Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Using The Internet For All The Wrong Reasons

March 26, 2001

Can someone become addicted to the Internet and suffer from negative real life consequences? Yes! So what is it about computer-mediated communication that makes it addictive?

Psychologist Kimberly Young at the University of Pittsburgh has researched the pathological use of the Internet. In her research, Young found that of the addicted users, 42 percent were not-employed (homemaker, students, disabled, retired), 39 percent were non-tech white collar workers, 11 percent blue collar workers, and only 8 percent were high tech, white collar workers (computer programmers, system analysts or engineers). Young’s sample consisted of self-identified users, middle-aged women and younger men. Average ages were 43 and 29 respectively. Most had been using the Internet for less than a year.

Parallel research with a college-age populations shows problem use to be primarily among technologically sophisticated but socially inept, shy and lonely males.

Addiction and the Internet. To define addiction, Young applied the criteria used for pathological gambling to Internet use: psychological withdrawal, preoccupation with the Internet, heavier use than intended, loss of interest in other social occupational and recreational activities, and disregard for the consequences caused by the uses of the Internet.

Non-addicted users of the Internet used it to gather information or to maintain pre-existing relationships. Addicted users were addicted to the two-way communication function of the Internet. They used the Internet mainly to meet, socialize and exchange ideas with new people. Internet users do this by visiting chat rooms, and news groups, and by playing interactive games where participants take on character parts. This way of using the Internet is similar to a telephone conversation, only with typed messages.

Pathological users use of the Internet interferes with work and school performance and creates discord among couples. They report lying about on-line use, losing track of time during use, having depressed moods, and needing the Internet for either arousal or escape.

Young sees three basic reasons for the need to use the Internet to socialize: social support, sexual fulfillment and creating a persona.

Social support. Young sees problem users as being lonely, socially isolated and unable to express opinions in their real life circumstances. They fear rejection, confrontation or the judgment of others.

Chat rooms provide social support, advice, companionship, understanding and even romance. Users leave the physical world behind and exchange personal information with other people in cyberspace. This creates a feeling of intimacy and involvement in the lives of others.

This confidential social support reduces their loneliness, improves self-esteem and gives them a feeling of euphoria. The problem is that these experiences aren’t integrated into real life. They give the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. There is usually no lasting commitment or need to maintain the relationship. Often these on-line relationships are time consuming. They supplant existing relationships and lead to even more social withdrawal and marital discord.

Sexual fulfillment. Besides the numerous pornographic websites, the Internet provides a vehicle for anonymously acting out erotic fantasies in a two-way communication. This is cybersex. People give each other mental stimulation that fosters sexual arousal and excitement. Sharing sexual fantasies reinforces sexually deviant behavior, weakens social norms, and creates dissatisfaction with exiting relationships.

Sex in this context trivializes sex as an erotic pleasure without real the life feelings and acts of love and affection that bring meaning to sexual intimacy. For people who view themselves as unattractive, socially inhibited and lonely, the Internet provides reinforcement to a less than fulfilling sex life.

Creating a persona. People can use the Internet to reconstruct their own identity. This is similar to acting on a stage. They can use the interactive feedback to shed themselves of social status, gender, age and race. They can carefully create a false or "better" image of themselves and become whoever they choose.

By reinventing themselves, people can replace a poor self-concept and feelings of inadequacy. They can block out unpleasant thoughts of themselves. They can cultivate a fantasized identity to expand their expression of emotion and to release repressed aspects of their personality. They can project openness, friendliness, and new ways of relating to others while getting the reactions of their cyberspace ‘friends."

In actuality, the attitudes of the adopted persona are not being carried over into real life situations. The projected identity is a form of escape. They remain passive loners not really interested in social activity. It is a parallel life, not an integrated one. The status and prestige garnered in chat rooms and interactive games doesn’t translate into confidence in real life situations.

If the formerly repressed behavior does come out, it can be detrimental to existing relationships. Once unlocked, these personality changes are like the genie that can’t be forced back in the bottle. They still live lonely, unhappy, mundane lives but now the affected individuals are more aware of how poorly their persona contrasts with their actual attributes.

Real life versus virtual life. The immersion and time commitment put into computer-mediated communication are poor substitutes for meeting real needs. The time invested could be better spent on learning new things, practicing social skills, and finding genuine friendship and support.

People without a satisfying life need to consider counseling as an alternative. To seek fulfillment in cyberspace is an addictive illusion, a poor imitation of true intimacy and belonging. Instead of truly liberating people, their Internet communications binds them even more.