Psychological Concerns Associated with Internet Use

Jayne Gackenbach

MacEwan University

Unpublished paper from 2011

The amazing growth of the Internet/world wide web has had a profound effect on mass communication in North America. Growth rates far exceed the introduction of any other electronic medium. Indeed, quoting statistics on the growth of the Internet has become risky, since they change so quickly. Due in part to its relative newness and rapid growth, researchers in a variety of areas have only begun to examine the nature of the Internet as a form of communication.  Morris and Ogan point out in an on-line article The Internet as Mass Medium, (http://cwis.usc.edu/dept/annenberg/vol1/issue4/morris.html) that mass communication researchers have overlooked the Internet due in part to its development in bits and pieces by hobbyists, students, and academics. As an informal medium, available at first only to a limited number of people, it did not attract the attention of media scholars. Furthermore, its manifestation as “high technology” was of little interest to most scholars in the humanities and social sciences. In short, the academic community has been slow to realize that the Internet has become, in less than three decades, a central part of our system of mass communication. Exactly how we define its function within that system is still a point for debate.

The bulk of Internet research has been conducted in the field of computer-mediated communications. And, although computer-mediated research has been conducted for as long as 20 years in some disciplines, e.g., education, its applicability for many more disciplines is only now being appreciated. These sorts of disciplinary distinctions have long kept scholars in a variety of areas from appreciating the larger communication process. For instance, in psychology there is a lot of work in the various subspecialties on interpersonal communication, ranging from discussions of the role of non-verbal cues in social psychology to studies of communication failure in spousal abuse in abnormal psychology. Yet rarely is mediated communication studied, at least within traditional psychology. As more of the communications important to our day-to-day existence become mediated in some form, as in the case with the widespread adoption of the Internet, the nature of this mediation will need to be more closely examined.

Subjects of concern to psychologists include dealing with intrapersonal/self explorations and revelations, interpersonal interactions between two people, and small group aspects of life on-line. In this paper the range of interpersonal relationships available on the Internet will be considered. In addition, specific areas of net life will be briefly examined, beginning with developmental issues then turning to social roles and finally, of particular concern to mental health professionals, are the various forms of deviance online.

Self and Computer-Mediated Communication

DeVito points out that, “in all communications, the most important part is yourself. Who you are and how you see yourself influence the way you communicate and how you respond to others “ (p. 30). This is also true of computer-mediated communication (CMC) via the Internet. However CMC is not a single form of communication. There are a variety of communication tools available on the Internet, each with a particular set of capacities and limitations that can affect self-presentation and/or self-perception. The range of social interaction media available on the net include e-mail, discussion lists, conferencing systems (particularly Usenet), Multi-User Domains (MUDs), chat, instant messaging and graphical “worlds.”

In a study examining a variety of variables as predictors of use or non-use of new technologies, Rosen and Weil (1996a) concluded that, as the complexity of the technology increased, the importance of psychological variables increased in predicting its use. Therefore, for cell phones, which were at the low end of complexity, income and job position were the best discriminators of users and nonusers, while at the more complex end of the continuum (computers, e-mail), psychological reactions to technology were the best predictors. A case can be made that at least some psychological processes which are the same no matter the environment, on or off line (Heller, 1998).

Straus (1997) suggests that Internet culture is “delivering new kinds of blows to our narcissism because it generates questions we cannot answer without immersing ourselves in a crisis of representation in time and space (p. 96)”. Straus argues that this change follows three other such blows to narcissism, “(1) the Copernican revolution, which moved humans from the center to a fragment of the cosmos; (2) the Darwinian revolution, which demonstrated that humans descended from apes; and (3) psychoanalysis, which dethroned Enlightenment Reason by representing humans as victims of drives from unconscious depths” (p. 96). Straus reasons that due to the Internet “we recognize that people are becoming less and less sure about what ‘seems’ is. In place of the superego and its highly charged capacity for individualization, the Internet promotes the production of multiple selves moving in an endless chain of signifiers whose motions may appear indistinguishable from consumerism” (p. 96).

Interpersonal Net Relationships:

From Playing in the MUD to Falling in Love

Self is never far removed from relationship. When we apply what we understand about relationships to on-line behaviours an interesting new set of conditions emerges. On the one hand we are not as tied to traditional observable characteristics. Most on-line communication is achieved using the written word. On the other hand, we are used to responding to others as though observable characteristics were evident. How might this affect our interactions either in the short term or over a longer more intimate exchange?

