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Internet addicts in the classroom

by Archives November 27, 2002

Researchers agree that the Internet is the most significant advancement in the field of communications in the history of mankind. This statement is extremely sweeping, but the potential for value along the super highway is literally infinite.

Andrew Conrad, who teaches American culture at Phoenix University, described it as a book that never ends, a library with a million floors, a research project with legions of contributors working around the clock forever, a city with all the doors wide open.

A study performed in 2002 by Integrated Resources (IR), a company that conducts research, found that there are specific “dark paths” in cyberspace that lead to these “seedy back alleys” that are likely to entice students more than any other Internet applications.

The survey suggested there are certain types of people that are more likely to overuse or become addicted to the Internet. Housewives, office workers, teenagers and the homebound are a recognized segment, but the most likely and important category seems to be university students.

Of the 5,321 people surveyed via the Internet by IR, 2,100 of the respondents were students, with 849 respondents reporting they were dependent users. Of the 849; 82 per cent said they found themselves staying online longer than they wanted, and the number one reason was to engage in MUD games.

A MUD, or multi-user dungeon, is an online environment where multiple users are logged on and interacting with one another. One can be drawn to a MUD by the prospect of gaining power through monster killing and the direct competition with other human players.

Once again, this recent study resuscitates the question: is there such a thing as internet addiction?

Given that students topped the list as most susceptible, it would prove worthwhile exploring briefly the term.

Kimberly Young, PhD, is touted as the world’s first cyber psychologist also known as an international researcher and speaker on the impact of technology and human behaviour. She first defined Internet addiction in her book Caught in the Net, as ‘a maladaptive pattern of Internet use, leading to clinically significant impairment or distress.’

The Internet also has the potential for good and bad. As easily as one can find well-kept rest stops along the Information highway, one can find seedy, nasty, corrupt, decadent and wasteful back alleys.

These diversions, such as video games, chat rooms and certain websites take the form of unhealthy social applications whose power is so great that the human mind can easily fall victim to their seductive lure, or become addicted.

Others think that you can’t call the phenomenon an addiction, since it doesn’t involve any physical substances being ingested in the body. On the other hand TV, videogames, gambling and even love, are considered addictive by some.

“People no more suffer an addiction to the Internet than someone who works all the time suffers from ‘work addiction disorder'”, says John Grohol, PhD, well-known online psychologist and director of the Web site Mental Health Net, in his frequently asked questions of life section at the Psychnet-Web site.

The media hype around Internet addiction rose to new heights in October last year when a woman in Florida, Pam Albridge, lost custody of her two young children because she spent too much time online.

In this case a diagnosis “Internet addiction syndrome” was actually used successfully in court to prohibit Albridge of taking care of her own kids.

A month earlier, in September, another case had been reported. Cincinnati woman Sandra Bloomsfield locked up her three children, aged two, three and five, in a room to keep them from disturbing her in her online sessions.

This time “net addiction disorder” was the term used by the police. Bloomsfield faces three different charges of child endangering.

These are all strong points that build a sturdy foundation for the argument for and against Internet addiction, but try telling Internet addiction does not exist to Sydney West, a Concordia student, who has become severely attached to Age of Legends-the One Ring, a popular MUD.

Like many in the IR survey, West became more and more powerful through his character in the game. He became less and less powerful in his real life. “Eventually I got to the point where my body was merely a host for the game.”

West’s story is typical and begins with normal Internet use and then progresses to very serious situations. “In Legends I am Gore, the beast conqueror of underland, but in everyday life I am just plain old Sydney.”

The ability to start a brand new identity in the online community, and tailor that identity to shape our personal preferences is appealing.

“The problems arise when this new identity completely replaces our identity in the real world,” writes Linda, a student from New York, who was one of the survey respondents. “The freedom from the physical limitations of the real world is another attraction of the on-line games,” she adds.

The second reason for staying online longer is to interact in chat rooms. The survey suggests that students were also the most vulnerable.

Robin-Linn Mendez, a former Harvard student and chat room over-user, now provides recovery groups for chat room over-users twice a week.

“What we try to convey to our members is that in cyberspace, relationships are not real, no matter how real they seem. A cyber friend’s character is only what is given up on line. We fill in the gaps of unknown traits with our version of what we want. The person on the other side never looks like your image.”

Another aspect of the Internet that everyone will be drawn to essentially is the ability to escape from the problems and stressors of real life. This is like going to a movie for the same purpose, but with the Internet, the interaction is so deeply intertwined that it is hard not to become permanently locked into the escape.

Now the real life, where the problems originated, is no longer existent.

People who are shunned in real life by peers will eagerly rush into the open arms of these virtual communities. “One reason that many people choose online relationships over real life relationships is because on the Internet there are no repercussions or lasting effects. Internet users can have cybersex or kill another person in a MUD and not have to worry about the consequences,” agrees Conrad.

What happens when the power is turned off and the screen goes black? The abuser is thrust back into the life they have been neglecting, and the problems they are trying to escape are waiting.

Anyone who feels that they may be overusing the Internet can answer the following questions that Young has created:

1. Do you constantly anticipate your next online session?

2. Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop Internet use?

3. Do you stay online longer than originally intended?

4. Have you jeopardized or risked the loss of a significant relationship, job, educational, or career opportunity because of the Internet?

5. Do you use the Internet as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a distressed mood?

Young, Grohl and Conrad cite the many resources for recovery assistance. These include online support groups, an idea that is likened to holding AA meetings, which are being developed rapidly in hospitals and on university campuses across the country.

The main goal of these strategies is to get the over-user to see the value of their real life and then to stay in the real life once it is recognized again.

Acknowledge what you are missing. Think about what you used to do in the real world and what activities you enjoyed. Assess your online time for often Internet over-users do not realize how much time they are actually spending.

One good way to limit Internet use without feeling withdrawal effects is to set up a tight schedule. For example, one hour of Internet use per day is good.

Unlike other addictions, total abstinence is not necessary or helpful for recovery. On the contrary, a tightly disciplined schedule is the best strategy.

It is also necessary to find some support in the real world. Letting a friend from real life know what your problem has been is a very important step.

Finally, the most important aspect of Internet addiction, whether it truly exists or not, is conveyed in the question: Who is in control?

People are losing jobs, being kicked out of school and ending up with broken families all because of a computer!

Regardless if Internet addiction is real or just a snappy psychological term, the Internet is a technology with remarkable power and potential. The nature of this technology can however have a damaging effect on people, and more so on students.

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