Unravelling the Web: Adolescents and Internet Addiction

Laura Widyanto & Mark Griffiths. Adolescent Online Social Communication and Behavior: Relationship Formation on the Internet. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, 2010.

The History and Concept of Internet Addiction

The notion of ‘Internet addiction’ is not an entirely original one. The more general term ‘computer addiction’ had emerged even when the development of the Internet was still in its early stages. An example of the acceptance of this concept can be found in two court cases whereby the defence was found ‘not guilty by reason of computer addiction’ (Surratt, 1999). One of these cases took place in London in 1993, where Paul Bedworth was accused of hacking-related crime. He refused to plead guilty as he claimed to be addicted to the computer and because of that, was unable to form the necessary intent. His psychological assessment stated that he spent unnaturally long hours in the computer laboratories and that any of his activities involving computers took precedence over anything else. An expert witness in addictive behaviour concluded “He’s completely hooked on computing… The child, whose best friend is a computer rather than a person, is not going to function normally in society. We need to be able to predict how he will behave and what treatments will restore him to normal health” (Gold, 1993).

Shortly after the Bedworth case was concluded, psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg, in an attempt to force the psychiatric community to re-think the usefulness of creating and labelling new ‘disorders’, made up a set of diagnostic criteria for Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) He modelled the set after the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) criteria for substance use (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) Goldberg also started an online support group called the Internet Addiction Support Group (IASG) for individuals who were suffering from this new affliction. Instead of realising that Goldberg’s criteria was a ruse, popular press journalists seized this idea of a new disorder, and reports of the extent of problems the Internet was causing some individuals soon began to emerge. The first significant publication of IAD was on March 1995 in the New York Times entitled “The Lure and Addiction of Life On Line” (O’Neill, 1995) While it did not cite any scientific research or use the IAD label, the article claimed that a growing number of individuals were starting to spend so much time on the Internet that it had begun to interfere with some aspects of their lives.

A steady stream of similar articles began to appear, and these articles sparked off the interests of many academics and mental health professionals, one of whom was Kimberley Young. Due to her work, and assisted by the media, the label of IAD had spread throughout online community. For example, Hamilton and Kalb (1995) focused an article in Newsweek on Young’s work and her estimate that 2% to 3% of online users were addicted to the Internet. Although they pointed out that Goldberg’s IASG was intended as a joke, they cited many more sites dedicated to Internet addicts such as ‘Webaholics’ and ‘Interneters Anonymous’. They also quoted various respondents who were self-labelled as addicts. What they did not realise was that many of the WWW pages they cited as proof of IAD were nothing more than parodies, created by online users to mock the idea.

Some academics had alleged that excessive Internet use can be pathological and addictive and that it comes under the more generic label of “technological addiction” (e.g. Griffiths, 1996a; 1998) Technological addictions are operationally defined as non-chemical (behavioural) addictions that involve human-machine interaction. They can either be passive (e.g., television) or active (e.g., computer games), and usually contain inducing and reinforcing features which may contribute to the promotion of addictive tendencies (Griffiths, 1995) Technological addictions can be viewed as a subset of behavioural addictions (Marks, 1990) and feature core components of addiction (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict and relapse (see Griffiths, 2005)

  • Salince – where the specific activity becomes the most important thing in a person’s life; dominating their thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
  • Mood Modification – where the person reports the subjective feeling as a result of that particular activity (e.g., they experience a ‘buzz’ or a ‘high’)
  • Tolerance – where an increasing amount of the activity becomes essential to arouse the same level of effect it had previously.
  • Withdrawal symptoms – where unpleasant feelings are observed in the absence or cutting back of the activity (e.g., moodiness, irritability, etc.)
  • Conflict – which refers to the conflict between the addict and the people around him/her, as well as within him/herself.
  • Relapse and reinstatement – where the behaviour would be repeated even after long abstinence.

In terms of excessive Internet usage, some studies have shown that individuals have displayed similar symptoms to those described above (Young, 1996; Griffiths, 2000a) Young (1998) stated that in behaviour-oriented addiction, individuals are addicted to what they do and the feelings they experience while engaging in it. A part of the problem in defining addiction is the fact that the cut-off point to separate normal from addictive habit is arbitrary. Therefore, the problems it caused in life become the ‘measuring-tape’. In other words, the extent of damage to an individual’s life reflects the level of the individual’s involvement in an activity.

In terms of Internet usage, Young (1998) reported some serious incidents wherein the users’ activities online disrupt their real life severely, to the extent that they abandon their real life in favour of online lives. For instance, there was a report of a father who forgot to pick up his daughter because he was too busy participating on an online forum; an employee who was fired because of her excessive Internet usage from the office computer; a recovering alcoholic who was using the Internet so much, he found himself lying to his wife; and a college student whose grades suffered immensely because of her involvement with her new online friends. It should also be noted that most of the research carried out in this area has concentrated on adult rather than adolescent samples (Griffiths, 2008) although there are research papers that feature both adult and adolescent accounts of Internet addiction (Griffiths, 2000)

Young and Rodgers (1996) further reported that addictive Internet use could be associated with decline of academic and work performance, marital discord as well as a decrease of social activities. Psychologists are now becoming more circumspect of the extent of the problem that might be caused by this excess usage of the Internet. There are numerous help outlets available for people who feel they are addicted to the Internet, or friends and families of the addict. Somewhat ironically, most of these are available online (Centre for Online Addiction, Cyberwidow, Computer Addiction Services at McLean Hospital, etc.) In addition, a preliminary draft of the DSM-V includes a section defining some forms of “Cyber Disorders” (Zenhausen, 1995), signifying the growing awareness and recognition of the problem. Having overviewed the history of the origins of Internet addiction, the next section examines whether Internet addiction really exists. And if it does exist, are adolescents more susceptible?

Adolescents and Internet Addiction

Yellowlees and Marks (2007) point out that there is growing evidence to suggest that some individuals’ problematic Internet use is only related to certain online activities. Similarly, Griffiths (1999) had argued that most of the individuals who use the Internet excessively are not addicted to the Internet itself, but use it as a medium to fuel other addictions (i.e., addictions on the Internet rather than to the Internet) He gave the example of a gambling addict who chose to engage in online gambling, as well as a gaming addict who plays online, stressing that the Internet is just the place where they conduct their chosen behaviour. In contrast, he also acknowledged that there are some case studies that appear to report an addiction to the Internet itself (Young, 1996b; Griffiths, 2000b) Most of these individuals use functions of the Internet that are not available in any other medium, such as chat rooms or various role playing games. However, it can be argued that even in these cases, it may be misleading to call it ‘Internet Addiction’. It would perhaps be more informative to investigate if there were certain types of function that users are using more excessively than others.

