Searching for Internet addiction at Ohio Wesleyan
By Jason Morrison
This article was written as part of a computer aided reporting project for Advanced Newswriting and Reporting at Ohio Wesleyan University. The final version was finished Aril 24, 2000. Click here to see a list of references.
Eleven million people are addicted to the Internet and about 59 of them may be students at Ohio Wesleyan.
That is, if Internet addiction even exists.
The first figure is from a study by David Greenfield, a West Hartford, Conn., psychologist and ABCNEWS.com. Out of the approximately 17,000 users to respond to the survey on ABCNEWS.com’s website, 6 percent qualified as addicted according to Greenfield’s specifications, adapted from pathological gambling criteria.
The second figure is from a similar survey of Ohio Wesleyan students. About 3 percent of the 94 responses qualified as addicted to the Internet.
But what exactly is Internet addiction?
Internet addiction is not found in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV (DSM-IV), the guidebook for the American Psychiatric Association, so it is not an official, scientifically accepted diagnosis. But Greenfield said he feels there is a problem.
"I’m very confident something is going on online that is impacting people, and I see that in my practice as well," Greenfield said.
Some OWU students, however, don’t buy it. As one student wrote anonymously on a survey form, "Internet messages are for communication with friends, parents, etc. It’s a good way to deal with problems—but it’s not an ‘escape.’"
Junior Cari McDonald, who did not qualify as addicted, said her roommates read an article in a magazine about Internet related depression and assumed McDonald had a problem.
"It’s a lot of bull," she said. "I’m on the computer for hours but I’m not addicted. I’ll chat for hours and hours but it’s with my boyfriend and my mom. I’m actually surprised I didn’t come out as addicted on the survey."
Jason LaMar, director of web services at OWU, said some students may be addicted to the Internet.
"Although I wouldn't necessarily equate it with alcoholism, the Internet has a very alluring aspect to it: while you're online, you're in absolute control of your experience," he said. "I can see people getting caught up in that sort of power and autonomy. It can easily get you in trouble."
ABCNEWS.com has posted readers’ Internet addiction stories and Greenfield has even written a book, "Virtual Addiction: Help For Netheads, Cyberfreaks, and Those Who Love Them." But Lynda Hall, associate professor of psychology at OWU, said Internet addiction is not a recognized disorder.
"For a condition to be recognized as a new disorder, it has to be atypical, disturbing, maladaptive, and unjustifiable," she said. "‘Internet addiction’ will not become a new disorder unless one: there is substantial evidence that the condition meets these criterion, and two: the condition cannot be adequately labeled by another disorder, [for example] a general impulse-control disorder.
"I believe Greenfield was attempting to gather data suggesting that Internet addiction does meet these criteria," she said. "Unless his results are verified by other studies employing better designs, I doubt they'll be accepted."
Richard Leavy, professor of psychology at OWU, agreed.
"There is very little that suggests any kind of impairment in living in the respondents," he said. "So the idea of a disorder—behavior leading to significant impairment, distress, or reduction in functioning—is not found here."
One possible design flaw is how subjects were able to access the survey, Greenfield acknowledged.
"Yes, there is a self-selection bias," he said. "Of course the people on that particular web site are not random. But you have to understand it’s the first of its size. We intend to replicate it soon and change a lot of that—change the title to Internet behavior, rather than addiction, for example. I don’t think when replicated it will change the numbers."
Ohio Wesleyan students were consistently less likely to report many of the behaviors Greenfield looked for. Only 5 percent of the students reported feelings of intimacy compared to 41 percent in Greenfield’s study and 24 percent of the students felt free to express themselves compared to Greenfield’s 43 percent. Students also were less than half as likely to report feeling no boundaries or loss of control.
Why did the Ohio Wesleyan student survey produce an addiction rate nearly half that of Greenfield’s? At first look, students may seem to be more likely to be addicted to the Internet.
According to the OWU survey and the results of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s tenth WWW user survey, OWU students use the net differently than Internet users as a whole. OWU students are more likely to use the Internet for communication (90 percent to 30 percent) and less likely to use it to work or make money (13 percent to 66 percent).
OWU students also have access to a high-speed Internet connection all over campus, and Greenfield speculated that "the relative speed and accessibility to the Internet is in part what makes it so habit forming."
Part of the difference may lie in the low number of responses to the OWU survey.
"The statistics [in the OWU survey] have a similar trend to what I had, just not as high," Greenfield said. "But the sample’s so small, and with that many questions you can’t make generalizations."
"I think the unequal sample size for the two surveys is a serious problem," she said. "The different number of respondents gives rise to a strong possibility that the two samples differ in systematic ways."
Still, LaMar said he thought some OWU students were likely to be addicted to the Internet.