Some have considered the concept of private and public self-consciousness as useful in understanding self in relationship. Private self-consciousness refers to being attentive of one’s real feelings: “I reflect about myself a lot.” Public self-consciousness relates to a concern with oneself as a social object. One can think of this as related to net interactions which are reduced to lines of text if enlivened by the occasional “emoticon”. Our enormous body of nonverbal communication is virtually lost. It may be that two effects follow from this: being forced to focus on what we say our private self-consciousness may be increased. Unlike face-to-face conversation, which is a dynamic and mutually reciprocal process, on the net such cues are effectively suppressed. The delayed medium and unemotional nature of text (as opposed to real physical intimacy) results in a reduction of public self-awareness: it is simply impossible to gauge the response of the audience, and thus some have suggested that one is forced into an earnest desire to communicate meaningfully.

The result of this maybe a lack of feedback to the speaker of the audience’s reaction and thus a more uninhibited presentation, called disinhibition. The recipient of the message may be equally at fault because, one may be so eager to see what is not there that one falls into the basic traps of attributional errors and confirmation biases, from a social psychological perspective, or defensive projection from a clinical perspective.

Pratt (1998) content analysed the interrogative strategies used in E-mail message exchanges over a six-month period between intergenerational sets of senior citizens and youngsters.  She notes that a great deal of relationship development is facilitated by the use of questions online but that there are some differences due to the lack of other context cues. In another study of online friendship making, Markham (1997) examined a discussion groups relationships and concluded:

  • (1) These users conceptualize all their online experiences as real;
  • (2) They experience online communication on a continuum from Tool to Place to A Way of Being, and
  • (3) They enjoy the level of control they can exert over the presentation of self, the structure of the immediate context, and the extent to which Other can interact with them.

In a study looking at the use of CMC to assuage an aspect of loneliness, moving to another country for a job away from family and friends, Haupt (1998) found, “Overall, the use of CMC technology appeared to allow for effective, and earlier, ease of adjustment. In addition, the use of this technology provided a means for enhancing business and personal relationships with local nationals” (p. 1).

Group Behaviour: From  Social Support to Organizational Decision-Making

One of the important concepts developing in net life is the existence of communities: that is, groups of people who share some common goals or characteristics, or perhaps simply a few minutes of time. McLaughlin, Osborne, and Ellison (1997) point out that while the architecture of the Internet provides the complexity and the capacity which should facilitate the formation of electronic communities, that same architecture renders it even more susceptible to a threat to community formation based on superficial involvement—called “free riding”. Thus they wonder if the WWW can ever live up to its already-popular conception as a global community, or whether this network will revert to little more than a “global-access data base”.

On the other hand, Curtis (1996) writes about his experience in MUDs as illustrations of groups/communities:

  • MUDs do become true communities after a time. The participants slowly come to consensus about a common (private) language, about appropriate standards of behavior, and about the social roles of various public areas (e.g., where big discussions usually happen, where certain ‘crowds’ can be found, etc.).

Schiano (1997) examined the functioning of a classic social MUD, LambdaMOO. She concludes that “the evidence appears to debunk some of the more provocative claims of widespread MUD addiction and rampant identity fragmentation online, while supporting the primary importance of sociality in the MUD” (p. 270). She also notes that personal one-on-one social interactions prevail over larger social gatherings in this online community. This points out that, like real life, online life is ultimately personal.

Turkle (1997) highlighted this community-building opportunity on-line as increasingly local.  That is, the initial interest people had in going on-line and talking to others was partly due to the thrill of having a friend halfway across the world; but, as has happened with the telephone, Internet use is localising. People want to talk to others online who are physically within reach and the dialogue between them is increasingly spilling over into their face-to-face lives. In the early days of the net, there were clear demarcations between online and offline life. As more people become involved with online activities, they preferred to make virtual life somehow a part of real life. A major exception to this would be the surgance of online support groups especially with problems that either one does not want to air locally or ones that are so rare that only support from a distance is possible.

The environment which has been most affected by the information revolution is the world of work, and within this sphere of human communication activity, lateralization has affected most groups in some way. The tendency to “outsource”, the increase in telecommuting, and the shift to team work have all contributed to the re-shaping of group processes away from their traditionally hierarchical origins. These changes have been enabled by at-a-distance communication tools such as the Internet. As Lipnack and Stamps (1997) note in their book:

  • Human beings have always functioned in face-to-face groups. While the use of teams is on the rise—The Wall Street Journal reports that two-thirds of American companies employ them—the face-to-face aspect of normal working relationships is changing dramatically. Electronic communication and digital technologies give people an historically unprecedented ability to work together at a distance.