It could be argued that compared to adults, adolescents live their lives under a different set of parameters, limits and possibilities and that such individuals deserve special consideration. A number of writings have highlighted the danger that IAD may pose to adolescents and young adults (e.g., students) as a population group (Griffiths, 2008) This population is deemed to be at risk given the accessibility of the Internet and the flexibility of their schedules (Moore, 1995; Neimz, Griffiths & Banyard, 2005) Such logic is also applicable to adolescents. Scherer (1997) studied 531 students at the University of Texas at Austin, and 381 students who used the Internet at least once per week were further investigated. Based on the criteria that paralleled chemical dependencies, 49 of these students (13%) were classified as “Internet dependent”. Within the ‘Dependents’ group, 71% were men and 29% were women. ‘Dependent’ users averaged 11 hours per week online as opposed to the average of eight hours per week for ‘Non-Dependents’. Furthermore, ‘Dependents’ were three times more likely to use interactive synchronous applications. Again, the weakness of this study appears to stem from the imbalance between male and female participants. Furthermore, ‘Dependents’ averaged 11 hours per week online, which worked out to be slightly more than an hour a day. This amount of time could hardly be called excessive, despite the significant difference with ‘Non-Dependents’ (Griffiths, 1998)

Morahan-Martin and Schumacher (1997) conducted a similar online study. Pathological Internet Use (PIU) was measured by a 13-item questionnaire assessing problems due to Internet use (e.g., academic, work, and relationship problems, tolerance symptoms, and mood-altering use of the Internet) Those who answered ‘yes’ to four or more of the 13-item questionnaire were defined as pathological Internet users, while those who answered ‘yes’ to between one and three items were considered as users with limited problems. Two hundred and seventy seven undergraduate Internet users were recruited and 27.2% reported no symptoms, 64.7% were in the limited problems category, and 8.1% were classed as pathological users category. Pathological Internet users were more likely to be male and to use technologically sophisticated sites. However, no gender differences were found in IRC use. On average, they spent 8.5 hours per week online. It was also found that ‘pathological users’ scored higher on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, and they used the Internet to meet new people, for emotional support, play interactive games, and they were more socially disinhibited online. As with Scherer’s study, the average of 8.5 hours per week online seemed slightly low compared to other findings, although the authors argued that it was indicative of problems surfacing in relatively short periods of being online. Moreover, the items used to measure dependency in this study were similar to items used in Brenner’s (1997) study of Internet addiction that were criticized by Griffiths (1998) as not really measuring addiction.

Anderson (1999) reported a slightly lower percentage (9.8%) of dependent student users, most of which were those majoring in hard sciences. The DSM-IV substance-dependence criteria were used to classify participants into ‘Dependents’ and ‘Non-Dependents’. Those endorsing more than three of the seven criteria were classified as being ‘Dependent’. Of the 106 Dependents, 93 were males, and they averaged 229 minutes per day compared to Non-Dependents who averaged 73 minutes per day. Anderson collected data from a mixture of colleges in the US and Europe, which yielded 1302 responses (649 males, 647 females, 6 without gender information) using pen-and-paper questionnaires. On average, his participants used the Internet 100 minutes per day, and roughly 6% of the participants were considered as high-users (above 400 minutes per day) The participants in the high-users category reported more negative consequences compared to the low-users participants.

The concern for this particular population was further brought into public attention in May 2000 when William Woods University announced a program whereby undergraduates could earn up to $5000 against tuition fees if they scored enough points by attending various cultural events on campus. It was reported that the aim of the program was to reduce students’ Internet use, although the formal description did not emphasise this (Kubey, Lavin, & Barrows, 2001) They then conducted their own study in which a paper and pencil survey was administered to 576 students in Rutgers University. Their survey included 43-multiple-choice items on Internet usage, study habits, academic performance, and personality. Internet dependency was measured with a five-point Likert-scale item, asking participants how much they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “I think I might have become a little psychologically dependent on the Internet.” To test the validity of the measure, they checked if the participant’s self-report reflected other behavioural characteristic consistent with dependency and heavier usage (e.g. guilt, lack of control, using the Internet less if they had more friends, academic impairments, etc.) Participants were categorised as Internet dependent if they chose ‘Agree’ or ‘Strongly Agree’ to the statement.

Of the 572 valid responses, 381 (66%) were females and the age ranged between 18 and 45 years old with a mean age of 20.25 years. Fifty-three participants (9.3%) were classified as Internet dependent, and males were more prevalent in this group. Age was not found to be a factor, but first year students (mean age not reported) were found to make up 37.7% of the dependent group. Dependents were four times more likely than non-dependents to report academic impairment due to their Internet use, and they were significantly ‘more lonely’ than other students. In terms of their Internet usage, dependents that were also academically impaired were found to be nine times as likely to use synchronous functions of the Internet (MUDs and IRC/chat programs) The authors proposed that these types of application are important outlets for lonely people (especially students who just moved away to college) as they can keep in touch with family and friend, and find someone to chat to at anytime and no other medium can offer such an opportunity. More recently, Nalwa and Anand (2003) found that students who were dependent on the Internet had higher scores on the loneliness scale, and their online use had affected their performance and work in school.

Niemz, Griffiths and Banyard (2005) surveyed 371 British students. In a questionnaire which included the pathological Internet use (PIU) scale -(Morahan-Martin & Schumacher, 2000), the Gen eral Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12), a self-esteem scale, and two measures of disinhibition, results showed that 18.3% of the sample were considered to be pathological Internet users, whose excessive use of the Internet was causing academic, social and interpersonal problems. Other results showed that pathological Internet users had lower self-esteem and were more socially disinhibited. However, there was no significant difference in GHQ scores. However, there are methodological concerns as the study used the PIU Scale and relied on a self-selected sample.

