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Internet Dependence: Lost in Cyberspace

Do you know someone who spends time online so frequently that they are in danger of becoming lost in cyberspace? How much is too much? Is excessive computer use unhealthy? There are plenty of anecdotes of people who appear to be “addicted” to online games and the web.

The term “internet addiction disorder” was first coined as a tongue-in-cheek parody of symptoms proposed by Dr. Ivan Goldberg on the web in 1997.

Once discovered, his media-bite became front page news. The mental health community has continued to debate whether it actually exists as a disorder at all, and empirical research from truly representative samples, rather than on-line studies has been slow to follow.

Is it a disorder, like pathological gambling? If so, why not talk about a TV addiction disorder? Or a telephone addiction disorder? How about a technology addiction disorder?

Should we only examine excessive use or should we examine what the use is for? Others are arguing that there is no “internet addiction,” but want to specify that it is defined by the activity that is addicting on the internet, such as a “sex or pornography addiction” or a “Star Trek chat room addiction” (Holmes, 1997). Others are saying that being hooked on the internet is akin to a disorder of impulse control, similar to kleptomania or compulsive shopping (Shapira, 1998). So shall we call it “internetomania”?

Well, enough of the debate. Whatever you call it, I’m sure you do know a fellow roommate, friend, or acquaintance whose time spent online is excessive, if not close to pathological.

College students are particularly susceptible to bite the lure and get hooked for hours online, some from midnight until dawn (Kandell, 1998). Percentages of college students whose computer use is considered to be dependent run about 10-13% (Anderson, in press; Scherer, 1997).

Another study conducted with college students found that “pathological” use of computers was correlated with loneliness, personal problems, withdrawal symptoms, and mood altering use (Morahan-Martin & Schumaker, 1997). The pathological users averaged 8.5 hours of internet use per week, and students with limited symptoms averaged 3.2 hours per week, and those with no symptoms averaged 2.4 hours per week. Scherer (1997) lists some of the critical warning signs of internet dependency: declining grades, failing to fulfill major responsibilities, health problems such as sleep deprivation, and legal or financial problems.

There’s no doubt about it — the computer can become a trusted friend that allows instant gratification, stimulation, and reinforcement. Whether students are procrastinating to delay the anxiety of an assignment, filling a social void via the excitement of meeting strangers online (who quickly lose their inhibitions during numerous short exchanges), or immersing themselves into fantasy worlds through games or pornographic sites, they hardly ever self-identify that these activities have become excessive or a problem. If they do come for counseling, they tend to present with a vague cluster of problems such as missing classes, erratic sleep schedules, low-level depression, problems with interpersonal relationships, or other addictions. Psychologists at many universities report that it is only after counseling is well under way that the number of hours spent online is shamefully revealed.

It must be said that using computers as a tool in one’s life in a balanced manner can be a life-giving activity rather than a life-draining activity. Some students do report they have developed positive relationships with friends first met in cyberspace.

Perhaps most significantly, the computer can open up an instant library of information or a diversity of entertainment at 3:00 am. But if you’re trying to decide if your own internet use is problematic, you can take one of the self tests — available on-line, of course.

Better yet, you can ask yourself Holmes’ (1998) simple question: Is my computer use getting in the way of the rest of my life?

Note: The above article was updated in 2007 from the Observer article published in 1999. Go to: Observer’s archived article The intent of this article is not to provide counseling but to provide information about a variety of mental health topics. To seek help with your individual concerns, please contact the University Counseling Center at 574-631-7336 to schedule an appointment.

Sources and Resources:

  • Report on Notre Dame’s Ranking in the “America’s 100 Most Wired Colleges:”
  • Holmes, L. (1997). What is “normal” internet use?
  • Holmes, L. (1997). Pathological internet use – some examples.
  • Kandell, J. (1998). Internet addiction on campus: The vulnerability of college students. CyberPsychology and Behavior , 1 (1).
  • Morahan-Martin, J. and Schumaker, P. (1997). Incidents and correlates of pathological internet use. Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, August, 1997.
  • Murphey, B. (1996, June). Computer addictions entangle students. The APA Monitor, p. 26.
  • Scherer, K. (1997). College life on-line: Healthy and unhealthy internet use. Journal of College Student Development, 38, 655-665.
  • Young, K.S. (1998). Internet addiction: The emergence of a new clinical disorder. CyberPsychology and Behavior , 1 (3), 237-244.