Relatedly, research from the area of CMC suggests that decisions made via e-mail tend to take significantly longer than do face-to-face decisions. However, more people contribute to the group discussion process than during face-to-face meetings. This may be because many of the status cues are missing on-line; people are less inhibited. Unfortunately this lack of inhibition can also lead to online behaviors that are less than ideal, such as “flaming,” the term for rude and impulsive behavior. However, flaming may be less of a problem, as online groups become more tied to the real world, or localized. Again, the analogy of the telephone is helpful. As with the telephone, where the norms of polite interaction have dominated, so too this will increasingly be the case on-line. In any event, participation rates in groups are certainly enhanced in online communication.

Developmental Perspectives: From Video Games to On-line Education:

Nemesis or Highway to Intelligence?

The Center for Media Education recently warned (http://tap.epn.org/cme/infoactive/iakwnt98.html):

Computers and other interactive technologies are quickly becoming an important force in the lives of many children.

They point out that many segments of society are asking questions about the effects of new media, including the Internet, on children. For instance they note that:

  • Neuropsychologists want to know “How does multimedia engagement affect neural wiring during the formative years?” Those studying cognitive development pose the question “How can multimedia tools be used to enhance thinking processes beyond the traditionally canonical intelligence’s of language and logic?”

We don’t really have answers to these questions, yet we are charging full speed ahead with our children at our sides into this electronic communications era.

Computer applications for education have been developing for many years, certainly before the era of the Internet. Today there is a large and fairly consistent body of research reporting that proper computer implementation enhances the educational experience. This ranges from the most fundamental, learning to do mathematics, to the more applied, creating attractively formatted documents to submit to the teacher (Poole, 1995). The point is that even if one cannot afford a computer at home or is uncomfortable with the encroaching cyberworld, children are increasingly getting exposed to computers and the internet at school and in the homes of peers.

Recent research by Market Data Retrieval (1997) indicates that the percentage of on-line schools in the U.S. has doubled in one year to 70% with goals of saturation by the millinium. Although the schools are on-line the question remains: to what extent are the teachers and children using this resource? Research is emerging suggesting that, contrary to earlier models of teachers’ resistance to computers, teachers are eager to get online. So too do media-savvy students want access—but the task is teaching them the critical thinking skills they need to assess and differentiate the levels of credibility of the information they find.

Additionally computers and the internet have come to constitute a dramatic aspect of the entertainment industry, from computer graphics special effects in the newest summer movie hit to the wide range of computer games available at the local arcade or on our TV sets via Sony Playstation II. Probably one of the fastest growth areas of entertainment is computer gaming and relevant to our concern is its extension to on-line gaming. The gaming industry now grosses more per year than the movie industry. It is a force that all parents and by extension mental health workers need to content with in their interactions with children. However, Emes (1997), in a review of the research on the effects of video games on children’s well-being, concluded:

Results show that playing video games is associated with a variety of physical effects including increased metabolic and heart rate, seizures, and tendinitis. Aggressive behavior may result from playing video games, especially among younger children. There is no direct relationship between psychopathology or academic performance and playing video games. Overall findings indicate that although video games have some adverse effects, they are also valuable learning tools (p. 409).

There is a projected increase in immersive virtual reality systems which pose a another disadvantage for the play of children (Hawkins, 1995). Virtual reality systems require the use of a helmet that poses many health and safety considerations and many users get sick and dizzy.

But there is an upside to video game play. Research has been conducted on the relationship between intelligence and performance on such games. Jackson, Vernon, and Jackson (1993) explored performance of computer-game-like measures of dynamic spatial ability, which assess judgements about moving visual displays. These are linked to measures of reaction time and speed of mental processing, which in turn are thought to be linked with general measures of intellectual ability. The major work in the area is being done by Greenfield and associates and is summarized in Volume 11 of Advances in Applied Developmental Psychology: Interacting with Video. The conclusion is that video game play increases choice reaction time, spatial skills, scientific problem solving skills, and intelligence (Greenfield, Brannon, & Lohr, 1996; Greenfield, Camaioni, Ercolani, & Weiss, 1996).