Other studies such as those by Kennedy-Souza (1998), Chou (2001), Tsai and Lin (2003), ChinChung and Sunny (2003), Nalwa and Anand (2003) Kaltiala-Heino, Lintonen and Rimpela (2004), and Wan and Chiou (2006) that surveyed very small numbers of students and adolescents are simply too small and/or methodologically limited to make any real conclusions. From the studies so far discussed (in this section and the preceding one on comparison studies), it is clear that most of these “prevalence type” studies share common weaknesses. Most use convenient, self-selected participants who volunteer to respond to the survey. It is therefore difficult to plan any kind of comparable groups. Most studies did not use any type of validated addiction criteria (such as withdrawal symptoms, salience, tolerance, relapse etc.), and those that did assumed that excessive Internet use was akin to other behavioural addictions like gambling and/or used very low cut-off scores which would increase the percentage of those defined as addicted. As Griffiths (2000a) observed, the instruments used have no measure of severity, no temporal dimension, they have a tendency to over-estimate the incidence of the problems, and they do not consider the context of Internet use, (i.e., it is possible for some people to be engaged in very excessive use because it is part of their job or they are in an online relationship with someone geographically distant)

Griffiths (2000a; 2000b) noted the importance of case studies in the study of Internet addiction. Griffiths’ own research on Internet addiction has attempted to address three main questions: (1) What is addiction? (2) Does Internet addiction exist? (3) If Internet addiction does exist, what are people addicted to? He adopted an operational definition of addictive behaviour as any behaviour (including Internet use) that included six core components of addiction, namely salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict and relapse. Using these criteria, Griffiths asserts that Internet addiction exists in only a very small percentage of users, and most of the individuals who use the Internet excessively just use the Internet as a medium through which they can engage in a chosen behaviour.

Griffiths also claims that Young’s (1999) classifications of Internet addiction are not really types of Internet addiction as the majority of the behaviours involve use of the medium of the Internet to fuel other non-Internet addictions. In conclusion, Griffiths stated that most studies to date have failed to show that Internet addiction exists outside a small minority of users. He therefore suggested that case studies might help in indicating whether or not Internet addiction exists, even if these are unrepresentative.

Griffiths (2000b) outlined five case studies of excessive users that were gathered over the space of six months. The first case was that of ‘Gary’, a 15-year old British student. He was an only child who spent up to six hours online on weekends. His mother reported that his academic performance had been affected by his Internet use. He suffered from neurofibromatosis, a condition that could result in varying degrees of behavioural problems, and he always had problems socially. He had difficulties making friends and he suffered from teasing and bullying, and inferiority complex, which in turn caused him to get depressed. His parents stated that he viewed his computer as a ‘friend’, which led him to spend a lot of time using it at the cost of spending less time with family and friends. Griffiths commented that this case would fit into the stereotype of a computer ‘addict’; a teenage male with little social life and low self-esteem, who used the computer as an escape from his problems and depression.

The second case was that of ‘Jamie’, a 16-year old British college student. He had few familial and physical problems, although he was very overweight. He reported spending about 70 hours per week on his computer, including 40 hours per week online. He described himself as ‘sci-fi mad’, participated on a Star Trek forum, which resulted in expensive phone bills. He reported to using the Internet, which he claimed was the most important thing in his life, to change his moods. He appeared to be displaying the core components of addiction in that he experienced loss of control when using the Internet, he thought about the Internet when he was offline, he had irregular sleeping patterns, and he displayed withdrawal symptoms such as irritability and shaking. He did not consider himself as an addict, and he had no desire to make friends offline. Griffiths noted that Jamie seemed to use the Internet mainly for social reasons, and it could be because of his obesity that he preferred online to face-to-face interactions.

The third case study was of ‘Panos’, a 20-year old Greek male university student. He was used to playing computer games since he was a child, and he claimed that he had been ‘addicted’ to the games he used to play, neglecting anything else. He believed that the feelings he had as a young child could then be recreated by playing online games. He stated that being online helped him adjust to university life. He spent up to 50 hours per week online, and his academic work had suffered as a consequence of his Internet use. Griffiths noted that Panos only seemed to display some of the core components of addiction, and in contrast to Gary and Jamie, did not deny that he had a problem with his computer use. His use could be viewed as a way to cope with living in a foreign country, and unsurprisingly, he used the Internet mostly for game playing given that he had been ‘addicted’ to game playing when he was a child.

The fourth case was that of ‘Jodie’, a 35-year old unemployed Canadian female who used the Internet for a minimum of 40 hours per week solely for Internet Relay Chat. She described herself as ‘disabled, overweight and not at all attractive’. She viewed her Internet use as a way of life instead of an addiction, as all her relationships were based online. She was married to someone she met online, but lived in separate places although she did not see this as a problem as they chatted online for up to 4 hours each night. She claimed that she became moody and depressed if she did not go online, as she felt lonely without the IRC. Griffiths observed that she used the Internet purely for socializing and she did not view her excessive use as being a problem as it was justified by her situation.

The final case study was that of ‘Dave’, a 32-year old British male, who had a happy married life before he discovered the Internet. He changed when he had to stay home because of a change of job, and he became depressed and reserved. His wife claimed that he had changed his sleeping patterns in order to use the Internet within two months of staying home, becoming angry and anxious when he was not online. Within three months of being at home, Dave left his wife to go to America to be with a woman he met on the IRC, whom he had been calling up to six times a day. He had proposed marriage to the woman before even seeing her, and his wife stated that the Internet was the cause of their marriage break-up. Although he came back for a short time, admitting that he had begun to realise the damage of losing his family and job, he had gone back to the US. His wife claimed that he was not using the Internet anymore. Griffiths remarked that although Dave seemed to display some of the addiction components, his Internet use was symptomatic, motivated by his need to chat with his new partner. His use seemed to diminish once he was together with the woman he had been having an online affair with.

Griffiths concluded that out of the five case studies discussed, only two were ‘addicted’ according to the components criteria. In short, these two case studies (‘Gary’ and ‘Jamie’ – both adolescent males) demonstrated that the Internet was the most important thing in their lives, that they neglected everything else in their lives to engage in the behaviour and that it compromised most areas of their lives. They also built up tolerance over time, suffered withdrawal symptoms if they were unable to engage in using the Internet, and showed signs of relapse after giving up the behaviour for short periods.

