From the issue dated June 16, 2000
Internet dependence can lead to missed classes and social isolation, study says
After three semesters of solid academic work, Scott did so poorly at the end of his sophomore year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that he flunked out. Just before he left, in the spring of 1998, he visited the counseling center to talk about problems he had been experiencing: he was often depressed, missed classes, clashed with his parents, and was losing sleep.
Eventually, Keith J. Anderson, a psychologist at R.P.I.'s counseling center, learned what was really ailing Scott (not his real name), even before the 19-year-old student had realized what was wrong. Mr. Anderson got him to admit
"By the end of April, Scott didn't know the first or last name of his next-door neighbor in his residence hall -- but he drove to Tennessee, about 1,900 miles roundtrip, to meet a woman that he met online," Mr. Anderson said. "He would say that he had a lot of friends, but he never met the people he called his friends."
Scott showed several signs of what the psychologist called Internet dependency, a problem that affects at least 10 percent of college students, Mr. Anderson said this month at the annual conference of the American College Health Association here.
Scott would look for ways to connect to the online community when he was away from campus, stay logged on for increasing amounts of time, try unsuccessfully to reduce his time in cyberspace, withdraw from participating in other hobbies, and skip classes and assignments -- even after he realized that he risked dismissal from the university.
Mr. Anderson's encounter with the student motivated him to study the extent of the problem on college campuses. In 1998-99, he surveyed 1,300 students at seven American institutions and one in Northern Ireland.
What he found is that at least 10 percent of college students use the Internet so much that it interferes with their grades, their health, or their social lives, and that the problem may run much deeper at science-and-engineering institutions.
His study, which he expects to publish this summer in The Journal of American College Health, used criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV. Researchers use those standards to define dependencies like those on alcohol and gambling.
For instance, those who are considered alcohol-dependent meet at least three of seven criteria listed in the manual, including withdrawal from other activities because of drinking, unsuccessful efforts to cut down or quit, and a tendency to consume larger amounts over a longer period of time than they had intended.
Of the 1,078 participants who said they used the Internet, Mr. Anderson reported, more than 100 of them met at least three of the seven criteria for dependency.
The students who were characterized as Internet-dependent spent an average of 229 minutes a day online for nonacademic reasons, compared with 73 minutes a day for other students, Mr. Anderson said. As many as 6 percent of all the students spent an average of more than 400 minutes a day -- almost seven hours -- using the Internet. The outcomes were not good, they reported.
"Grades decline, mostly because attendance declines. Sleep patterns go down. And they become socially isolated," Mr. Anderson said. "Technology could be a really wonderful thing, but if we don't start looking at some of the consequences, we'll take the ostrich approach, with our heads in the sand, and let the problems sneak up on us."
As part of the study, students were asked to rate the degree to which their Internet usage was affecting their personal relationships, academic success, participation in extracurricular activities, sleep patterns, and opportunities to meet new people. For the study, Mr. Anderson counted only Internet activities unrelated to class work -- including sending or receiving e-mail messages, browsing the World Wide Web, downloading software, and participating in graphic interactive games, newsgroups, cybersex, or online communities.
The participants were students from American International University, Black Hawk College, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rensselaer, Siena College, the State University of New York campuses at Albany and Buffalo, and the University of Ulster, in Northern Ireland. They were evenly divided between men and women, and they represented 18 different majors, from liberal arts to hard sciences.
The type of student most vulnerable to Internet dependency, however, was clear: Of the 106 classified in this way, 93 were men. Seventy-six percent of those identified as dependent studied the hard sciences (chemistry, computer science, engineering, math, and physics), with computer-science majors making up the majority.
Mr. Anderson suggested that his study may, in fact, underrepresent "extreme users" -- students who are so consumed by the Internet that they rarely leave their rooms. Respondents filled out paper surveys while they were in class, and the extreme Internet users may have skipped class that day, among others, to remain in cyberspace, he explained.
"It's not the kind of problem that comes out of the woodwork at you," he said. "It's one of those problems that operates underneath the fabric of the campus and pops its head up in other ways. Unless you ask about it, you don't find out about it."
Students don't generally walk into campus counseling centers and say they are spending too much time on the Internet, Mr. Anderson said. They probably don't even realize it themselves.
Often he diagnoses the problem by asking two questions of students who come to see him because they are struggling with their class work: How much sleep do you get? How much time do you spend on the Internet?
The psychologist said the problem of excessive Internet use on campuses is growing, as colleges continue to make cyberspace more accessible to students -- keeping their computer centers open 24 hours a day, installing Internet connections in every dormitory room, and encouraging or even requiring students to own laptop computers.
At the health-association conference this month, Mr. Anderson asked the approximately 80 people at the session -- mostly college health-care providers -- how many of them had worked in the past year with students who had social or academic problems related to excessive Internet use. About three-quarters of the audience members raised their hands.
When he asked how many could recall working with similar students five years ago, only one hand went up.
"We've gone in the last five years from being Internet savvy to being so overly Internet connected that it starts to impact some aspects of our lives," Mr. Anderson said.
He suggested that colleges find ways to monitor or restrict the amount of time that students spend on the Internet. For example, colleges could allot a certain amount of time for students with online Internet accounts, and if they used up, say, a month's worth of Internet time in a week or less, college officials might be able to intervene.
Mr. Anderson does not expect such a "debit system" strategy to be popular among students or administrators, however.
"Systems administrators see that as a backward step. They're trying to increase accessibility, not decrease it."