Social Roles: Gender and Class Issues On-line

The potential of the Internet to bring the world’s peoples together must be tempered by these sobering statistics (De Kerckhove, 1997):

  • At the end of 1995, the total number of computers in the world was still under 200 million, against a global population of six billion—which puts at 3 percent the maximum access to networks by individuals.
  • At the same time, over 75 percent of the world’s main telephone lines served less than 15 percent of the world population.
  • A typical wired family in the U.S. (more than 40 percent of the total) earned over $75,000 (p. 178).

In other words, Internet technology perpetuates the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Clearly the Internet is a privileged environment. And just as clearly race, class, gender and age are linked to online use or lack thereof.

It might be suggested that the origins of male interest in computers and thus their higher use of the Internet may be found in these sex-related differences in abilities. However, as the computer becomes increasingly invisible as an access medium to the Internet, the sex differences in its use are also likely to diminish. After all, women use all the other communication media as much as or more than do men, once the use of the medium is de-mystified.

As the Internet increases its penetration into contemporary society, the social skills once typically the province of women are increasingly required for effective Internet usage. This is especially evident in the incidence of disinhibition, more commonly called flaming, evidenced in some Internet communications. This sort of rude behaviour is less likely to occur when women are part of the communication cycle. Some suggest that the introduction of such manners online (“netiquette”) can be in part attributed to the increase in numbers of women on-line.

Meunier (1996) points out that males tend to be more interested in computers than females, but makes some clear statements that this preference for computer use, or lack of it, stems from socialization both in and outside the schools. She notes that, for instance:

  • Western societies display a cultural bias in favor of males as users of the computer, while societal reinforcement for female interest in computers is lacking.

Although males are perhaps drawn to the challenges provided by the computer technology, and are catered to from a young age in their use of the technology, females seem to have unique strengths as well. Male students are more likely to have a linear cognitive reading style. They have more difficulty in skimming and scanning hypertexts for relevant information than do females.

An amusing and telling aspect of some online life is the activity of gender switching. This is seen most often in the game environments called MUDs, discussed earlier, but can also be seen in the more commonly accessed chat and bulletin board areas. This phenomenon provides a rare opportunity for men to genuinely get some idea of what it feels like to be a woman and to constantly be “hit on” for sexual favours when entering a virtual space.

Badagliacco (1990) has shown that race and ethnicity also affect computer access, use, and attitudes. She found that whites had the most computer use and Hispanics the fewest years of computer experience. In a study conducted by the Educational Testing Service, Richard Coley notes:

  • For college-bound seniors from the class of 1996, word processing exposure was the most frequent type of coursework or experience. Minority group seniors were less likely to have courses or experience in word processing and computer literacy and less likely to use computers in English courses and to solve problems in math and science  (USA Today, 1997).

While 85% of U.S. schools surveyed have multimedia computers and 64% have Internet access, Coley finds that poor and minority schools have less access.

Research into computer use by the elderly is also revealing. Farris, Bates, Resnick, and Stabler (1994) point out that the use of computers is helpful for memory skills training. In another study, Groves and Slack (1994) found that a computer instructional program had an impact on the quality of life of senior citizens: “In the short-term, results showed that participants moved from reluctance to enthusiasm toward using the computer and showed a slow progression in functional skills. In the long-term, participants showed a change in level of independence, more interest in other activities, a shift in mood toward a more positive temperament, and some transfer of physical skills to other areas.” (p. 221) Although these two studies were not done on the Internet, it is reasonable to conclude that increased Internet access for the elderly might have similar beneficial results.

From Deviance to Pathology on the Internet

Ullman (1998) reflects on a guilty verdict arrived at by a court regarding a cybersex case:

  • By ignoring ‘Net dynamics and accepting his e-mail postings as pure representations of truth rather than as mixtures of fantasy, the verdict exposed the failure of many traditional institutions to grasp the psychological upheaval wrought by cyberculture.

In this article Ullman summarizes the dual standards which applied to the accuser and the accused, ZZ5 and Grey. After several months of mutual exchanges of domination-submission fantasies this cybercouple met and acted out their fantasy. However, apparently sometime afterward, ZZ5 as the submissive had second thoughts and brought charges against Grey. In accordance with laws enacted to protect victims of rape from having their previous sexual histories being used as evidence, the court omitted references to ZZ5’s domination-submission fantasies so that the verdict supported her claim that she did not have such thoughts. The conviction of Grey to a sentence harsher than some murder convictions belies any understanding of the way that cyberexchanges are changing the lines between reality and fantasy, as well as between male and female, in relationship. While her e-mails were considered fantasy by the court, his were not—but the fact is that they acted out the fantasy with mutual consent. After the fact, the consent seemed to be withdrawn, after an initial post-event e-mail from ZZ5 to Grey claiming how enjoyable the encounter had been and the marvellous after-effects it offered.