In the other cases of very excessive Internet use, Griffiths claimed that the participants had used the Internet as a way to cope with, and counteract other inadequacies (e.g., lack of social support in real life, low self-esteem, physical disability, etc.) Griffiths also observed that it was interesting to note that all of the participants seemed to be using the Internet mainly for social contact and he postulated that it was because the Internet could be an alternative, text-based reality where users are able to immerse themselves by taking on another social persona and identity to make them feel better about themselves, which in itself would be highly rewarding psychologically (Griffiths, 2000b) In the next section, we focus more specifically on the attraction of the Internet to people including adolescents as a sub-group.

The Attraction of the Online World to Adolescents

One of the main attractions of the Internet irrespective of age is the ability to form relationships with other online users. Prolonged contact and communication with each other can form the basis of social support. For example, regular visits to a certain group (e.g., a specific chat room, playing a particular MUD, or posting to the same Forum), will raise familiarity and closeness amongst other group members, and thus a sense of community is established. Like other communities, online culture also has its own set of ethics, values, norms, language and signs, which all group members adapt to over time. Kiesler, Siegal, and McGuire (1984) pointed out that this creates the opportunity to disregard normal conventions in interaction through the removal of time and space, work and play, and boundaries of privacy.

Intimacy develops more quickly among online users. In cyberspace, social conventions and rules of politeness are gone, allowing a person (such as an adolescent) to reveal and ask about personal details on an initial virtual meeting. The immediacy and openness in sharing personal details about one’s life fosters intimacy. As a user becomes more involved in a specific group online, they are able to take more risks of voicing controversial opinions that they might not be able to make in real life. For adolescents and adults alike, the Internet provides anonymity, which removes the threat of confrontation, rejection and other consequences of the behaviour. The formation of such close bonds in such a short time may attract those with low self-esteem and low social skills to turn to the Internet for new relationships. Such rewarding online behaviour may be particularly attractive for adolescents. Indeed, a study by Joinson (2004) showed that low self-esteem users showed a significant preference toward e-mail communication compared to high self-esteem users. This pattern was reversed for face-to-face preferences.

Results from another (non-adolescent) study has suggested that self-esteem could account for both positive and negative differences between online and offline attitudes (Widyanto, Griffiths, Brunsden & McMurran, 2008) In other words, it would seem that the lower the individual’s self-esteem, the bigger discrepancy there would be between their online and offline attitudes. This difference between the online and offline attitudes has raised the question of whether or not an inconsistency also exists between participants’ self-esteem when they are online and offline. It is possible that this discrepancy exists, especially in those participants with higher scores on the Internet problems questionnaire. If being online enhances their confidence, they are more likely to spend more time online, which could in turn cause them problems in terms of their Internet use.

Research has shown that changes in self-esteem are associated with significant changes in an individual’s social environment, such as moving to a new city, changing jobs, and (for adolescents) going to university (Harter, 1993; Ruble 1994) McKenna and Bargh (2000) noted that when individuals join an online group (e.g., chat rooms, MUD Games, forums, etc.), they are obtaining a group of new acquaintances who do not have any connection with their offline group. Thus, initiating online interactions would give them an opportunity to alter some elements of self that they present, and this would result in increased feelings of self-worth (McKenna & Bargh, 1998).

It was reported that the ability to (re)create one’s persona online could be one major reason that the Internet is so attractive. This may also be particularly attractive for adolescents. As Suler (2002) stated, “one of the interesting things about the Internet is the opportunity it offers people to present themselves in a variety of different ways. You can alter your style of being just slightly or indulge in wild experiments with your identity by changing your age, history, personality, physical appearance, even your gender” (p. 455) The Internet provides individuals with anonymity, the freedom to be whoever they want to be. Users are in control of how much personal information they choose to reveal or conceal. In some cases, this might lead to dininhibition, whereby individuals feel more confident as they are protected by their anonymity that they become more honest and open about their opinions and feelings. The Internet can facilitate new relationship formations, which gives individuals a chance to express aspects of themselves they are not normally able to express in their offline relationships. Therefore, it can be expected that interactions via the Internet would encourage individuals to take on more aspects of their true self (McKenna & Bargh, 2000) In the next section, we examine more closely how excessive Internet use occurs.

Why Does Excessive Internet Use Occur?

Most of the research that has been discussed appears to lack theoretical basis as surprisingly few researchers have attempted to propose a theory of the cause of Internet addiction despite the number of studies conducted on the field. Furthermore, most of the research (to date) does not distinguish between adults and adolescents, nor does it examine any developmental pathology. Davis (2001) proposed a model of the etiology of pathological Internet use (PIU) using the cognitive-behavioural approach. The main assumption of the model was that PIU resulted from problematic cognitions coupled with behaviours that intensify or maintain maladaptive response. It emphasized the individual’s thoughts/cognitions as the main source of abnormal behaviour. Davis stipulated that the cognitive symptoms of PIU might often precede and cause the emotional and behavioural symptoms rather than vice versa. Similar to the basic assumptions of cognitive theories of depression, it focused on maladaptive cognitions associated with PIU.

Davis described Abramson, Metalsky, and Alloy’s (1989) concepts of necessary, sufficient, and contributory causes. A necessary cause is an etiological factor that must be present or must have occurred in order for symptoms to appear. A sufficient cause is an etiological factor whose presence/occurrence guarantees the occurrence of symptoms, and a contributory cause is an etiological factor that increases the likelihood of the occurrence of symptoms, but that is neither necessary nor sufficient. Abramson also distinguished between proximal and distal causes. In an etiology chain that results in a set of symptoms, some causes lie toward the end of the chain (proximal), while others in the beginning (distal) In the case of PIU, Davis claimed that distal cause was underlying psychopathology (e.g., depression, social anxiety, other dependence, etc.), while the proximal cause was maladaptive cognitions (i.e., negative evaluation of oneself and the world in general) The main goal of the paper was to introduce maladaptive cognitions as proximal sufficient cause of the set of symptoms for PIU.

