern.

CONCLUSION

      Use of the Internet in society and on college campuses is growing at an exponential rate. Although the Internet is an excellent tool for gathering information and for interpersonal communication, dangers exist for those who make it the central focus of their lives. College students, who are dealing with the developmental tasks of identity formation and establishment of intimate relationships, may be particularly susceptible to pathological Internet use. Overinvolvement with the Internet, however, can inhibit the development of skills needed for identity and intimacy, creating a spiral of Internet use, difficulties in real life, followed by more Internet use as a means of avoidance and self-medication, and the like. Research in this area is just starting, but more is needed to understand the full scope of Internet addiction and the most effective modes of treatment.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT

The author acknowledges the efforts of Dr. Linda Campbell Tipton, colleague, in-house reviewer, and partner in the study of Internet addiction.

REFERENCES

  1. McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man (rev. ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  2. Brenner, V. (1996). An initial report on the online assessment of Internet addiction: The first 30 days of the Internet Usage Survey [On-line]. Available: http://www.ccsnet.com/prep/pap/pap8b/638bOl2p.txt
  3. Young, K.S. (1996). Internet addiction: The emergence of a new clinical disorder [On-line]. Available: http://www.pitt.edu/-ksy/apa.html
  4. Campus ties Internet use to increased dismissal rate. (1996, May 20). National On-Campus Report, 24, 2.
  5. Greene, M. (1996, January 16). Addicted to the 'net. USA Today, pp. Al-A2.
  6. Erikson, E.H. (1963). Childhood and society (2nd ed.). New York: Norton.

Address reprint requests to:
Jonathan J. Kandell, Ph.D.
Counseling Center, Shoemaker Building
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742-8111

E-mail: jkandell@accmail.umd.edu