I bring up this case to point out that deviance/pathology and morality/health may be very difficult things to clearly apply to cyberspace.

Although there has been brief mention of a few disorders either encouraged by Internet use (attention problems;  Gobbo & Bolaski, 1997), remediated by Internet use (multiple personality disorder; Grohol, 1997) or both (suicide; Cutter, 1995), probably the disorder most discussed is Internet addiction.

There are several misconceptions about addiction which have occurred in the popular psychology literature. Professionally, psychologists understand that, “if the addiction-as-disease-needing-treatment model is controversial even with drug dependencies, it is doubly controversial when extended to other excessive behaviors” (Myers, 1995; pp. 247) like internet use.

In early research Young (1996a,b) adapted the DSM-IV criteria to identify her addicted sample and proceeded from there in her inquiry. The pros and cons of such a diagnosis or even the creation of such a supposed disorder are controversial.

In an article from Wired, Brown (1997) quotes Dr. John Grohol, director of the Mental Health Net. He “thinks the Internet addiction advocates like Young are just jumping on Internet paranoia.  ‘I don’t see how they can see the Internet as a disorder, but not look at a bookworm who reads 10 hours a day and not say he’s a book addict,’. ‘Anything taken to an extreme is a disorder, but we don’t go around coining everything taken to an extreme as an addiction.’ “ It is important that we clearly define the term “addiction” because our use of it may have specific treatment implications.

Despite these cautions subsequent research has shown a problem. For instance Sherer (1997) writes:

  • Patterns of Internet use among 531 college students were investigated through the administration of questionnaires assessing demographic characteristics and Internet use patterns. 73% percent of the students accessed the Internet at least once a week. 13% of weekly users reported that their use was excessive and significantly interfered with personal functioning.

Another issue for mental health workers regarding internet use is the availability of advise, support and treatment online. Advise on everything from psychological to medical problems are available online. The burden is on the user to decern the reliability of said advise and several sites offer suggestions for such authenticity. Self-help support groups are also proliferating online. From Alcoholics Anonymous to support groups for rape victims, these groups have proliferated in all walks of life. Although not technically considered therapy, they certainly can help someone who is distressed. However, they are unlikely to help someone who is seriously disturbed without the intervention and guidance of a professional caregiver. These too are available online but the consumer should beware.

Although therapy occurs on-line, there are logistics as well as problems to be overcome before it will be as effective as face-to-face therapy. Ainsworth (1997) notes four considerations that the consumer should think about before trying online therapy:

  • Intended Interaction: Is this interaction with a therapist going to be a one-time or ongoing relationship?
  • Identity and Credentials: Although you may in some cases remain anonymous, the therapist should not.
  • Mode of Services: The listing shows the mode in which you can initially contact the therapist, and the mode in which the therapist will respond to you—be it e-mail, a form on a website, or chat.
  • Fees and Payment options: Most of the on-line therapists take credit cards, although some ask for (or allow) payment by check through the mail… Some of the one-time services are free; some of the ongoing services have a free initial contact.

However Holmes (1997) thinks that psychotherapy is not possible on-line at this time because:

  • of unresolved ethical issues, problems related to the current “bandwidth” of the Net, and unresolved regulatory and licensing issues. This presentation discusses the current state of the delivery of mental health services on the net and proposes some solutions. It should be possible to conduct psychotherapy on the Internet at some point in the future as bandwidth, regulatory, and ethical issues are resolved.

The best advice seems to be to proceed with caution when pursuing on-line help (Grohol, 1998).

Several studies have looked at online self-help. For instance, Sharf (1997) explored the postings occurring on the Breast Cancer List, which is an online discussion group. She found that issues discussed included the evolution of the List, who participates, and what topics are discussed. Three major communication dimensions were identified; exchange of information, social support, and personal empowerment. Relatedly, Winzelberg (1997) examined an eating disorder self help group and found, “The most common message content involved self-disclosure (31%) followed by requests for information (23%), and the direct provision of emotional support (16%)” (p. 393). King and Moreggi (1998) review this trend towards self-help on-line.

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