Distal contributory causes of PIU were discussed. It was explained in a diathesis-stress frame work, whereby an abnormal behaviour was caused by a predisposition/vulnerability (diathesis) and a life event (stress) In the cognitive-behavioural model of PIU, existing underlying psychopathology was viewed as the diathesis, as many studies had shown the relationship between psychological disorders such as depression, social anxiety and substance dependence (Kraut et al, 1998) The model suggested that psychopathology was a distal necessary cause of PIU, i.e. psychopathology must be present, or must have occurred in order for PIU symptoms to occur. However, in itself, the underlying psychopathology would not result in PIU symptoms, but was a necessary element in its etiology.

The model assumed that although a basic psychopathology might predispose an individual to PIU, the set of associated symptoms was specific to PIU and therefore should be investigated and treated independently. The stressor in this model was the introduction of the Internet, or the discovery of a specific function of the Internet. Although it might be difficult to trace back an individual’s encounter with the Internet, a more testable event would be the experience of a function found online, e.g., the first time the person used an online auction, found pornographic material online, etc.

Exposure to such functions was viewed as a distal necessary cause of PIU symptoms. In itself, this encounter did not result in the occurrence of symptoms of PIU. However, as a contributory factor, the event could be a catalyst for the developmental process of PIU. A key factor here was the reinforcement received from an event (i.e., operant conditioning, whereby positive response reinforced continuity of activity). The model proposed that stimuli such as the sound of a modem connecting or the sensation of typing could result in a conditioned response. Thus, these types of secondary reinforcers could act as situational cues that contribute to the development of PIU and the maintenance of symptoms.

Central to the cognitive-behavioural model was the presence of maladaptive cognitions that were viewed to be proximal sufficient cause of PIU. Maladaptive cognitions were broken down into two subtypes; perceptions about one’s self, and about the world. Thoughts about self are guided by ruminative cognitive style. Individuals who tend to ruminate would experience a higher degree in severity and duration of PIU, as studies have supported that rumination is likely to intensify or maintain problems, partly by interfering with instrumental behaviour (i.e., taking action) and problem solving. Other cognitive distortions include self-doubt, low self-efficacy and negative self-appraisal. These cognitions dictate the way in which individuals behave, and some cognitions would cause specific or generalized PIU. Specific PIU referred to the over-use and abuse of a specific Internet function. It was assumed to be the result of a pre-existing psychopathology that became associated with an online activity (e.g., compulsive gamblers might realize that they could gamble online and ultimately showed symptoms of specific PIU as the association between need and immediate reinforcement became stronger) However, it should be noted that not every compulsive gambler showed symptoms of PIU.

On the other hand, generalized PIU involved spending excessive amounts of time online with no direct purpose, or just wasting time. The social context of the individual, especially the lack of social support they received and/or social isolation, was one key factor that played a role in the causality of general PIU. Individuals with general PIU were viewed as being more problematic, as their behaviour would not even exist in the absence of the Internet.

Based on Davis’ model, Caplan (2003) further proposed that problematic psychosocial predispositions causes excessive and compulsive Computer-Mediated (CM) social interaction in individuals, which in turn increases their problems. The theory proposed by Caplan, examined empirically, had three main propositions:

  • Individuals with psychosocial problems (e.g., depression and loneliness) hold more negative perceptions of their social competence compared to others.
  • They prefer CM interactions rather than face-to-face ones as the former is perceived to be less threatening and they perceive themselves to be more efficient in an online setting.
  • This preference in turn leads to excessive and compulsive use of CM interactions that then worsens their problems and creates new ones at school, work and home.

In Caplan’s (2003) study, the participants consisted of 386 undergraduates (279 females and 116 males), with the age ranging from 18 to 57 years old (mean age=20 years) This study used Caplan’s (2002) Generalized Problematic Internet Use Scale (GPIUS), a self-report assessing the prevalence of cognitive and behavioural symptoms of pathological Internet use along with the degree to which negative consequences affected the individual. The GPIUS had seven subscales – mood alteration, perceived social benefits, perceived social control, withdrawal, compulsivity, excessive Internet use, and negative outcomes. Also included in this study were validated depression and loneliness scales.

It was found that depression and loneliness were significant predictors of preference for online social interaction, accounting for 19% of the variance. In turn, participants’ preference for online social interaction was found to be a significant predictor of their scores on pathological Internet use and negative outcomes. The data also suggested that excessive use was one of the weakest predictors of negative outcomes whereas preference for online interaction, compulsive use, and withdrawal were among the strongest. Overall, loneliness and depression were not found to have large, independent effects on negative outcomes. The result of this study appeared to support the proposition that preference for online socialization was a key contributor to the development of problematic Internet use.

Caplan noted two unexpected results in the data. Firstly, loneliness played a more significant role in the development of problematic Internet use compared to depression. He attempted to explain this finding by stating that loneliness was theoretically the more salient predictor, as negative perception of social competence and communication skills is more pronounced in lonely individuals. On the other hand, a wide variety of circumstances that might not be related to a person’s social life could result in depression (e.g., traumatic experiences) Secondly, using the Internet to alter mood was found to be lacking in influence on negative outcomes. For instance, it was proposed by Caplan was that there are various different circumstance in which individuals use the Internet to alter their mood, and different usages of the Internet would case different mood alterations. For example, online game playing would be exciting and fun, while reading the news could be relaxing. Therefore, in itself, using the Internet to alter mood might not necessarily lead to the negative consequences associated with preference for online social interaction, excessive and compulsive use, and experiencing psychological withdrawal.

The limitations to this study included the need for future empirical evidence pertaining to the causality of specific CM communication characteristics that could lead to the preference for online social interaction. Also, the data were collected from a primarily sample that did not display very high degrees of problematic Internet use (median for preference was 1.28 on a scale ranging from 1 to 5 (i.e, most participants did not prefer online over face-to-face social interactions) Finally, the study did not take into account the role that an individual’s actual social skill and communication preference played in the development of problematic Internet use, despite the theory’s emphasis on perceived social competence. In the next section, we take a more qualitative approach and look at what those who use the Internet say in their own words.