"I'm sure there are students here and now who get way too involved in that sort of thing, or in daytrading, or in online gaming, or in any of the thousand other distractions this medium offers," he said. "It's easy to lose a sense of time and place when you're immersed in the Net."
McDonald, though, said she thinks real addiction is unlikely.
"I think you can get caught up in the whole chat thing," she said. "It’s anonymous and you can say whatever you want. But I used to spend hours every day in chat rooms and now I’ll go a week without checking my email. I just stopped because I didn’t have a lot of time for it. Everyone I chat with now are people I know."
Leavy said testing students for Internet addiction illustrated the problem with identifying it as a disorder.
"I like the idea that college students overwhelmingly report that they use the Internet to maintain contact with other people," he said. "If we are ‘addicted’ to social support, I am for it. However, I would wonder whether time spent on the Internet checking e-mail may reduce available time for studying and doing laundry and all the other necessities of life. This is no more an addiction than watching television or reading. The issue, I think, is one of procrastination, time management, and motivation to do college work."
Ohio Wesleyan students, in fact, were asked to respond to questions about ‘reading addiction,’ adapted from the Internet addiction questions. According to the results, 19 percent of the student body is addicted to reading—about 350 students. But can anyone really be addicted to reading?
Greenfield said the results were interesting, but suspect.
"The percentages are so high there has to be something wrong here," he said. "There’s always a bias to who fills out the survey. The problem in the comparison [between reading and Internet use] in and of itself is that by reading there’s nothing necessarily wrong with you."
Hall said the reading survey illustrated the problem with adapting questions designed for pathological gambling to other behaviors.
"You can conclude—and I think you have strong evidence for this conclusion—that more research is needed," she said. "This isn’t trivial. The data are consistent with the hypothesis that the criteria employed in the ABCNEWS.com survey may not reflect maladaptive behavior. More data are needed before you can confidently draw this conclusion, but these data represent a first step."
Leavy went further.
"I love the reading addiction idea," he said. "The medicalization of life, the turning of passionate interest into pathology, is something that needs to be skewered. [The OWU] data help to do that."
Greenfield said adapting the gambling questions was the best course of action, though his study was far from the last word on the subject.
"I chose those questions because it’s probably the best analogy for behavior-based addiction to the net than any others like substance abuse or alcohol abuse," he said. "It’s probably the best thumbnail. There’s probably no real validity because Internet addiction is not yet part of the official record. There’s no magic to it, but it’s probably the best right now."
Leavy saw problems with the analogy.
"First, gambling costs a person a lot of money and there is the problem of chasing debts—borrowing money, lying and stealing to get more. There is no such cost to Internet use, unless you go way beyond Internet use to look at on-line shopping and then you might as well look at shopping only.
"Second, most people with gambling problems experience a big win early in their gambling career and this high fosters a habit of wanting to get it back again. Gambling is, by its very nature, a risk-taking, arousing activity. I doubt that anyone can see a ‘big win,’ risk-taking and arousal as a central part of Internet use. So the comparisons are probably pretty lame."
The OWU student survey, in fact, differed from Greenfield’s survey by giving examples of illegal behavior online: copying software, fraud and theft.
"That may not have been a bad idea," Greenfield said. "We didn’t have actual examples directly applicable. We might want to add downloading child pornography and scanning copyrighted images, though that might be covered by fraud."
Greenfield has used one tool extensively against Internet addiction—the Internet itself. In addition to the ABCNEWS.com study and articles, his own web site (www.virtual-addiction.com) provides links to news items, psychological studies and an Internet addiction self-appraisal test. Another web site, the Center for Online Addiction (www.netaddiction.com), even has a ‘virtual clinic’ where patients can receive Internet addiction counseling in a chat room—for $75 each 60-minute session.
Greenfield said Internet addiction is becoming more accepted by users.
"When I started it I got a lot of negative email—people thought I was crazy, or that it was blasphemous to say this about the net," he said. "Lately, I’m not getting that. I get the sense people now think the Internet’s not all good."
"This is a critical aspect of technology that we need to consider," he said. "As the Internet continues to be pervasive in every aspect of our world, we have to make sure that we don't lose touch with our humanity."
Greenfield said even if Internet addiction isn’t scientifically proven, addressing it has helped some patients.
"Of course it’s reasonable to criticize the research," Greenfield said. "Obviously as a doctor and a scientist I have to walk a fine line between proof of something scientifically and its clinical usefulness.
"There is some risk that people will think they have a problem and really don’t, but it’s worth the risk. The pros far outweigh the negatives."
McDonald, however, is still skeptical.
"People spend a lot of time online. It doesn’t mean they’re addicted. When we first got the Internet I was on the computer every night after work for hours and hours. I just grew out of it. There’s so much stuff you can do that you have to see all of it, but eventually you calm down."
Copyright 2000 Jason Morrison