Internet Users in Their Own Words

Widyanto (2007) attempted to explore if individuals feel differently when they are online and when they are offline. Adult participants were asked to complete a short questionnaire, and the short answers that the participants gave in response to the two open-ended questions were analysed one by one, and some common themes were identified. The first question was, “Please describe the person you are when you are online”, and the second was “Bearing in mind your previous answer, do you feel any differently when you are offline? If so, can you please describe the difference(s)?” It should be noted that not all the participants gave answers that could be analysed. For example, many participants just stated “I feel exactly the same” or “Normal, like when offline” to the first question, and “Same” or “No different” to the second. However, others – mostly adolescents and young adults – gave more descriptive and informative answers to the questions. From these longer answers, some themes emerged repeatedly. Some of the most common themes (i.e., disinhibition, anonymity, isolation, control, escape from reality, information access) are presented below:

Disinhibition: One of the most common themes that had emerged through the analysis of how differently participants feel online and offline related to their increased confidence online, due to the disinhibition effect. This effect is often associated with increased confidence, honesty, and openness when online. Below are some examples of the participants’ responses.

“[When I’m online, I feel like] someone worth talking to, with some interesting to say given the right topic. In chat rooms with lots of people (10 or more), I am quite happy to interrupt a conversation with my own thoughts on the subject in question. [When offline], I feel more reluctant to start a conversation about something I want to talk about, and find it more difficult to contribute to conversations in large groups” Female, 20-years old).

“I am more sociable online! I have no inhibitions, so I feel more confident, maybe more blunt/honest. I don’t have to see this person’s face if I upset them. When I am offline, I am more introverted; I will keep more thoughts to myself. Partly because I don’t want to offend others/be rude, but mostly because I don’t enjoy conversing as much in person” (Male, 20-years old).

“When I am online I become a more confident person, I pluck up the confidence to confront situations that I would not normally face. Some of the issues I confront people with I would not be able to do face-to-face”.(Female, 19-years old).

“[When online I am] not myself at all…I am far more confident and as a result my personality changes. When I’m offline I’m not as confident, you can talk to the opposite sex with more ease on the net as you are not face-to-face” (Female, 19-years old).

“When I am online, usually participating on a message board, I express my opinion openly and feel as if my thoughts should be shared with others online. When I am offline, I may be more hesitant to express my thoughts, depending on my surroundings and the topic at hand. When online, I am aware that my peer group is of the same interest that I am” (Female, 21-years old).

“Usually, I feel better[online] because I use forums or chat to people who can relate to situations taking place in my life. I feel that I am socially inept, but on the Internet, I have absolutely no problem speaking with others. I have more time to consider my words, and I have anonymity so I don’t have to limit my thoughts. I know that I have thought-provoking ideas, and on the Internet I can express them. Through the Internet, I am able to be someone I want to be. I feel more confident than in person and I feel good that others are able to respect my opinions. I know that I do well in almost anything I do, but I often feel that my accomplishments aren’t good enough. I also feel unable to communicate with other and I become anxious when I think about what other people think about me. When I am offline, I keep myself and my ideas more reserved. Because of this, I feel incapable of carrying on a good conversation/debate, and I feel less respected and/or understood” (Female, 17-years old).

Anonymity: This relates to the fact that some participants feel like they can be anyone online due to the absence of physical presence and any other kind of identity, which is inevitable in face to face interactions

“Being online is freeing, you can be anything or anybody you want. Nobody can see or judge you. On the net, I can be the person I always wanted to be. [Offline I feel] very different. People judge you on a physical level, and I find that difficult to live with at times” (Female, 29-years old).

“[Online] I feel I can be who I want to be. I’m an admin in a large and popular website, so I get, I guess what you would call, a feeling of power. [Offline] I feel limited to being other people’s perception of who I am. I don’t really feel as important offline as I am online” (Female, 19-years old).

Within this theme, some participants mentioned how the anonymity may lead to a feeling of equality. Those with physical disabilities in real life, for example, thought that the Internet provided a place where they were the same as everyone else.

“When I am online I feel as though I am fine” and any problem I have I let drift away while I work on other things like homework assignments, researching graduate schools and programs, etc. [I] only[feel]a little [different offline]in that I have a knee injury that prevents me from doing some things that most people take for granted, and when I am online I don’t have to worry about all the things I can’t do because I’m focused on whatever I am doing online“(Female, 20=years old).

“[When online I feel] much the same as I am when offline just a little more sure of myself as using a PC puts me on a level with fully-sighted people“(Male, 19-years old).

“[When online I feel like] someone who has no mobility problems! [Offline, my] physical limitations[are] overly apparent to the eye” (Female, 34-years old).

Others also mentioned this feeling of equality due to the lack of physical presence online.

“[Online] I feel like there are no prejudgements made about appearance/accent etc., so everyone is treated exactly the same. [Offline] sometimes I feel self-conscious about what other people think of me as a first impression before they get to know me“(Female, 20-years old).

“[Online I feel] literate, in control, mature, respectful, and able to command respect. (That’s true for any written medium though, not just the Net) The only difference is that when I’m offline, people judge me by my appearance and consequently treat me with contempt or disdain. From what I gather, I must have the appearance of a slacker – because this is how people treat me – they are invariably surprised when they found out I can string more than two words together…For some people, the spoken word is not always the easiest means of communication…“(Male, 25-years old).

“[Online I am] confident, slightly arrogant, friendly. [Offline]I’m not very confident, shy and self-loathing, the way I look affects the way I act “which is obviously not an issue on the Interne.” (Male, 19-years old)

Isolation: Some participants stated that they sometimes feel isolated. However, this varies in terms of the situation. Some claimed that the Internet makes them feel isolated from the rest of the world.

“[Online I feel] isolated, [I] need to get out and do something physical, i.e. sport. [Offline] I feel better as[I’m] not staring at a computer screen“(Male, 22-years old).

“[Online I feel] unmotivated and lazy. Offline there’s much more activity to keep me active. On the net I become connected to the screen and (Male, “block out everything else around me 22-years old).

“[Online I feel] harassed, not enough time to sift through crap to pull out what I need from [the] net. [I also feel like a] bad parent as my daughter nags me when I’m browsing. [Offline]I don’t feel like a bad parent as [I]am able to deal with constant questioning by 7 year old when I’m not reading from the screen“(Female, 36-years old).

“[Online] I am like a zombie and am unable to concentrate on what people say to me due to concentrating on the computer“(Male, 18-years old).

On the other hand, others claimed the opposite – that they feel isolated in real life and turn to the Internet to feel more in touch.

“I’m still myself just as offline. The difference is when I’m offline, I feel isolated from the world (Male, 33-years old).

“When I am online, I feel that I am more connected with the outside world…When I am offline, I don’t feel as connected to the outside world, I don’t pay attention to what is going on around me, I am much more sheltered from the realities of the real world“(Female, 21-years old).

When online, I feel that I am ‘included’ especially when on a chat program as things are being discussed between friends and you tend to feel part of what is happening, you get to hear things first hand“(Female, 19-years old).

“When I’m not logged in to messenger and IRCI feel like I am out of contact with the world. It would be like taking a phone away from kids that have grown up with [it]“(Male, 20-years old).

Control: Another common theme that emerged from the analysis was related to control. Some participants stated that they felt more in control when they are online with regards to the information available to them

“It is good to know that I have the information of the WWW at my fingertips, so [I] feel in control of my learning. [Offline I feel] at a loose end as to start and find the info I need“(Female, 41-years old).

“[Online] I feel that I am in control of what I am doing. I sometimes prefer to use the Internet for long periods of time as the amount of information and data is valuable to me and my studies (Female, 21-years old).

“[Online] I feel a bit useless, as I’m not that good with computers, but I still feel in control of what I’m doing and confident I can manage certain tasks. [Offline]I feel less in control of the situation but I do feel more able to cope as I understand the world around me while I haven’t a clue about computers.”(Female, 18-years old).

Other participants had also mentioned the issue of control, but regarding to the information they could choose to divulge or reveal about themselves online. Some participants talked about how the Internet allows them to hide their more negative qualities.

“[Online] I’m pretty similar to when I’m not, but I can often hide any bad qualities. [Offline I feel] maybe less adequate“(Female, 18-years old).

“[Online] I am able to present my better qualities to others and omit the worse ones. I am also held in high regards as someone who can offer advice and assistance“(Male, 27-years old).

“[Online] I feel slightly more ideal, like my small faults can be glossed over“(Female, 24-years old)

Escape from reality: A few of the participants mentioned that the Internet allows them to escape from reality.

“[Online] I feel like I’m in a different world and it’s great ‘cos I can do what I want and everybody wants to talk to me. I hate it offline. It’s like a bad comedown from taking drugs or something. It’s like withdrawal symptoms. I use the Internet to get away from all the crap and stress that’s going on in my life“(Female, 24-years old).

“Online I can be anyone I want to be. No one will know unless I tell them! Offline I have to be me, because everyone around me knows me. So obviously there is a difference. Its very boring though being just me! Having an alter-ego…in a chat room can be very exciting“(Male, 19-years old).

“[Online] you can be anyone. I have been an 18 year-old blonde girl for a laugh on chat [rooms]. [Offline] people could see that I am a 38 year-old bloke“(Male, 38-years old).

“[Online I am] much more goal-getting. Much more ‘excitable’. I am an eccentric either way, but when I am in a chat room, I BECOME a God… My online personality doesn’t care about things as much as the real me does. In the past, I have strived to become my online personality…I was successful for a while, then in shambles, I became myself again and discovered a whole heck of a lot of difference in who I wanted to be and who I really am“(Female, 26-years old).

“I feel like [the Internet is] an escape from reality but it doesn’t last forever (Female, age undisclosed).

“[Online] I feel as though I am invincible. [Offline] I feel as though I am just an ordinary person with an ordinary life“(Female, 26-years old).

“[Online I feel] untouchable. Your identity is “known [offline] therefore [I]feel less untouchable (Male, 21-years old).

Information access: Several participants also talked about how the Internet provided them with easy access to information.

“[Online] I just feel normal. Perhaps a bit empowered by the information at my fingertips” (Female, 19-years old).

“[I] feel competent online and enjoy getting information quickly and gaining knowledge on “things I would not otherwise be able to find out” (Female, 22-years old).

“[Offline I feel] restricted to books – always aware of the nearest Internet access point as books are often a 2nd choice for information” (Male, 27-years old).

However, for some participants the wealth of information provided by the Internet could cause some frustration.

“[Online I feel] a bit overwhelmed with the information to be sifted through. Sometimes I feel so out of place and floating in unreality because it all seems just too much. The truth is that, because it is mostly research information which I truly need that I am looking at, I feel as if I am not doing well because I am being overwhelmed. I think that the people who used lots of books before our time were better off because books have boundaries and the net does not have any. The info highway gets too much most times“(Female, age undisclosed).

“When I’m online looking for information about assignments I can become frustrated with not being able to find the right information or I feel annoyed that the net can be difficult to search. I can quite happily live without the Internet or being online“(Female, 31-years old)

Having examined individual accounts, in the final section we examine issues surrounding online and offline identities and some of the psychological implications.

Online VS. Offline Identity

The Internet is fast becoming one of the most utilised methods of communication. It has also turned into a place where users such as adolescents can meet and talk with each other using functions such as forums, chat rooms, and online. As a result, online communities (and adolescent subcultures) have been established. The online community is evidently different from a real life one. Since the individuals involved exist only in cyberspace, their presence is only a representation of their real selves. This can be in the form of an avatar or a username. In essence, users do not have a physical presence in cyberspace. Because of this, the online community has its own culture and set of etiquette, called ‘netiquette’. According to Shea (1994), the one thing that users forget about when communicating with other people online is that there is a person behind the computer screen. She maintained that in an ironic way, despite its global reach, the Internet is an impersonal medium precisely because of this lack of physical presence.

One related topic that is also often discussed regarding online communities is what is termed the fluidity of the online self (Reid, 1998) This refers to the fact that being online permits users to explore different facets of their personalities (since they are not restricted by their physical selves) Being online allows users to mask almost every aspect of their identity such as gender, age, race, and class (McCrae, 1996; Stone, 1991) To a certain extent, online communities offer users the opportunity to escape from the constraints of society. Some participants in the study stated that one of the main draws of being online is the possibility to escape from reality. This theme was closely related to the anonymity of being online. For some participants, being online meant that they could be anyone they wished to be. In other words, they have control over the information they want other users to know about themselves. For some participants, this could bring about a feeling of equality, as they thought that they were perceived on the basis of their personalities instead of physical appearance.

This is especially true for those who have disabilities in real life. The Internet serves as a place where their disabilities made no difference to other’s perception of them. For others, the Internet provided them with a place where they could experiment with their identities (something that adolescents may engage in more than their adult counterparts) In some extreme cases, the identity exploration can go as far as changing gender and age online (Hussain & Griffiths, 2008) Some participants mentioned the fact that they could conceal their more negative qualities and enhance their more positive ones. McKenna and Bargh (2000) stated that in online interactions, users present idealised versions of themselves. In an earlier study, they compared participants who communicated face-to-face, to those who communicated online. It was found that those who interacted online were more able to present their ideal qualities. Therefore, it seems that people are seen the way they want to be seen online.

The lack of physical presence and anonymity could be some of the main causes of a phenomenon that seems to be unique to online communication, namely the disinhibition effect. Among users, this effect has been used to describe behaviour ranging from being impolite (Kiesler, Zubrow, Moses, & Geller, 1985) to the use of capitals, which is considered as the equivalent of shouting, and exclamation marks (Sproull & Kiesler, 1986) According to Zimbardo (1977), inhibition can be defined as behaviour that is constrained as it is governed by self-consciousness, awareness of social implications, and worries about public perception. By this definition, disinhibition can be described as the absence of, or the opposite of these factors. Disinhibition can be viewed as the result of reduced public-awareness, which would lead to decreased concern about others’ opinions (Prentice-Dunn & Rogers, 1982)

With reference to online behaviour, disinhibition can be summarised as behaviour that is comparatively less inhibited than behaviour in real life. Thus, online disinhibition is not defined as hostile or rude behaviour, but behaviour that is the result of less self-awareness and regard for the judgement of others. Internet users are more honest, open and expressive online. They can be more free to express their thoughts as they are protected by their anonymity.

Anonymity has been known to have positive effects, as illustrated by a study conducted by Ger gen, Gergen, and Barton (1973) They found that individuals who met and interacted in a darkened room where they could not see one another tend to disclose more details of their lives compared to those who met in a lighted room. Those who interacted in a darkened room also left with a better impression of the other person. Therefore, in terms of online research, this disinhibition effect might be advantageous, in that the participants would be more likely to give honest answers compared to other methods.

It is important to note that many of our online interactions are not anonymous. In many networking sites such as MySpace and Friendster, it is difficult, if not impossible, to remain anonymous. The purpose of sites like these is to expand one’s network of friends through existing ones. Therefore, relationships that started here, although they were started online, would mostly originate from offline friends. Similarly, anonymity is limited in email communications, as most of those we interact with through this method are people we know already. However, users still have a degree of control over their anonymity, especially in functions that remove them completely from any real life contacts. In other words, individuals can still remain anonymous in places such as chat rooms, forums, and online games.


This chapter has demonstrated that research into adolescent Internet addiction is a relatively little studied phenomenon although most effects found among adult users are thought to occur among adolescents too. Clearly, more research is needed before the debate on whether Internet addictions are distinct clinical entities is decided. From the sparse research, it is evident that Internet use appears to be at least potentially addictive. There is also the question of developmental effects, i.e., does Internet addiction have the same effect regardless of age? It could well be the case that the Internet has a more pronounced addictive effect in young people but less of an effect once they have reached their adult years.

The labels “Internet Addiction”, “Internet Addiction Disorder”, “Pathological Internet Use”, “Problematic Internet Use”, “Excessive Internet Use” and “Compulsive Internet Use” have all been used to describe more or less the same concept, (i.e., that an individual could be so involved in their online use as to neglect other areas of their life) However, it would seem premature at this stage to use one label for the concept, as most of the studies conducted in the field so far have presented varying degrees of differences and conflicting results.

Most of the studies conducted in the field so far had presented varying degrees of differences in their results, and even some conflicting ones. Furthermore, it seems like the Internet has been used to refer to one general thing in all the above labels. In fact, the Internet consists of many different types of functions, each with different characteristics from the others. Certain functions on the Internet, such as archives and search engines, were designed to gather information. Other functions, such as email, chat rooms, and forums are use to communicate with other users. Even within these interactive functions, there was still a difference synchronous and asynchronous functions. Synchronous functions are those that allow users to communicate with each other on real time. An example is an online chat room, where one user could type a message, and the other(s) would be able to see this message straight away and reply. On the other hand, asynchronous functions are those that involve a delay in replies, such as emails. The Internet also enable users to do various things online such as shopping, gambling, playing games, blogging, banking, making travel arrangements, and many more.

Taking into account the diversity of the functions offered by the Internet, it seems highly unlikely that ‘Internet Addiction’ exists to any great extent. ‘Internet Addiction’ implies that an individual is addicted to the experience of being online, despite whatever function they are using. What seems to be more probable is for an individual’s addiction to be associated to a function that happens to be online. Making the distinction between viewing the Internet as one general application and breaking it down into the specific functions available on it might have important implications on future research. The Internet consist of so many diverse functions, with different uses and therefore, different types of user who has different reasons for using a particular function. As Morahan-Martin (2005) pointed out “rather than focus on a unified concept of Internet abuse, it may be more helpful to conceptualise and study disturbed patterns separately according to specific Internet activities” (p. 45).

As mentioned earlier in the chapter, there is clearly a need to distinguish between addictions to the Internet and addictions on the Internet. Gambling addicts who chooses to engage in online gambling, as well as a computer game addicts who play online are not Internet addicts – the Internet is just the place where they conduct their chosen (addictive) behaviour. These people display addictions on the Internet. However, there is also the observation that some behaviours engaged on the Internet (e.g., cybersex, cyberstalking, etc.) may be behaviours that the person would only carry out on the Internet because the medium is anonymous, non-face-to-face, and disinhibiting (Griffiths, 2000c, 2001).

In contrast, it is also acknowledged that there are some case studies that seem to report an addiction to the Internet itself (e.g., Young, 1996b; Griffiths, 2000b) Most of these individuals use functions of the Internet that are not available in any other medium, such as chat rooms or various role playing games. These are people addicted to the Internet. However, despite these differences,  there seem to be some common findings, most notably reports of the negative consequences of excessive Internet use (neglect of work and social life, relationship breakdowns, loss of control, etc.), which are comparable to those experienced with other, more established addictions. In conclusion it would appear that if Internet addiction does indeed exist, it affects only a relatively small percentage of the online population and there is very little evidence that it is problematic among adolescents. However, exactly what it is on the Internet that they are addicted to still remains unclear.